Updated: Nov 11, 2019
When I left teaching in 2014, I suspected that my travelling days were over. I didn't yet know what my next job would be, but I'd decided that I wasn't going back to school to train for a new career. I would find a job to which I was better suited and which wouldn't sap so much of my energy. I knew I'd have to change my lifestyle, and live within my means.
Well, three years and six jobs later, I feel like I've finally found my niche. I am the Chancellor's admin assistant at the St. Boniface Archdiocese. Last spring, I found out that I'd be attending a work-related conference near Chicago in July. Well, this wasn't a destination which I would have ever have picked, but I decided to make the best of it. I wanted to extend my stay and turn this into a holiday, but what to do during that time? I'd been told that Chicago had a lot to offer, with a great music scene, art galleries, architecture, and much more. But big cities aren't for me. I've never enjoyed visiting them on my own. I think it's because I notice my aloneness so much more when I'm surrounded by people and know no one. So where to go?
Then it came to me. I would visit cohousing communities in the area. I'd been exploring the concept as an associate member of Prairie Rivers Cohousing for a few months, but my knowledge was all academic. What was it really like? Through the (American) Cohousing.org website, I found that there were no communities in Chicago, but that there were two in Madison, Wisconsin, just a three-hour bus ride away. So I contacted both communities to ask if I could go by for a visit. They not only welcomed me for a visit, but both invited me to use one of their guest rooms if I wanted to stay there. I was able to coordinate dates with both of them, and ended up staying four nights at Arboretum Cohousing (a.k.a. ArbCo), and one night at Village Cohousing.
ArbCo is a large community, with 40 units on an incredible L-shaped property. There are two appartment buildings as well as a few houses, a duplex, and a triplex. I stayed in one of the guestrooms, having a large bedroom and bathroom to myself, and prepared my meals in the common kitchen.
The backyard had a very natural, flowing feel to it. It included a patio area, beautiful native plant gardens, lawn, individual vegetable gardens, a tire swing, climbing structure, and the “farm”, which included a communal veggie garden and a chicken coop.
I was welcomed by Karen, a gracious, friendly, and welcoming host. We went cycling together, attended a street festival, shared meals, and talked a lot. I had a lot of questions for her, especially about the community's establishment. I wanted to know how they'd set the foundation (figuratively) and gotten this community off the ground. Karen had to keep reminding me that yes, she had bought in before the move-in date, but that she hadn't been very involved at the time, as she'd been caring for her elderly mother.
Knowing that Madison was a bike-friendly city, I'd brought my helmet and planned to rent a bike. However, one of the community members, Janet, repaired found bikes and gave them away, so she loaned me a bike for the duration of my stay. (This Janet, a retired nurse, also organizes blood drives and volunteers at a drop-in for homeless people. I admire such giving, community-minded people.) One evening while I was there, the community was having a Salad Slam, which is like a chilli cook-off, but with salads. Always wanting to be a part of things, I made my favourite salad, spiced quinoa. I learned that some of the younger families didn't often attend these events because of their kids' fussy eating habits. I also learned that a great salad doesn't get tasted much if it contains «strange» ingredients like quinoa, but that's OK.
I got to chat with a good number of members that evening, and saw that while this was not the perfect community, it worked quite well. Neighbours knew and helped each other, shared responsibilities, and socialized together. I heard about issues they'd grappled with, the most difficult being the firearms and the pet policies. Thankfully, we won't have to grapple with the first one, but the second one will certainly take up a lot of our time and energy at some point.
The day before my flight back to Winnipeg, I packed my things, thanked my hosts, and moved on to Village Cohousing. This was a smaller community, with only 18 units. It had a different feel to it, but I was welcomed like family. I learned that there had been a kafuffle with the room reservation, as someone's son had been staying in the guest room and wanted to stay on longer, although it had been reserved for me many weeks earlier.
While this was being sorted out, I spent the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon at Chucho and Barbara's place. Barbara was quite busy, and not around much, so I spent most of my time there talking with Chucho. Community and community-building are his passion. Chucho had grown up in a tenement project in Mexico City, and so he'd had a very different experience of community from what we know in Canada or the US.
Chucho shared a Mexican saying which translates to something like this: “From the front door to the back corner of the house, the whole floor is a mattress.“ This is to say that no matter who drops by, there's always room for them to stay over. We'll find room on the floor. Although this challenges our North American standards with regards to comfort and proper accommodation, it says a lot about Mexican hospitality.
Chucho really believed in the cohousing concept, but he didn't like the term, because cohousing would seem to imply it's all about the house, or houses. If he had been the one to name the concept, he would have called it coviviencia-- basically, co-living*. Because the important part of the equation is not so much the house(s) or building(s), but rather, the lives that are brought together within the building(s). Later that afternoon, Chucho took me for the tour which I had so looked forward to-- and it was disappointing. Because all he showed me were empty rooms and spaces. This was a Tuesday afternoon and most people were at work. These spaces were very well-designed, but still just spaces, and empty at that. What makes these rooms and spaces special is what happens within them. They were designed to bring people together, and they probably did that quite well. Unfortunately, due to the brevity of my stay, I didn't get to experience any large community activities which brought people together.
Later that afternoon, Barbara finally managed to get hold of Sue, a resident and one of the community's founders. Sue was to host me that evening. I learned that Sue would often welcome visitors into her home when the common guest room wasn't available. She always left her front door unlocked and open, so neighbours could walk in without knocking, to borrow something or just to visit. The other residents were watching out for Sue because, as she said herself, her memory wasn't working as well as it did before. I'd read about this sort of relationship existing in other communities, but it was special to see it in action: neighbours watching out for and caring for each other, especially for their more vulnerable members. This is the kind of community I hope to live in someday soon.
I came away from Madison with many thoughts about cohousing. The reading I'd done and the videos I'd seen sometimes seemed a bit idealistic. So visiting cohousing communities gave me a good dose of reality, reminding me that any human institution will always be imperfect. However, more than ever, I'm convinced that planning and building Winnipeg's first cohousing community is worth the effort. I've lived alone and isolated far too long. I want to live in a community where I will have real connections to my neighbours, people whom I'll look out for and who'll be there for me.
My visit to Madison also reminded me that each person contributes according to their own strengths, reality, gifts, and present situation. Presently, I'm quite involved with the membership committee, having built our website, prepared meeting minutes, and done various tasks related to public information. These jobs are well within my comfort zone. But once the group starts focusing more on finances and legal matters, I'll be entrusting this to those who have more strength and experience in those areas.
Most importantly, as we go through the planning stages to bring about Winnipeg's first cohousing community, we, the members of PRC, need to remember that the most important element of cohousing is not the building, but the people who will live within it. We all love the idea of building a highly energy-efficient building, possibly even to passive house standards, but if we forget that cohousing is first and foremost about building community, we'll have missed the boat.
So that was my first experience with cohousing. If you're at all interested in cohousing, the best research you can do is field research. If you plan to travel, be sure to look up your destination to see if there are any cohousing communities in the area. You might try the Canadian Cohousing Network or the Cohousing Association of the United States. Cohousing is also established in a number of countries both in Europe and elsewhere, so do a bit of research and find those communities. It's the best way to experience cohousing-- that is, until Prairie Rivers Cohousing is built here in Winnipeg.
*Be aware that the term co-living is a very different living arrangement where a number of people, usually unrelated, live in the same dwelling, each having their own bedroom, but sharing the rest of the space. In cohousing, each household has its own self-contained home but shares other spaces and amenities.