This article originally appeared in Bedford + Bowery on July 28, 2017.
Many townhouses on this block in Bedford-Stuyvesant look nearly identical—the same stairs lead up to clean, white stone facades and glass doors with black frames—so much so that, walking past, I wonder if the same contractor has recently remodeled them. But the house I’m heading for stands out. Past the rusting gate, there are mismatching chairs—including a repurposed and faded bike taxi seat—encircling a makeshift coffee table, and the slightly battered front door is secured with a keypad deadbolt.
The differences become even more apparent once inside. The hallway is narrow, with at least six bicycles leaning or hanging on the walls, along with containers overflowing with helmets and other gear. “These are the bikes we actually use,” Amy, one of the residents, tells me. In the backyard and basement, there are parts for more than 25 more. But this isn’t a bike shop: it’s Noyes, a housing collective where eight unrelated people live together in a means that differs radically from that of most others living in New York.
The collective was founded in 2012, a time of pushback against exploitative capitalism, when hundreds of people encamped in Zuccotti Park as part of the Occupy movement. Sarah and Clark, having met while organizing for Occupy, founded the collective around similar political objectives and, in part, because her previous collective wouldn’t allow cats. It’s now one of a least a dozen collectives in north Brooklyn alone. This is “an area where young radicals are moving,” Amy says, as I sit at Noyes’s kitchen table with her and Jedidiah, another resident, who continues to pluck noncommittally at the banjo in his lap. (All names used in this piece—including the names of the various collectives—are pseudonyms per the request of the residents.)
I’ve been interested in collectives and communes since my aunt—the first Stephanie Sugars—moved to Moonlight Farm in Kenwood, California a decade ago. She was a teen in the Bay Area in the late 1960s, and was there in ‘67 when the Summer of Love drew hippies, anti-capitalists, artists and beatniks to San Francisco and collectives began in the United States in earnest. When years of serious illness prevented her from having a formal job, even if she had wanted one, life on the farm provided her stability and community when she could not have afforded much else. The farm is mostly self-sustaining, raising livestock—they had a cow named Sal, short for Salisbury Steak—and maintaining a vegetable garden alongside fruit trees. Her low living expenses enabled her to spend her time painting, participating in a potluck group, leading cancer survivor groups and reading and writing voraciously until she passed in November 2016. Her memorial, a full five months later, was held nearby and attended by nearly 150 people who were close to her.
Her strong connection to community is why I’ve thought about living collectively myself. The closest I’ve come is a campus house my senior year of college where I lived with 12 other members of the literary magazine staff, and the group renting my friends from home continue to embrace. When I moved to New York, I relied on my fledgling graduate community to find an apartment and roommates. While I’ve kept collective living in the back of my mind, I wasn’t sure of its feasibility in this city or for me as a student and journalist. Curious if any intentional communities or collectives existed here, my search turned up Noyes just a neighborhood away from my own apartment.
Touring Noyes, it’s clear that there’s more to living in a collective than having a lot of roommates. Residents select new roommates based on applications and decide by consensus during biweekly house dinners and meetings, where debating and reaching agreement on issues can take hours. Alongside consensus decision making, Amy says, the collective’s key tenets are “open communication and accountability.” The aim is to emulate family organization and life through mutual reliance, cooperation and community. Most everything is shared, funds are pooled for buying house goods and stocking the kitchen, and chores and other responsibilities rotate.
For example, they try to spend very little on food. As Amy leads me from the entryway towards the warmly lit kitchen and dining room, I see two six-foot-tall metal shelves filled to overflowing with jars, cans, bags and boxes of food, many of which are labeled with black sharpie on masking tape. They have a communal kitchen, sharing groceries and cooking basics like rice and beans each week to be available to everyone. One of the benefits of living with so many people, she tells me, is the ability to buy some things in bulk, which often saves money. They often grow vegetables and herbs in the backyard, and go “dumpstering”—searching through garbage bins outside restaurants or grocery stores for unspoiled food—as several of Noyes’s residents, including Jed, are freegans.
