[This is the third of a series of four articles on N Street, a retrofit cohousing community in Davis, CA. I visited there on October 1, 2007. The other three articles are: N Street: An Introduction to Cohousing and ‘Retrofit’ Cohousing, N Street: Kids’ Lives, and N Street: Making it All Work.]
If you lived on N Street, you could live just like most people in most neighborhoods today. You would pay the $22/adult/month dues to the community like many people pay a homeowners association fee, and have nothing more to do with your neighbors. You could go from the inside of your house to your car and back again to the inside of your house. In that case, few if any people in the neighborhood would know your name.
However, you’d be missing out on an awful lot of social interactions.
People are very connected at N Street. The most obvious manifestation of this is that members eat dinner together at the common house about four times a week. Each of these dinners is prepared by a small group of members. The feeling of the common house is like a college dormitory’s dining hall. People share large tables and talk, and afterward, some linger to play foosball or watch television in the TV room.
In addition to the common dinners, people’s everyday lives are woven together in countless other ways. Adults run into each other in the common back yard, on the way to other common facilities like the laundry room or the compost pile. Kids can’t help but play with each other because their back yards, devoid of fences, all merge into one. So, all kids share the trampoline, the open field, the play structure, etc.
I got a feeling for how living at N Street is different in my visit there one late afternoon and early evening. I was talking to N Street cofounder Kevin Wolf in his dining room, and many times, he looked outside to the back yard and waved to people. A couple of times, after that wave, the neighbor would drop his or her head in and exchange a few words with Kevin about dinner.
Even though the community at large was not having a community dinner, a few neighbors got together for dinner at Kevin’s place. Getting together in this way for dinner clearly felt natural to them, in much the same way that isolated dinners in each house feel natural to us in our neighborhoods. The group was composed of five adults of various ages from different households, plus a 15-month old girl who was the daughter of one of the women.
The dinner banter was fun. All the participants clearly knew each other quite well, and clearly had a lot to talk to each other about. They talked about personal things, local issues, and a bit of politics. They ribbed each other quite a bit. It really felt like a family.
I asked them, “Are there cliques here?” They said, “sure there are,” but I didn’t get the idea that there were huge battles going on among factions there. It’s just that people with more interests in common tend to hang out together more.
Kids, of course, are a vital part of this social experience. They play frequently with each other, and they also interact frequently with adults.
The 15-month girl I mentioned at dinner certainly had a close relationship with all the adults there that will no doubt continue throughout her childhood. Kevin told me that a 13-year-old named TJ had been dropping in impromptu at his house lately. One Saturday evening, he happened to drop in on a card game between some adults, and he ended up hanging there for a couple of hours.
This “dropping in” that TJ’s been doing and that I saw when I was talking to Kevin is aided by architecture. All houses at N Street are mandated to have their kitchens and living rooms facing the back yard, so when people walk by, they might look in your house and wave, and if you’re lucky, they might drop in.
This might strike some readers as a frightening invasion of privacy. Frankly, I didn’t see this downside at all. N Street’s charter specifically reserves residents’ right to privacy. Their houses are completely theirs to do with as they please, and they can live with their curtains drawn if they please.
They aren’t required to do anything in particular with their back yards, either, except they can’t erect fences. In fact some back yards are filled with organic gardens and bushes, which limits the ability of others to pass close to the house and see in.
The bottom line is that people at N Street are comfortable with each other. They’re not all best friends, but they do act like they’re part of an extended family. They all have lives outside the community. The work elsewhere, and they have friends and family who live elsewhere.
Honestly, folks. After visiting N Street, I feel like we’re all fools for living with fences between us, for eating alone every night, and for not wanting people to drop in on a moment’s notice. We can keep our great houses and our exciting lives, and we can have all these great connections with others in our neighborhood, too. It’d be great for all of us, but above all else, it’d be great for our kids.
In the next and final article on N Street, I’ll describe some of the nuts and bolts of running a community like this.