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Rahel Solomon/MEDILL

"It seems to me people are looking for more face-to-face contact and relationships. Social networking has connected us in one way but there’s nothing like face-to–face contact," said Pat Wilcoxen,77, of the  Covenantal Community Housing Cooperative in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood.  

Want to personally know your neighbors? Try intentional living communities

by Rahel Solomon
May 31, 2012

Weekly potluck? Check.

Monthly meeting? Check.

No, this isn’t a to-do list. It’s how thousands of estimated Chicagoans live as part of an intentional community housing model.

“It’s an opportunity to live with people who want to live with me, as equals,” said Mike Janecek, 54, who lives in an intentional community in Woodlawn.

The idea -- intentional community-- means different things to different people.

Mark Fick , a senior loan/program officer at the non-profit Chicago Community Loan Fund, has been involved with the lifestyle since 1996 when he moved into a housing cooperative in Madison, Wis. The next year he and a dozen other activists created the Stone Soup Cooperative, a social-justice focused intentional living community, in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

“I would describe an intentional community as a group of households living together and sharing resources in a conscious manner to support a common social, political, spiritual or economic vision,” Fick said.

Pat Wilcoxen, 77, the treasurer of the Covenantal Community Housing Cooperative, has been active with the Woodlawn building, the same as Janecek’s, since its beginnings in the late ’70s.

“For me, it’s the small town feel of knowing one another, and knowing one another well, ” Wilcoxen said.

Every Sunday evening, residents of the Woodlawn building meet in the community room for a potluck dinner. Once a month, normally the third Sunday, residents join for a meeting to make announcements and discuss building business.

Common-area chores are shared among residents and there are different committees within the building that take care of specific tasks. Janecek is on the gardening committee. In the winter that means he helps with shoveling and in the summer with landscaping.
Intentional living isn’t without its own problems, said Janecek’s fiancée Bonnie Harrison.

“Everyone is friendly but different people have different commitment levels to community,” Harrison, 42, said. “We considered just turning it into a regular housing building a few years ago when members really seemed to be moving in just because we keep the rents low, but we have campaigned to maintain our intentional community work by having more socially involved events, personal story telling and parties.”

Wilcoxen warned those interested in applying that some networking might be required first.

“The first thing you have to do is come to Sunday night suppers and talk to us,” Wilxcoxen said. In fact, she said those interested must attend “two or more Sunday night suppers before you even get an application. Before we even start to check credit.”

For those who pass the test and become residents, the outcome can be rewarding. Janecek and Harrison plan to marry this year. Janecek said he’s surprised at the amount of support they’ve received from others in the building.

“It’s gratifying that these people aren’t even related to me and are doing these things, ” Janecek said.

The couple plan to hold their wedding ceremony and reception in the building’s courtyard area and common area. Their neighbor, a preacher, will marry the couple.

Residents don’t get leases; instead, they sign a membership agreement and a covenant. “Members of the covenant occupy certain space but agree to be responsible to the cooperative as a whole,” Harrison said.

“We had candles and some readings and discussed community and goals,” Janecek said of his signing experience. “It’s not quite sacramental it’s more ritualistic.”