At first, the dozen 20-somethings in Los Feliz went with a Utopian cleaning policy they called "Don't be a dick," in which each renter was expected to pick up after himself.
What could go wrong?
"People were dicks," says Matt, 27, a filmmaker. It's just after 8 p.m. on a Thursday, and most of the house's residents are sitting around the kitchen table drinking beer. No one wanted to mop the floors, they agree, and no one wanted to clean the bathrooms.
So they made a "chore wheel" on which names were rotated to line up with duties — but that didn't work, either. People bumped into it a lot, sometimes intentionally, leaving assignments vague and easily evaded.
Someone called a house meeting to discuss the problem.
"Everyone seems like everything's supercool, and it's great, and then a house meeting happens," Seth, a 22-year-old writer, says. "Nobody wants to point fingers, and nobody really wants to get on the issues that may have even caused the house meeting, so it's kind of just a little tense."
"You've got to see these people after the meeting," 22-year-old Paul explains.
But they pushed through the awkward conversation, and now one of the house's three fridges features a laminated schedule on green paper with LET'S CLEAN THIS BITCH written in caps at the top.
According to Thomas M. Cooley Law School professor Gerald A. Fisher, a zoning expert, L.A. is one of the few U.S. municipalities that doesn't restrict the number of unrelated people who can live in a single-family dwelling, making L.A., where rents have skyrocketed, a hotbed for "intentional communities." (However, too many people under one roof can lead to other violations, so tenants asked L.A. Weekly not to ID their streets or publish their full names.)
Collectives and eco-villages usually emphasize sustainability, vegan eating, tolerance, permaculture, yoga and creativity. Conventional notions of privacy and possessions can blur and dissolve. But even optimistic freethinkers may balk at the logistics of living with five or even 30 supposedly like-minded individuals.
"People break your shit and don't 'fess up to it," Matt says, shaking his head. "It's such a big, anonymous house." As the rest of the group decides which Thai dishes to order in that night, he walks the property, pointing out the avocado and guava trees, stone waterfall pond, grills and the yard where they sometimes spread a plastic tarp for a homemade Slip 'n Slide. They had rats problem, but Matt's cat, Albie, disposed of them before moving on to lizards and birds.
"We also used to have a small dog, but that got killed by something, like a snake or a skunk." He pauses, then whispers, "Some people think it may have been my cat."
Since graduating from USC a few years ago, Matt has lived in several communal homes in L.A., mostly with what he describes as "a lot of people wasting time, not wanting to face the real world, living off their parents' money."
But this place is different. Cooler people, he says. Better vibe.
His $700 in rent covers the following: a bedroom, a shared office, utilities, toilet paper, Wi-Fi, Cheerios, cable, paper towels, the occasional meal and Super Nintendo. That's a huge savings, since a studio apartment in the area probably would cost $1,200 or more, without the extras.
Plus, he can pretty much guarantee that at least one roommate will be down to hang at any hour of any day. On Friday nights the group might forgo the bar down the street for a rowdy game of sardines, a sort of reverse hide-and-seek, amidst blasting German death metal.
Once, the video game engineers next door brought over their entire housewarming party. ("Wouldn't you?" Matt asks. "It's a cooler venue.")
On an idle weekday afternoon, a fashion designer named Mimi invented a drunken, outdoor obstacle course that involved smoking an entire cigarette and chugging a raw egg. Only she and a guy named Edgar ran it. He claims he let her win, but there's video of Edgar at the race's end, shouting, "Fuck this house!" between heaves of vomit.
Most of the collective's dozen residents paint, compose, edit, design, write or take photographs for a living. Others are in grad school or work at an environmental nonprofit.
The sprawling property, which consists of two dormlike buildings connected by an enclosed bridge about 15 feet in the air, used to be a retirement home; before that, it was a maternity ward. So it has two kitchens and two living rooms, plus space for a painting studio, music studio, two offices, fashion workroom, laundry room and six usable bathrooms. (The seventh has no hot water and a broken light.)
