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Final Frontier
Welcome to the future of communes.

Photo by Andrea Hudson

Tim Miller is a professor of communes. Well, technically, he’s a professor of religious studies and a historian of what are officially dubbed “intentional communities” at the University of Kansas. But the point is, he has a passion for something people have been doing for centuries – pooling resources and labor in a shared home for reasons other than bare necessity or family ties.

He traces this very long trend to the Dutch Mennonites of the 17th century and the surge that passed through the American mainstream during the middle of the 20th. “In the 1960s and 1970s, we were looking at a time of great social rebellion,” he says, “and that included ways of living.”

Whether driven by rebellion or clear-eyed pragmatism, new communes are starting up in increasing numbers. A registry maintained by the Fellowship for Intentional Community (to which many communes submit their information) listed 44 in Wisconsin as of August – the 14th-highest of any state – and about 1,500 in the U.S.

Although many organize around a religious order or some other belief system, the three featured here cast a wide net for members interested in trying out a novel way of living.

Bay View Ecovillage (2846 S. Linebarger Ter.)

To start a green-minded commune in Milwaukee, Mark Gill, Alison Hood and Eric Maynard – a friend plus a couple – sold the single-family homes they owned and joined up with leading “ecovillages” around the country. Gill, who is in his 50s, spent six weeks at The Farm in Tennessee, a rustic commune often named as one of the country’s best, while Hood and Maynard, both in their 30s, moved in with a similar outfit in Ithaca, N.Y. “We didn’t have a lot of models to look at,” Gill says, so the trio improvised.

What they came up with blends into a Bay View neighborhood that’s increasingly concerned with sustainability. Beginning in 2007, the three partners purchased two adjacent duplexes and prepared gardens on the lots. They now grow eight different fruits, along with many vegetables, all raised without pesticides. Potential housemates responded to ads online, and the trio also reached out to connections with an interest in the environment. One family from Portland, Ore., responded and passed muster with a Skype session, bringing the membership to about a dozen, including several kids.

One house is named Earth and the other Sun, and each resident receives a private bedroom. “I had a nice house in St. Francis and had been living there for 19 years,” Gill says. “It was almost paid off, but this was worth taking a risk for.”

Bay View Urban Artisans (2543 S. Howell Ave.)

A sculptor, book artist and printmaker, Jessica Poor suffered college-age roommates for years, needing the extra income of renters. But the four compatriots she lives with these days at a two-story Victorian, on South Howell Avenue in Bay View, are of a different stripe. “The tendency of the applicants is that they’re second-lifers, had a divorce or their kids went off to school,” she says, which fits her bill. “I want people who want to hang out in the living room and do an art project together.”

For $550 a month, members enjoy the use of their own private bedroom, kitchen cupboard and refrigerator shelf, though some of the food (marked with “eat me” stickers) is shared. Housemates also have access to a 1,000-square-foot art studio – and few other requirements to meet. Residents gather every two weeks for a meeting and once a month for a housewide studio day and group dinner.

“At 50, I never thought I’d be in a situation where I’m saying hello and goodbye to people all the time,” Poor says. “I’m not 20. This isn’t a frat house.”

Amitaba Gardens (Whitewater)

David Wolinsky, 29, has taken his grandfather’s farm, located on 30 acres near Whitewater, and transformed it into a thoroughly modern home for himself and about seven other people. The commune began operations in 2010 and includes a farmhouse, a converted barn and an A-frame structure hidden in the woods.

A couple of Amitaba’s residents hold down jobs outside of the gardens but enjoy coming home to get their hands dirty and partake in farm-fresh foods. “Everybody puts in time in the fields,” Wolinsky says, and the toil builds community. “It’s a way to have a bunch of friends out here and have jobs we can create.”

The food-raising also happens in hoop houses and in a more permanent greenhouse, all part of the commune’s small-scale agricultural business. According to Wolinsky, it sells fruits and vegetables to restaurants and farmers markets in Madison, Brookfield and Milwaukee. 

“You get to know each other pretty well when you’re living by each other every day,” Wolinsky says.

This article appears in the October 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
To read more like it, subscribe to Milwaukee Magazine.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Ecovillage hosts two dozen residents. The correct figure is one dozen.

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