Community and Durham as a Cohousing Leader

If you've never heard of cohousing, you aren't alone. While it hasn't received a tremendous amount of attention in the media, the idea is gaining prominence across the country.

Cohousing is based on the premise that we have isolated ourselves too much. We don't talk to our neighbors. We often move far away from our extended families. We go from our front doors to our cars to go to work, not understanding the people who live around us. As a result, we are missing some basic human interaction as well as a community that we can rely on for support when needed.

Groups of people have started coming together to form intentional communities. Unlike communes or "back to the land" movements of decades past, each individual or family gets their own unit (whether that be a house, condo, etc). They have privacy when they want it, but they come together to share meals, take on the responsibility of shared resources, and become an actively participating community.

Did you know Durham is a national leader in the cohousing movement with 3 established cohousing communities and 2 more on the way, Durham ranks just behind cities like Oakland, Boulder, Portland, and Seattle for number of communities.

Recently, I had the pleasure to interview Jim McCrae who is a part of building a community called Bull City Commons (Facebook Page). They recently secured land near 9th Street and are targeting a 2021 move-in date. They are even looking for people who want to be a part of their community. Click here for their upcoming events.

Durham Central Park Cohousing on Hunt St

Thanks for taking the time to chat, Jim. Can you tell us about yourself, personally and how you became interested in cohousing as well as your ties to Durham?

I grew up in a small town near Peoria IL where people left their keys in the car and didn’t lock their doors, at least until the 70’s. There was a lot wrong with small town Middle American life but it taught me what community could be. As an undergrad at U of I Champaign-Urbana I lived in houses that leaned communal and alternative. I always looked back fondly on that period of my life. In grad school in Knoxville TN I again lived in large houses full of students and ex-students. I met my wife there (38 years now) and we moved to the SF Bay area in 1980 so I could dive right into the nascent computer revolution. As our careers progressed and we had children we started to notice that we had friends scattered all over the Bay Area but didn’t even know our neighbors. We intentionally moved to Chapel Hill in 2003, then moved to the country 8 miles north of Hillsborough for 12 years. When our girls recently moved on to college we decided it was time to move into Durham which we had grown to love through our many friends here. It was through friends and our own interest in finding community that we decided to move into, or create, a cohousing community.

How did the idea of Bull City Commons begin and what has been its history so far, from conception to present day?

Bull City Commons is in many ways a continuation of an earlier cohousing effort named Intown Neighborhood Place (INP). INP was started by two women and was dedicated to racial inclusion. After two years of unsuccessful attempts to purchase property the two founders decided to purchase homes in a 55+ community instead and parted with us on very good terms. We were very sad to see them go but they had both set a time frame of two years to be successful and held to it.

Within a few months of the departure of the founders, other members gave up because of our inability to purchase land in the downtown area. We had put in offers on five lots over the course of two years and each time the property was bought out from under us by developers rolling in money. By June 2017 there were only three households still committed to INP. We decided there were insufficient resources for us to continue and INP folded in July.

About the time INP folded the remaining members were approached by another group at the very beginning of their cohousing adventure. Only my wife Maria and I decided to join them. We purchased land on Trent Drive in Old West Durham last September and became Bull City Commons (BCC). We now have 10 households on board out of a total of 22 units and are starting the building design process in early September. Our monthly plenary business meetings are full of excitement and joy. It is obvious to all of us that we have made the right decisions.

It is important to note that we are a self-developing community. There is no outside developer involved and no one makes a profit on the sale of our units. One of our founding members, Christine Westfall, was project manager for the development of the Durham Central Park Cohousing Community building on Hunt Street. This would not be possible without Christine’s deep knowledge base as well as the light hearted energy of all who have joined since.

Durham seems to be heavily involved with the cohousing movement with other projects like Central Park Cohousing, Eno Commons, Solterra, and soon, Village Hearth as well. What is it about Durham that is so conducive to these projects? Is there collaboration between the leaders at these communities?

Yes there is collaboration between the communities. We all know each other to some degree and help each other any way we can. BCC is very much an offshoot of Durham Central Park Cohousing Community. We are mentored by their members including Alice Alexander, until recently Executive Director of the National Cohousing Association. She brought Maria and me into the cohousing fold.