The owner is letting the group stay two years, when he'll demolish the buildings for condos. This has left them free to graffiti the walls and tear out the antiquated intercom system. Every few weeks someone who was born in the former maternity ward or whose loved one died in the nursing home comes by to look around, and most housemates are happy to give a tour. A food bank once dropped off two catering containers of pancakes, a case of juice and a 15-pound ham for what they thought was a group of indigent senior citizens.
When Matt and the other original residents arrived in May, he says, he saw demons brawling under his bed the first night. Another guy claims to have been seduced by a succubus. They cleared the yard, scrubbed mold and bloodstains from the walls, repainted, bought lamps to counteract the creepy fluorescent lighting — and they still avoid the rattling, haunted laundry room at night.
And, of course, they decorated: An "Attitude Is Everything" motivational poster. A flier for a bossa nova DJ event in Santa Monica. A bright red Sun-Maid raisins ad. A triptych of paisley prints. A framed sketch of a girl's backside, drawn on Excalibur Hotel & Casino stationery. Twenty-three old tube TVs of various sizes, stacked in a heap along one side of a hallway.
When Hannah, 23, moved in, her mother came to L.A. to help her get things in order. "My mom was sitting there the first night we ate dinner, and she was, like, 'That painting says, 'Shit Nipples.' "
From Thomas Morton, who started the 17th-century libertine commune Merry Mount a stone's throw from the Puritan settlement, to Father Yod, who led 140 members of the Source Family in L.A.'s Nichols Canyon in the late 1960s and early '70s, Americans have been drawn to collective living during economic and cultural upheaval.
The movement peaked during the Vietnam War and counterculture rise of the hippies, when, according to intentional-communities expert and University of Kansas professor Timothy Miller, at least 1 million people lived cooperatively.
Collectives began sprouting up in L.A. with more frequency about five years ago — amidst a recession that for years left L.A. with double-digit unemployment.
Photographer and filmmaker Jodi Wille, director of a 2013 documentary about the Source Family, says, "Collectives attract people who are dissatisfied with the dominant paradigm, which is consumer-driven, materialist, industrialized, corporate culture."
With the economy still struggling and trust in government tanking — a recent poll by the Pew Research Center put it at an abysmal 19 percent — Wille says, people want to band together outside of conventional structures.
She and others living communally say that cellphones suck the mindfulness out of in-person gatherings, and tools like Facebook and Instagram leave us lonely, craving face-to-face interaction.
Bobby has been managing communal houses on the Westside for 15 years; he currently runs three properties with 17 to 30 residents, ranging from a retired lawyer to a Ralph's employee who used to be homeless. About a third have lived cooperatively for more than two years, a relatively long time for co-ops to survive.
These veterans no longer have qualms about being confrontational.
"If somebody leaves out a dish, they might find it in their bed when they go to sleep," says a 45-year-old guy in a purple basketball jersey.
It's all about adapting to circumstances. After the initial glow of politeness and partying turns into passive-aggressive notes and loaded comments, most co-op residents either leave or figure out a way to communicate openly with their housemates.
On a recent Tuesday evening back in Los Feliz, Mimi sits on the floor of her studio, marking up material for a cape she's designing. Later, Mimi and her boyfriend will take some of her latest designs to the desert — to shoot the clothing with a shotgun. "It's like a really cool technique," she says. "It's called Totally Blown."
Sam, whose bedroom is next to Mimi's studio, ambles down the hall with a floss tool in his mouth, nearly tripping over Paul, who is doubled over in pain and wrapped in a zebra-print blanket. Paul usually eats vegan — "We're all into, like, juicing" — but for some reason he ate a patty melt at a diner. Mimi made him her special PMS tea, but he's groaning loudly.
Sam tells Paul to chill out. Running his fingers through his shoulder-length, dirty blond hair, Sam explains that he ended up living there after attending some of the co-op's parties. "I just asked if I could hang for a while, in a super laid-back kind of way."
And when was this? "February," Sam says.
But wait. The first tenants didn't move in until May. "Maybe April?" he suggests.
The hallway on their side of the house is covered in colorful doodles, creatures and drippy spray-painted bursts. On the wall between Sam's bedroom and Mimi's studio, someone has painted a message in dark blue, perhaps directed at the greater household:
"Sometimez, you should keep some things in your brain."
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