This impulse to reduce waste and live more sustainably extends across life in the collective. Jed saved some kitchen chairs and the secretariat next to the doorway into the kitchen—which I notice is nearly identical to my own—when they were going to be taken to the dump, he says. Amy elaborates that Jed “can’t stand seeing things thrown away that are still good.” This is a bit of a shared impulse: While we are sitting at the table, Amy receives a message from Noyes founder Sarah saying that there is free food available near Union Square if they can come pick it up within the next hour. When Jed does leave with his truck, it’s without knowing, or seemingly caring, what the food will be.
The ultimate aim is to spend as little as possible on rent and living expenses. They pay an average of $500 a month, with an added $90 that goes towards groceries, utilities and a house fund: it’s just half of what I pay for my room in a three-bedroom walkup nearby. If I wanted a studio, I’d be lucky to find anything less than $1,200 in the area. Because of their lower expenses, Noyes residents don’t have to work nine-to-five jobs—or worse—like most New Yorkers. Many piece together an income through doing “odd little things”: part-time jobs, repairs, massage, yoga instruction, cottage enterprise and, recently for Jed, helping people move. “It started as a hustle,” he said, “but has turned into a business.” Another collective house in the area, Amy tells me, was wholly supported through a bed-and-breakfast the residents ran on a floor of the house: each resident would work ten hours a week, and the income generated was enough to pay everyone’s room, board and a bit extra each. But new legislation targeting Airbnb effectively closed down their enterprise, so they’ve had to take on new residents and charge everyone rent.
While paying less in rent is its own reward, it can also open doors. “If your rent’s lower,” Jed says, “you have more energy to focus on the things that matter to you.” While Noyes resident Lucy does the majority of the work on her intricate graphic novel at an easel in her room, every surface in the basement is covered in tools and projects underway. Walking down the carpeted stairs I see bike parts scattered around: Noyes founder Sarah built and repaired bikes, including one made entirely of semi-truck springs and another with six-foot tires large enough to stand and cartwheel in. Joss, Amy’s partner, is working at a table in the center of the room: He says he’s “constructing forge,” and is planning to work with the scrap metal and railroad ties he and Amy collected this morning. Behind where Joss stands, screen-printing frames and canvases lean against a doorway across from a white, square fridge that Amy tells me is “filled with dead animals”: Jed evidently dabbles is taxidermy.
Noyes residents have not only the flexibility but the space to purse these interests. While some of the rooms are quite small—though perhaps not by New York standards—they have access to the whole house. Noyes is three stories, with front and back yards, a basement, an attic and roof access, which means plenty of common spaces. As we walk up the narrow, squeaking stairs to the second floor, Amy leads me into the large, central living room. Several couches and loveseats are piled high with pillows and pushed against the walls, each more or less facing a blank white wall where they project movies for fun and when they host screenings.
Politics and activism are a central passion for all of the residents, so their events and screenings reflect this. “We’re all political people,” Amy says, though this isn’t the most political house either she or Jed has lived in, and political action isn’t a central tenet. In general, though, they “agree pretty firmly,” she adds. Most collectives and communes have organized around shared politics, typically of a feminist, socialist, communist or anti-capitalist bent; the collective where Jed lived in Washington, D.C. has existed for 40 years as a venue for socialist organizing, queer film nights, radical speakers and political agitation. Noyes is ideologically similar: The Beehive Collective produces the black-and-white illustrated posters I’ve seen up around the house, and each uses graphic art to convey histories and messages of resistance against global capitalism. Tacked to a wall upstairs is a handwritten note saying, “In case of emergency, break glass ceiling,” and a sticker on the mirror in Amy’s room reads, “Consent is sexy.” Recently, Amy says, they’ve screened episodes of Mr. Robot, and learned the basics of the technologically accurate techniques and tools for encryption and hacking featured in each episode.