I think Durham is fertile ground for cohousing because of the predominately progressive and highly educated population. It fits with the cultural atmosphere that has grown up here. To those of us committed to intentional community the question isn’t why are there so many of us but why are there so few of us. Many of us see this as a return to a more positive village oriented way of life.

What sort of community do you hope to build at Bull City Commons?

I think our vision answers that question:

“Bull City Commons is a diverse urban community guided by kindness, respect, and mutual support. Together we are creating an oasis that supports individual and community well-being. Here we can truly be ourselves in a caring, kind community that brings out the best in us as individuals. We appreciate each other’s quirks and imperfections. Our community supports private homes as well as shared spaces; sharing resources, limiting each household’s need to own everything; caring for one another with kindness, ease, and intention instead of obligation; health and well-being, joy, playfulness, and relaxation; connection to each other, our neighborhood, and the larger community. Our indoor spaces are open and airy, incorporate natural and artfully-crafted materials, and blend with our outdoor areas. Our community includes spaces that support privacy, group activities, and neighborhood interaction.”

Many of the cohousing communities in the area are located out from the city center. Bull City Commons is set to be located right in the heart of the 9th Street neighborhood. Can you talk a little about that decision and do you think more communities will choose urban settings in the future?

I suspect there has been some continuation of the back-to-the-land movement of the 60s & 70s among recent cohousing adopters. Our members are all drawn to the excitement of living in a metropolitan setting with ease of access to what we enjoy.

There is no reason intentional communities can’t be formed anywhere people live. It’s really about being intentional and kind with your neighbors. There is no ideological prerequisite beyond that. The intent is for life to be easier and more rewarding, a pretty easy concept to buy into.

Being a part of a cohousing community sounds great. However, it also seems like a big commitment (cooking regular meals for large amounts of people, large scale chores, less wiggle room to put off a chore until "tomorrow", etc). Do you see this commitment as the main factor holding the cohousing movement back? Do you think there is room for communities with different levels of commitment (communal meals happen, but less frequently, for example)?

Every community decides on those things as a group. There is no right way of doing it. That usually requires some form of shared labor but it is up to the members to decide how that works.

I think what makes cohousing relatively rare so far is a set of cultural biases rewarding isolation, independence and private ownership of everything. Once you have committed to the coho path you start to see those things as arbitrary and restricting. Everyone at BCC owns their own unit, it’s not a commune. We are all free to close the door and be private when we want or leave the door open and engage with our neighbors as often as we want. Pretty simple.

Many cohousing communities cater to empty-nesters and retirees. This makes sense as a group that is looking for a community. However, we can all benefit from community. What do you expect the demographics at Bull City Commons to look like and do you think there is room for either more diverse communities, or communities tailored to various demographics?

Unfortunately empty nesters and retirees are much more likely to have the capital resources required to do something like this. They also are acutely aware of the dangers of getting old with no support group around. We will trend older but we are very interested in embracing diversity of all kinds because that’s how we learn.

There will undoubtedly be a continuation of demographic specialization as this movement grows. At BCC we have several musicians and artists, just because that’s who we are, so we plan on having a music rehearsal and art room. We also value inclusiveness at BCC. To quote someone, “Diversity is being asked to the dance. Inclusiveness is being asked to dance.”

Where do you see the cohousing movement going in the future, both locally here in Durham and more broadly?

I see cohousing evolving as people become aware of the benefits. Then we will start to see novel ways of funding the building process and welcoming people who have no resources. I believe humankind is about to rethink our approach to resources and capital. Cohousing will be part of that rethinking and will become a much more standard lifestyle choice. As long as Durham remains progressive and forward thinking I see no reason why the cohousing movement will not blossom and grow here. That’s certainly my hope.

Outside of the cohousing movement, in what ways would you like to see Durham grow and change? What are some components of an ideal Durham from your perspective?

I see many similarities between Durham and the SF Bay Area. We lived there for 23 years and watched it change dramatically. There is a lot to learn from the successes and failures of that region. Durham has the opportunity to grow and become prosperous without pushing out its less privileged and advantaged citizens. There is room for everyone but it will take serious and original thought to craft a greater community where everyone fits and prospers to the limits of their abilities and desires. That’s what I want to see and I plan to be part of the process.

Thanks again to Jim for the interview and shedding more light on the cohousing movement in Durham!

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