Hippie Communes Live On

More than 30 years ago, a few hundred hippies left California to start a commune in Tennessee. They're still there, and they're not the only ones.

If you thought the communes all quietly faded away, you're not alone. But the communes didn't go up in clouds of pot smoke, according to people in the still-thriving movement.

"Contrary to the public perception of the commune movement being a failure, it was a raging success," said Lois Arkin, one of the founders of the Los Angeles Eco-Village. "When the communities stopped being preoccupied with sex and drugs, the media stopped being preoccupied with them."

For most of the people who began communities like The Farm in Tennessee, it wasn't about the sex and drugs: It was about changing the world, and it still is.

The word "commune" may be out of date, but according to people who still live in them, the ideals behind those "get back to the earth" efforts are not, and they say they're making a difference in many different ways.

There are thousands of contemporary communes — now commonly called "intentional communities" — across the country, from rural Tennessee, Missouri and Oregon to downtown Los Angeles and New York City. They're organized on various different principles, whether concern about the environment, shared political views, religious beliefs or some other set of ideals.

"Intentional community" is a rather clinical and perhaps off-putting term for a simple idea — groups of people who have common views deciding to live together to improve the quality of life for themselves, and in many cases, to try to help those around them.

The definition is rather broad, said Laird Schaub, executive secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, an umbrella organization of some 3,000 such communities worldwide, and a longtime resident of Sandhill Farm in Rutledge, Mo.

By the FIC's definition, an intentional community is a group of people who "share property on the basis of explicit common values," which can be ecological, religious, social, political or psychological. Many of the member communities are eco-villages, focused on environmental issues, while other are followers of the co-housing movement that began in Denmark.

The only firm requirements for membership in the FIC are that groups be "upfront and honest about their views," don't advocate violence and don't hold people against their will.

"As a movement, it's not very focused," Schaub said. "It's more about people who are not satisfied with life the way most of society lives it."

Nearly all of the communities listed on the FIC's Web site welcome visitors — even for weekend stays or longer — and many are open to new members.

People join or form intentional communities for a lot of different reasons, members say. Some come because they feel isolated in society, some because they are concerned about their children's safety or the influences on them, and others because they want to lead a more environmentally friendly or simpler lifestyle.

Though the original communes like The Farm in Tennessee were often portrayed as experiments in free love and uncontrolled drug use by kids who didn't want to deal with reality, that stereotype was not always accurate, which is proven by the fact that many of those communities are still around, decades later, members say.

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