The distinctiveness of this lifestyle means that once people join, they often continue to live in collectives. “We do a pretty good job of indoctrinating people,” Jed said, laughing. He was working on a construction site where Sarah, who was still living at Noyes, was the contractor. Realizing they had mutual friends in Georgia, she invited him to apply to live at Noyes, and he’s so glad to have been accepted. “I never felt settled growing up,” Jed said, but when he moved into a collective, everything changed: “Suddenly I had community and family.” This is Amy’s fourth collective in north Brooklyn, and, for her, she says, “it’s all about interconnectedness and communication.” Over time, collectives across the city and even the country have formed a larger, mostly informal network in which each collective house is a node.
Inevitably, there are problems and complications that come with living collectively. When personalities clash, Amy says, taking a deep inhale, “It’s crisis.” The atmosphere sours and becomes toxic, and “the meetings! Dear god, the meetings!” Amy exclaims. “They go on forever.” Typically, she says, it ends with all parties to the disagreement moving out, often into other collectives or founding a new one.
Yet that exit may be preferable to what now threatens Noyes and its residents: gentrification. Their lease is set to expire in just a few months, and there’s no guarantee they’ll get the three-year lease they’re hoping for. When the first residents moved in, the wine bar and the coffee shop around the corner didn’t exist. “This is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood,” Amy says, and they recently saw their landlady speaking to a “man in a suit.” They worry that the owner’s ambivalence towards fixing things is a sign that she’s looking to sell, and Amy says they’re not sure what they’ll do if that happens.
The house has issues, Amy tells me as we climb the last flight of stairs and step onto plush red carpet: “The roof might be caving in, the plumbing is fucked throughout, stuff like that.” In her and Joss’s room to the left of the stairs, they have a partial kitchen with a range that hasn’t worked since they moved in. To top it off, Joss recently discovered that not only is there a large, oval, metal washing tub in the attic, but that it’s full to overflowing with rainwater now leaking through the ceiling. While they wait to renew the lease, they’re doing what repairs they can and pushing off thinking about what the future may hold: finding a new place that would rent to the collective with all of its current residents is a challenge.
The time demands of collective living aren’t something to scoff at. Noyes co-founder Clark no longer lives collectively, at least for the time being, because he felt that he had very little time for relationships—platonic or romantic—after his work and house responsibilities. And the house, he says, was “the easiest thing to cut back on.” But he hasn’t left communal living completely: he’s currently living with five other men who’ve all lived in collectives before and share similar values. And he says he’s starting to “get the itch” for collective living again.
For those committed to this lifestyle, it’s worth the risks and tradeoffs. “It has definitely changed my life for the better,” Jed says with certainty. While the realities of modern life push people to move across the country to start their educations, their careers, or just to start over, for many, this means moving alone: Living collectively helps with both the financial and community struggles this city is known for. For Amy, it’s the only way she can live according to her values, without “engaging in these oppressive systems” intrinsic to success in the existing system. By freeing yourself from rigid professional demands, you are able to pursue and cultivate a life outside of monetary concerns. “Because,” Amy says, “fuck money.”
While I see the ails of society and am sympathetic to this view, too much of my time is spent commuting, in class, attending events, interviewing, writing or working for one of my jobs, for me to commit to a collective like Noyes. The hours necessary for dumpstering, composting or cooking for eight people are hours I don’t have. So—for now at least—my two roommates, couple of kitchen herbs and neighborhood composting program will be enough. (Though there is an eight-bedroom house in Cleveland that a friend and I are casually eyeing.)
As I pack up my notebook and grab my jacket, Amy’s friend pulls a second container of popcorn out of her bag and places it on the table: they’re preparing for a movie night. Joss has come up from the basement, Jed is on his way back with a truck bed full of food and three bottles from a six pack are open. They pause their conversation long enough for me to say thanks and goodnight, picking up where they left off as I turn and head out the door. Near where Bushwick meets Ridgewood, I unlock the door of my walkup and head up two flights of stairs to what I know is a dark and empty apartment. Flipping on the lights and grabbing the last beer from the fridge, I settle into the silence to finish scribbling out my notes.
All photos by Stephanie Sugars.