Cooperative houses stand the test of time

Emerging during the 1970s as part of the broader progressive movements in the country, cooperative houses live on today in the Bay Area.

There’s an impermanence to modern life both exciting and disturbing, as we become more enveloped in our devices that seem to be able to do more for us everyday. Traditions have been partially destroyed — print publications and books, aspects of interpersonal communication, and the self-sufficiency and slower paced life that came before a reliance on businesses like Uber, DoorDash and Venmo. But some habits have remained unflappable — including one in particular on the Stanford campus and in the surrounding area: cooperative houses.

Cooperative houses are student-run living spaces where residents are responsible for managing and maintaining the house, and they are known for a stronger sense of community as a result. They emerged during the 1970s as part of the broader activism and progressive movements in the country. This type of housing lives on today on the Stanford campus, in surrounding Palo Alto, in San Francisco, at the University of California, Berkeley, and all over the country — in part because of organizations like the Fellowship for Intentional Community.

Sitting outside Columbae, a vegetarian, 53-person, student-run Stanford co-op, a few weeks ago, John Hackmann, a resident from the late 1970s, brunched comfortably with residents of today. He hadn’t met them before, but they were characters he recognized.

The traditions of the Stanford cooperative houses, and two in particular — Columbae and Synergy — mirror what they were 40 years ago: a group labor model in which students run their own house. Residents cook, clean, take out the trash, scrub toilets and bake bread for each other — all amid the typical, weighty course load of the average Stanford student.

The consensus from reunions, Hackmann said, is that for many, being a part of the tight communities in the co-ops was life-changing: “For some people it was the most important thing in their entire lives — like, they’d never been accepted before,” he said.

In the video above, we hear from current residents that reflect that opinion, as well as another alum of the co-ops, Lee Altenberg, about the special sauce of the cooperative houses: why they have persevered and what we can learn from the cooperative lifestyle.

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