Collective Living & Work Spaces

One of the main reasons I moved to Chicago in February 2003 was to experiment with communal living. One of the reasons that I am regularly drawn back to the city are the friends I know through collective houses and the opportunities these spaces create.

Two of the oldest intentional communities in town, the St. Francis Catholic Worker House and Jesus People USA (JPUSA, pronounced "jah-POO-zah"), have put up thousands of people since their respective starts in the 1970s. I spent most of my first two and a half months in Chicago living and working with some 499 other people at JPUSA in Uptown.

JPUSA was started in 1972, and according to their website, www.jpusa.org, "[t]he community is primarily self-supporting, generating about 90% of our income from a variety of community-owned and operated businesses. These include a roofing supply house, t-shirt printers, and a sheet metal shop." When I was there, they also had a woodworking shop and a print shop.

Their ministries in Uptown include a women’s and children’s shelter; Cornerstone Community Outreach, to aid the homeless; a senior citizens’ home called Friendly Towers; and Brothas and Sistas United, an outreach program for neighborhood youth. Their outreach also includes Cornerstone magazine, "a quarterly journal of culture, politics and faith," and, since 1984, the Cornerstone Festival, an annual music and arts festival held in Central Illinois that draws 20,000 people from around the world. I was introduced to their community through the festival in 2000.

Soon after my arrival at JPUSA I started hanging out at Francis House, also in Uptown, and became part of its extended, non-live-in community. In fact, so many people both before and after me have fled JPUSA for Francis House that we are called "refugees."

Francis House was started in 1974. A chapter in the book Voices From the Catholic Worker, edited by Rosalie Riegle Troester, documents the house’s unfettered hospitality within the framework of Uptown in the 70s, when the neighborhood was "the national home of arson for profit" and "the white supremacists in the neighborhood would write threatening notes and paint swastikas on the house." The start of the gentrification of Uptown is also mentioned. "This handful of owners had a block club type thing and they were pushing to sweep the poor out. The worker was there years before these yuppies with their attaché cases wanted to move in. And then they want us to keep from blighting their neighborhood," recalled one Francis House resident.

As a house of hospitality Francis House provides food, shelter, a safer space, and clothes for single adults. As a part of the Catholic Worker Movement, which sometimes has very little or nothing to do with being Catholic or having a job, it is part of an informal network of some 200 houses and farms all over the world. Having been a part of the extended community of another Catholic Worker House in Ohio City, Cleveland, I made a point of looking them up shortly after getting to town.

Besides the live-in guests and drop ins who come for the hospitality, Francis House offers work for room and board for people interested in participating in the Catholic Worker Movement, Round Table Discussions on topics of interest to the community, Reading Amoebas to share whatever people are reading about, and sometimes is a sort of Movement Hotel for activists briefly coming to town or passing though.

Collective living and workplaces have many flaws. In many ways they are microcosms of the greater society with all of its flaws. Sometimes conflicts can seem more intense since you live and work with the person. Personally, dry houses are important to me. Shared food has also become a requirement for me from having bad experiences with lazy, shady housemates who repeatedly ate all or most of my food and then had the nerve to criticize me for not buying better food!

Zero tolerance for violence and sexual assaults in both theory and practice is also something I think a community needs. From my experiences, it seems like "accountability processes" have sometimes only enabled certain people to become repeat offenders in the same places, even equipping them with a rhetoric to hide behind so that "non-violent communication" becomes just a way to be verbally abusive without swearing and/or yelling.

If you are interested in living in a collective community I strongly recommend visiting one or as many as possible before moving in. Especially in urban areas, it is usually possible to just hang around and to see if you can fit in. For better or for worse, I think there is an intentional community out there for pretty much everyone, and it’s just a matter of finding where you are comfortable, and where people are comfortable with you.

Frequently when I leave town, one of the first things I will do is check to see if there is a Catholic Worker Community in the area where I am headed. "The Catholic Worker" prints a directory about every other year, which can also be found online at www.catholicworker.org. I’ll also check the Intentional Communities Directory to see what other kinds of collective living spaces there might be. It’s a wonderful textbook-sized book that can also be found online at www.ic.org. I also check Slingshot Organizers to see what kind of radical spaces I could get involved with in an area. I had an absolute blast slumming around Minneapolis in 2004 with one as my guide. Other ways I have been able to get involved in the various areas I travel to include www.foodnotbombs.net, to find local servings and get involved; local indymedia.org affiliates to find out about events; and hostels.

If it wasn’t for collective living and working spaces I don’t know how people without extensive resources like myself would make it. Collective living and work spaces have been invaluable institutions and infrastructures for many people around the world, and despite their flaws, they should be seen as a basic part of the fight for a world based on mutual aid, not competition.