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Go inside Palo Alto’s ‘dead houses’ — bastions of co-op living [VIDEO]

By Xandra Clark | 22 Jan 2013

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The dead houses—Palo Alto homes that feature communal living and are named after Grateful Dead songs—have achieved a local level of fame over the past 30 years. But what’s it like to live in one of them? Peninsula Press reporter Xandra Clark—herself a dead house resident—takes us inside.

I moved into a dead house this past summer. I’d heard about the Palo Alto co-ops through fellow students at Stanford University and over the years was invited to attend potlucks, open mic nights and dance parties at many of them. They are the off-campus, slightly older and more intimate versions of Stanford’s co-ops.

Instead of housing zombies, as their name might imply, the dead houses are home mostly to Stanford students and recent graduates. They are all creatively named after Grateful Dead song lyrics—like China Cat Sunflower, Bear’s Choice and Franklin’s Tower—because the one landlord who owns them all, Rob Levitsky, used to be a big “deadhead” back in the day, attending as many concerts as he could up and down California, often dressed as a lit-up dancing bear. Before devoting himself purely to maintaining the dead houses, he worked at a Silicon Valley tech company called Megatest, which made testing equipment for computer chips. (Story continues below.)

Levitsky currently owns 11 houses, seven in Palo Alto and four in San Francisco. Almost all of them are co-ops, meaning the two to 12 people who live in each house have opted to buy food together and share work around the house, like cooking dinners (all vegetarian in certain houses, including mine), cleaning bathrooms and common areas and even maintaining a fully equipped wood shop for building projects like bed frames, shoe racks and bookshelves.

Clustered together and sharing communal spaces like gardens, a music shed and a hall-turned-dance-studio called Abundance, the Palo Alto houses form a close-knit neighborhood unlike those in most suburbs today. They exude a feeling of home, with the residents like a large extended family network. Levitsky himself lives in one of the houses and is frequently seen attending community events or making repairs in a tie-dyed shirt and baseball cap.

Some of the dead houses—most of them turn-of-the-century homes—have disappeared over the years. From my house we can see the empty lot where Dire Wolf, whose living room walls were once covered in graffitied messages and poetry, was torn down last summer. More will likely go in years to come, as Palo Alto creeps in to claim land that can be turned from affordable housing for students and recent graduates into expensive family homes. But for now, there’s a small enclave of young hippie-types thriving just off Embarcadero Road.

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