Flying the co-op

Jan. 25, 2012, 3:02 a.m.

Nicole Heinl ’13 was turned off by what she heard about co-ops as a freshman.


“Something about communal showering and excessive drug use,” she wrote in an email to The Daily.


Now, as co-op manager of Hammarskjöld House, Heinl has a different perspective.


Flying the co-op
(LUIS AGUILAR/The Stanford Daily)

“In no other place on campus have I found a group of people so willing to have a conversation about anything or go do wacky things,” she said.


While each co-op has a unique reputation, they all offer what the Office of Residential Education calls “an alternative to Stanford dorm life.” On campus, there are seven of them: Columbae, Synergy, Hammarskjöld, Terra, Chi Theta Chi (XOX), Kairos and Enchanted Broccoli Forest (EBF).


One of the first co-ops, Columbae, was named after the Latin word for “dove” and was founded in 1970 to promote nonviolence and counter the turbulent temperament that helped spawn massive protests and violence on campus.


“Non-violence is more a style of life than a theme,” Dave DeWolf ’71 said to The Daily in May 1970.


“The central idea of the house is to live at a materially simple level; to reflect beliefs that people shouldn’t exploit each other and the natural environment,” DeWolf said. “We don’t want to live off of other people’s backs.”


Synergy came next, in 1972, inspired by a class on alternative lifestyles.


Bringing alternative housing to Stanford wasn’t easy, however, and not all attempts were successful. One early co-op organizer complained to The Daily in May 1970, “It has been a long and drawn-out process to get University approval for the house and to hassle out subsequent red tape.”


Of course, there has always been more to co-ops than peace and love. From the beginning, co-ops were motivated by a more mundane concern: money. Early co-op organizers sought to “save money” as much as to achieve “a sense of community living by having everyone work together,” according to Dan Kent ’73, M.A. ’74, P.D. ’81, one of the first co-op organizers.


Today, those savings can be considerable. At UCLA, for example, students save $6,700 on room and board by choosing a co-op over a dorm, according to a 2007 U.S. News article. Co-ops have gained popularity among college students in the wake of the economic crisis, and today there are at least 240 cooperative houses near at least 51 United States campuses. However, by the numbers, UC-Berkeley remains the indisputable champion, with 1,300 students housed in the Berkeley Student Cooperative system.

Flying the co-op
(Stanford Daily File Photo)


“It’s tough starting things from scratch,” wrote Penn junior Meghna Chandra in an email to The Daily.


To get some help, Chandra attended the annual North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) Institute in Ann Arbor, Mich. The Institute runs dozens of workshops for co-op organizers, including a series called “From Roots to Shoots: Developing New Co-ops,” which, according to their website, aspires to “walk future co-op founders through the process of starting a new housing co-op.”


Students tend to have similar motivations for joining a co-op.


“I wanted to cook my own food,” wrote Synergy resident Brittany Rymer ’13 in an email to The Daily. “Clean my own space. Feel independent. You can’t really get that in a self-op or a dorm.”


Steven Crane ’12, a Synergy resident and cooperative living peer advisor, described a similar experience.


“I actually had no idea [co-ops] existed until my drawmate really wanted to live in EBF sophomore year,” he said. “Now I thrive on the freedom and unconventionality that’s possible when you live in a co-op.”


Although students must perform chores such as cooking and cleaning, the time commitment is relatively small — about four to five hours per week. Indeed, most residents find chores to be an enjoyable part of the co-op experience.


“They’re actually a really good way to make friends and a nice break from class and studying,” Rymer said.


“There’s something truly satisfying about watching a huge pile of grimy pots and dishes transform into sparkling clean before your eyes,” Heinl added.


While most Stanford students live on campus, where all seven official co-ops are located, some students seek similar arrangements off campus. For them, the Dead Houses are one option. Rob Levitsky, a wealthy electrical engineer, owns 10 houses in Palo Alto that he rents to Stanford students at below-market rates. Each house is named after a song by the Grateful Dead.


“As my electronics business was successful, I put money into buying more houses,” Levitsky said to Palo Alto Online. “It’s not necessarily the best investment, but it’s something I enjoy.”


Stanford’s co-op community members find clear value in the cooperative lifestyle, just as then-freshman Martin Keogh ’80 did in 1977, when his co-op, Columbae, was at risk of termination. Keoghwrote a letter to the editor of this paper, expressing his strong opinion.


“Columbae offers me all the things this school cannot; thus I hereby state that if Columbae is dropped I will resign from the University to find another such community elsewhere,” he said.


Today, Columbae and its fellow cooperatives still stand. On an average evening in Heinl’s Hammarskjöld House, student chefs bustle out of the kitchen with trays of hot food. As an aproned cook announces the menu, students waiting to eat cut conversations short. After the meal begins, the room bursts into applause, speaking to co-op community members’ devotion to preserving the alternative lifestyle and sense of community that first thrived at Stanford in the 1970s.


Read “Co-ops over time” (Jan. 25, 2012) to see a timeline and additional details about the history of co-ops at Stanford.

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