I just got off the phone with Nina Falk. I hadn't talked with her for 10 years, not since I visited the tiny village she lives in on Sacramento Street in Berkeley, California.
Back then, I was looking into a form of intergenerational communal living that was new to the United States but old hat in Denmark. It was called cohousing, and the Berkeley village was a typical example -- a group of cottages and townhouses wrapped around a common yard. The 29 residents owned their own units and a share of the yard and a common house. They shared three meals a week and a laundry room in the common house, and met there regularly to reach decisions about the village, always by consensus. There was a bulletin board by the washer-dryers to record users so the electrical costs could be divided up, and another in the kitchen to identify who was responsible for cooking and cleaning after the common meal.
It all sounded like a great place to live, but of course the village had just officially opened, and who knew how it would really work out?
At the time, Nina was 67 and a geriatric care manager, helping families arrange care for elderly parents. There were 29 residents in 15 units including one lone child, whom she enjoyed playing with each day. Her own family had long since grown up. I asked whether there were issues the community had been unable to resolve. The main one, she said, was a failure to agree on a policy concerning pets.
A decade later, Nina is still aiding families cope with eldercare, though on a reduced schedule. "I tried stopping for a while, but I wasn't happy," she said. "Work is too important." There are seven children at the village now, and the price for a communal meal has gone from $3 to $3.50. There are 15 units instead of 14. The landscaping, complete with palms and fruit trees, has matured.
The gender split at the village today is 65-35 in favor of women, but there have never been any quotas of any kind. Fifteen percent of the residents identify themselves as "people of color." Since the start, the cohousing movement has emphasized participation in the larger community and on sustainability. There were just 30 villages then; today there are 90.
Every so often over the years I remembered my visit with the Berkeley residents. The other day I looked up the village via Google and learned that the population had been remarkably stable; vacancies were "rare." That inspired me to try Nina -- and there she was. "Not too much has changed," she told me, "though there have been two weddings and one death. They're the kind of things that tend to tie a community together." Overall, I asked, what did she think about cohousing? "It's all worked out very well," she replied.
On one thing, though, there has been no progress. The village has never been able to reach agreement on a pet policy.
Robert W. Stock is a writer and editor based in New York.