Palo Alto “Dead Houses” provide an off-campus community for students

March 12, 2014, 8:33 a.m.

At first, Daniel Greene, a fourth year Ph.D. student, couldn’t believe what his friend told him about baking bread each night and having impromptu dance parties in the kitchen at Synergy, one of the seven Stanford cooperative living communities. When Greene visited the Farm for a conference and stayed in Synergy, he was blown away by the friendly community he experienced in such a short time.

Once he knew he would be going to Stanford for graduate school, he was set to go back to the environment the on-campus co-ops offered–that is, until he learned they were housing options for only undergraduates.

Like other graduate students hoping to take part in such a community while attending Stanford, Greene managed to make his way into Ithaka, an independent off-campus co-op housed in two of the nine so-called “Dead Houses” along Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto.

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Dead Houses full of life

The story of Ithaka and how students like Greene were able to live there starts with long-time Palo Alto resident and Grateful Dead fan, Rob Levitsky.

For 20 years, Levitsky worked in the chip-testing industry in Silicon Valley. For each of the last 15 of those years he bought a new home to rent out. By 2000, he said he owned 15 total houses in San Francisco and Palo Alto, all named after Grateful Dead songs.

“Every house needed a name anyway,” Levitsky said.

Though over the years he sold some and bought others, Levitsky now owns nine such Dead Houses in Palo Alto (Box of Rain, Dark Hollow, Touch of Grey, Uncle John’s Band, China Cat, Sunflower, Bear’s Choice, Cassidy and St. Stephen) and four in San Francisco (Sugar Magnolia, Scarlet Begonias, Franklin’s Tower and Ripple).

According to Levitsky, 95 percent of the tenants in the Palo Alto Dead Houses are Stanford-affiliates–either undergraduates or graduate students–with a majority having lived in on-campus co-ops or heard about the houses from the Stanford co-op community.

At about $900 a month for single rooms and $600 for shared rooms, Levitsky offers comparatively cheap Palo Alto housing for students that draws high demand year-round, especially in the summer.

However, long-time Dead House resident Bobby Holley ’10 M.A. ’11 said that those looking to only find a cheap housing option forget the real value: a community of activity and individuals open to independence and new lifestyles.

Except for Box of Rain, located a few blocks away, and Touch of Grey, which is across the street, the Palo Alto Dead Houses are all next door to each other, creating what Holley described as a village of houses with interconnected yards and outdoor eating areas.

Towards the center of this village, one can find a basketball court, a shack housing a music studio complete with instruments from around the world, a woodshop and handmade bike racks holding up tenants’ rides. There are also small-scale gardens in each overgrown yard and Levitsky’s cat, Wilson, roaming around as he pleases.

According to Levitsky, much of the rationale for buying certain homes was due to how close they stood to each other. He said this allows for a sense of community among tenants who can easily join their neighbors for a meal or a chat outside each day.

By around 2010, community was further instilled into houses Uncle John’s Band and St. Stephen when tenants approached Levitsky with the idea for Ithaka, a tenant-run co-op comprised of the two houses, which have around 25 members in total.


Show a little Ithaka love

Holley, who lived in Enchanted Broccoli Forest (EBF) during his last undergraduate years at Stanford, knew he wanted to continue living in a co-op when he pursued his master’s degree.

Thus he became of one of the first-year members of Ithaka. Currently he’s a part-time member of Ithaka with another home in Berkeley.

Holley said that the same things that initially drew him to Ithaka have also kept him from fully leaving: the sense of ownership the two houses offer their residents, as well as Ithaka’s “bias toward action” heuristic through which residents are encouraged to follow through with any idea they have so long as it doesn’t upset fellow housemates.

For instance, everyone is free to paint their own rooms or build shelves if they are so inclined, without asking for permission through a structured system.

Much like Stanford co-ops, responsibilities such as cleaning, cooking and ordering produce are divvied up among residents. Although there is no paid staff coordinating the house operations, residents run weekly house meetings.

“You’re not quite in the real world, but you’re in a place where people aren’t going to do things for you,” Holley said. “It’s up to people to make their own mark.”

For Greene, who first lived in Box of Rain and for the last three years has lived in Uncle John’s Band, Ithaka offers not just a residence but also a home where it is easy to find people to interact with.

“It’s a refreshing perspective, especially compared to grad student life and on-campus housing where you come home and the only person you see is one or two grad student roommates, and it’s always in the Stanford bubble,” Greene said. “This feels very outside the Stanford bubble and it’s very relaxing.”

Whitney Wells ’12 M.A. ’14, who lived in Columbae and Synergy during her undergraduate years and now lives in Uncle John’s Band, also enjoys the ability to live in a community with a mix of backgrounds, since not all residents are necessarily Stanford-affiliated.

She added that while the cost-effectiveness of Ithaka and the Dead Houses in general is a benefit, it’s the friendly community that makes it all stand apart from any regular off-campus residence.

“I’m paying for my little room, but I’m also paying for the communal space,” Wells said.

Greene recalled last fall’s “work weekend,” when all the residents got together to clean up the houses. During this particular weekend, a group of returning members decided to throw an initiation ceremony for the incoming Ithaka members where new members had to clean up the kitchen in less than half an hour.

Naturally, the whole thing transformed into a dance party.

“It’s something that can only happen when you have a sense of community,” Greene said. “It’s hard for me to imagine not living in cooperative housing now that I’ve seen the fun and the support that can come from sharing a house with friends.”


Contact Ileana Najarro at inajarro ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.

Ileana Najarro is the Managing Editor of News at The Stanford Daily. She previously worked as a News Desk Editor and Staff Writer.

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