In my last Room of One’s Own post I wrote about the phenomenon of women’s residences, and how we strike the balance between solitude, independence, and community.
I’m lucky enough to have my own apartment in a big co-op building with a few Gladwellian “connectors”, who bring everyone together. Some of my neighbors have become good friends and not only is it fun to just walk downstairs for a party, I’m reassured to know that if I got sick at 2 AM, I could count on them to drag my ailing carcass to the ER.
But for the first seven years I lived in New York, I lived in a building where I didn’t really know my neighbors beyond an occasional “hi there.” My friends were scattered around the five boroughs, and they reported feeling similarly estranged from their immediate neighbors. Urban life is often alienating, leaving people socially disconnected in spite of close physical proximity. We’ve come a long way from the days when people tended to stay within a few miles of where they were born. That eminent observer of human interactions, Jane Austen, wrote: “three or four families in a country village is just the thing to work on.” That’s easy for her to say; there are two bustling country villages just in my building alone. And while I like having my own space, and consider it a hallmark of my independence, I don’t want to be a hermit (at least, not all the time).
Turns out I’m not the only one. A co-housing movement has sprung up in Brooklyn whose goal is to bring like-minded people together in a insta-community. I’ve watched their story unfold (really good link!) because I’m fascinated by the possibilities co-housing offers.
Their website proclaims the following:
We are a group of people who want the option for greater community life where we live. We are creating a more cooperative co-op apartment building; we include families with children, single people, couples and retirees. We expect to share resources & interests (for example share child care, offer some weekly common meals (optional), share tools, skills and interests etc) while each owning our own fully equipped private apartments.
Cohousing is a nice balance between privacy and community.
Sounds cool, right? Their mission is to recreate what small communities of multi-generational households always did for our ancestors. Children and elderly were taken care of, resources were pooled, common needs fulfilled, and there’s always someone around to hang out with. In midst of this, members of this community still have a room of their own. For many people, it sounds like the best of both worlds (if you like your neighbors).
In some ways this is not unlike the Harpy House we semi-seriously talk about having for ourselves in our old age, or the two-family Huxtable-style brownstone I’m determined to buy so that MamaSharper and Bigstepdaddy can come live with me. As independent and self-sufficient as we might be–both things, after all, are key goals of the feminist movement–humans are fundamentally social animals, especially the female of the species.
Our need for community also increases as we age. I think this is a vital issue for women, since we have longer lifespans and are likely to outlive the men in our lives. It’s also possible that even if we have children, they won’t be a part of our daily existence. Because our society is more fragmented–with children living in different cities than their parents–and life expectancies are much longer than in previous generations, caring for ourselves as we age has become a challenge in a way that it was not for our foremothers, who lived with their extended families until their deaths. I would also exclude retirement communities as truly beneficial co-housing. Yes, they provide organized living and medical care, but with a significant downside; research shows that frailty syndrome sets in earlier and hits harder among elderly living in retirement communities where they are surrounded by people of the same age and similarly failing health. The main cause seems to be psychological rather than physical. I have seen distressing examples of this in my own family, and as a result, I will never move into a retirement community, no matter how posh.
Co-housing, on the other hand, provides the kind of intergenerational socialization and helping hands that increase lifespan and quality of life for the elderly. For proof, look no further than Roman Catholic nuns, who have always lived in intergenerational co-housing communities where younger sisters help to care for older sisters, and where the older sisters tend to have significantly longer, more active lives than the average population. David Snowdon’s famous Nun Study posits that one of the reasons for nuns’ longevity is the close emotional bonds and practical care-giving that those communities encourage.
An additional lure of co-housing for women is the fact that the burden of caring for children and the elderly always falls disproportionately on us. Co-housing might provide an effective solution. Having available neighborly help can save a lot of wear and tear on marriages, finances, and family relationships.
So what do you think? Does a co-housing arrangement like the Brooklyn model work for you? Is your need for privacy greater than your enjoyment of community? Should we just make the Harpy House a Harpy Compound and save you a room? Tell us in the comments…