Peace, love and Columbae

By and
May 25, 2010, 12:59 a.m.

On a beautiful weekend afternoon, Columbae residents are relaxing and studying in the long-awaited spring quarter sun, sprawled on couches and colorfully painted picnic tables.

Peace, love and Columbae
Columbae, the oldest continuously-operating co-op on campus, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. (ANNE PIPATHSOUK/Staff Photographer)

Inside, the lounge is in pleasant disarray and lacks the overly sterile atmosphere of most other campus common areas. Boxes of books live alongside student artwork and leftover salad from yesterday’s dinner. At midnight, the smell of freshly baked bread wafts through the house, and students can be found sleeping on the roof on hot nights, waking to the sunrise.

These idyllic conditions generate a cohesive community among residents of the vegetable-eating, library-streaking co-operative Row house.

“At special dinner we have a talent show that is beautiful because we have some very talented people and some very untalented people, and everyone participates regardless,” said former resident and current eating associate James Bohnhoff ‘11. “I feel that this is only possible because of the strong sense of community.”

Columbae residents seem willing to share even the quirkier aspects of this community with passersby. Strangers are even free to poke around the archive of house community journals — which have been maintained communally since the house’s inception four decades ago. The journals are stored in the “multi-purpose” library, which features a double bunk bed, a string of star lights and — most importantly — a locking door.

Columbae was founded on the ideal of nonviolence — a concept its name embodies.

“The name Columbae has its roots in three different ideas,” reads the house website. “First, it is close to the Latin word for Dove, tying into the peace-related theme. Second, David Stillman, and the other founders of Columbae, thought that Columbae sounded a bit like ‘come on by.’ Finally, the name has something to do with the Woodie Guthrie song ‘Columbia.’”

The house’s location has changed many times. Columbae used to be located in the Cowell Cluster, and then the community moved to a different house on the corner of Campus Drive and Mayfield Avenue. Next, the house was physically transported to its current location and sutured together with half of another house.

But the house’s theme — “Dedication to Social Change through Nonviolent Action” — has survived. Another founder, David Josephson, emphasized the experimental nature of Columbae’s founding ideals.

“[It was] an experiment in studying, living and practicing on a number of approaches to nonviolence,” he told an audience of Columbae residents in 1986, according to a transcript on the Dynamics website. “Right from the very beginning we had to confront that with the University.”

Stanford’s oldest continuously-existing co-operative house (co-op), Columbae has had its hand in almost every major protest on campus since its creation. This tradition began in 1969 with the April 3rd Movement (A3M) protesting the Vietnam War — students and locals staged a nine-day sit-in in the Stanford Applied Electronics Laboratory demanding an end to secret military research on campus. The principal student organizers of this movement went on to develop the Columbae community in 1970.

Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues (SWOPSI), a 1970s equivalent of today’s Student Initiated Courses (SICs), had a constant influence on Columbae activities in the early years.

“Project Synergy,” a 1972 SWOPSI course on alternative lifestyles that attracted many Columbae residents, went on to influence the creation of Columbae’s “sister” co-op, Synergy. The Stanford Committee for a Responsible Investment Policy (SCRIP) was another SWOPSI-inspired project spearheaded by Columbae residents which documented the University investments in 1977 and challenged the University to divest from corporations that allegedly bolstered the South African apartheid.

“Columbae was the heart and soul of that movement,” said former resident Kaky McTigue ‘79 of SCRIP. “The challenges we made to the trustees — the huge sit-in and mass arrest [294 student protestors at Old Union on May 9, 1977] happened while the Board was meeting and [1967-1970 Provost] Dick Lyman was nearly in tears asking us to call it off.”

The house’s dedication to social change affected residents personally as well. Sandwiched between rants about the no-meat policy are narratives written by female residents perplexed over the hardships and imminent danger faced by their draft-dodging male housemates.

The house journal from 1985-1986 details the community’s efforts in protecting a refugee taken in from El Salvador during the Sanctuary Movement. This action initiated changes within the house — an unheard-of policy of locking the doors and discouraging guests was deemed temporarily necessary. Tension swirled — some residents felt that hosting a refugee was merely symbolic and that the house should take more tangible action, recalled former resident Susan Sandler ‘86.

Columbae isn’t always teeming with dissent. ‘Baens are best known on campus for traditions like body-painting, quarterly consensus on room assignments and vegetarianism, but these activities only give a small glimpse of the playful side of this tight-knit community.

One Columbae alum who visited in 1981 reminisced in the house journal about ritually “commandeering a university truck” and driving to the Stanford barn to steal manure from the stables for garden fertilizer. This retaliatory action followed the University’s conversion of the house’s garden into a basketball court for Delta Upsilon fraternity — Mars House today.

Food, including some from the commune’s remade garden, remains a core part of the Columbae experience. Required to participate in daily meal preparation, resident beginning cooks gain culinary experience.

“One time, the soup for dinner was just awful,” remembered Robert Branman ‘84. “It was ‘cream of some vegetables’ [and] it turned out that [the cook] thought the dishwasher […] powder was powdered milk.”

The kitchen has long been a site for much more than food preparation. Residents like Carter Lake ‘77 solved a house overstuffing issue by making bunkbeds in the useless space in the kitchen produce locker.

Former kitchen manager Rebecca Stellato ‘10 recalled one otherwise drab weeknight. She was preparing a midnight snack between bouts of studying when several people walked into the kitchen.

“It became a naked dancing-on-the-kitchen-counters water fight,” she said.

Although the non-traditional social practices of the co-op community can be perceived as new-age and hippie-oriented, in fact the idea was favored by Leland Stanford himself, according to Dynamics transcripts.

“Co-operative societies bring forth the best capacities, the best influences of the individual for the benefit of the whole,” said the Robber Baron capitalist mogul after donating much of his fortune to creating the University. “The good influences of the many aid the individual.”

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