Utopia Has a Web Site: Commune Life on Staten Islandby Jonah Owen Lamb
Carl Peckham stands behind the front counter of Every Thing Goes cafe placing dirty coffee cups and plates into a stainless steel industrial dishwasher. A tall, pale-skinned redhead with a neat beard, Carl, 31, came to New York City from Topeka, Kansas to live on a commune called Ganas on Staten Island, where he and 100 others have made their home.
“I came to Ganas for one of the core values here, co-operation,” says Carl.
Ganas started in 1979 with a group of like-minded friends living in San Francisco committed to finding a new way to live. Today they are a nine-home commune implementing a quiet revolution in the corner of a metropolis. Among them are a research scientist, a retired chiropractor, a reporter, a nurse, and a retired engineer.
The nerve center of Ganas is 139 Corson Street, a three-story colonial clapboard house in a working class neighborhood of single-family homes shaded by mature maples and oaks. From the crest of the hill at 139 Corson, container ships and tankers passing to and from docks in New Jersey can be seen plying the waters before the Bay Ridge skyline.
Ganas, which means “a will strong enough to take action” in Spanish, spreads out across this hilly neighborhood, where the commune’s busy presence is hardly noticed. In the dozen or more buildings the commune owns on the northern tip of the island, a micro-economy of cooks and workers, cleaners and maintenance men keep Ganas running smoothly.
In a city where isolation and competition are common, Ganas has set out to create a model of alternative living built on cooperation and community. It’s a political statement. That’s partly what drew Carl here.
The community has four rules: no violence; everyone carries their own weight; all problems must be brought to the group; and nothing illegal. A core group of 15 members runs the commune. Anyone can join the core, in theory, and the commitment has some up sides—one, you become an owner of the property. But you have to share your income with the core, itemize your spending, and ask the group’s permission when you want to spend more than $100.
“We share our money, we share our resources, and we share our time,” says Susan Grossman, one of the founding members.
At 7 on a recent Wednesday morning, a dozen members of Ganas share breakfast in the main dinning room, where they eat daily meals together. Nina, Susan’s three-year-old daughter, squirms upside down in her chair. A fruit bowl sits on top of a coffee table in the center of the room. Spoons clink against cereal bowls.
“I need help around my work in the clothing store, so that bad feelings don’t consume me,” says Aviva, her hands in her lap. Aviva, an Israeli in her late 30’s, has a curly mass of untamed brown hair. She has been waiting to change jobs for some time. She can’t deal with taking directions from Peggy, who is sitting three chairs away. Aviva doesn’t know how to handle her feelings, so she’s come to ask the group for help.
The group jumps in, asking questions, positing opinions, trying to figure out why Aviva is having this problem. Your experience is shaped by how Peggy and you relate, someone says. Aviva nods her head. This kind of dissatisfaction is common in your life, someone suggests. Aviva nods again. The whole time Peggy sits quietly to Aviva’s left, listening. After 15 minutes have passed, Aviva says that she has had enough and the discussion comes to an end; just like that, the conversation shifts to the mundane.
“The refrigerator in 144 is broken again,” someone says. Susan, who sits near her squirming three-year-old daughter, lives upstairs on the second floor of 139 Corson. She is a smiling woman with short, straight brown hair and the remnants of an accent from her hometown of Jersey City. The 52-year-old physician is head of residency training at St. Vincent Hospital on Staten Island. Like others at the commune, she sees Ganas as several things: it’s a political statement and an experiment in alternative living, but it’s also her community.
“We wanted to live in a different life style than the nuclear family,” said Susan.
By 10:30 that morning, Carl and a crew of six are unloading furniture from a truck. Carl backs down the truck’s ramp, holding the handle of a tipped dolly with a cabinet on it, looking back over his shoulder and watching his step. At the bottom of the ramp he angles the dolly toward a warehouse and rolls the cabinet inside. The other workers follow him carrying lamps and tables.
Ellen, a middle-aged dwarf with brown hair and a healthy sense of humor, stands on the sidewalk directing the truck’s unloading. Ellen runs the commune’s furniture shop. Traffic passes as she flips through yellow sheets of paper on a clipboard, checking off each piece and then calling out where it should be placed inside among the ceiling-high stacks of furniture. The basement of the warehouse buzzes with the hum of repairs.
Later, over a lunch of fried noodles and eggs at a nearby residence, Carl sits with Brian, another member, talking about Ganas. Brian admits that a lot of people feel like they’re getting screwed. They feel like they’re being exploited. But he came to Ganas knowing the deal and didn’t expect anything more, he says.
The majority at Ganas are not part of the core. A third of the commune members work within the community or at one of the commune’s stores and receive room, board, and a $300 monthly stipend; the others work outside of the community and pay $710 a month for room and board. Some members think the core really rules from the top down. But that’s not their intent, say the core. “You’re not my tenant and I’m not your landlord,” says Susan.
“We barely even make minimum wage,” says Carl.
Justin, a new resident with straight graying hair and yellowing teeth, says he’s disappointed by Ganas. He sees little community here. There’s no art or music or parties, he complains. “No one looks like they are happy here.”
“Fun activities are whatever people create,” reads the Ganas web site. “We have parties…celebrate birthdays extensively, tell jokes, and often just enjoy each other a lot.”
To Ganas members, communicating means more than frank talk. In action, “communication” looks like group therapy. It looks uncomfortable and invasive. And, for many years, it was expected of new members. Those new to Ganas would share their life story with the group, who would respond by picking apart their issues and deciding how those issues should be dealt with. By “killing their buddhas,” it was felt, Ganas members could begin to take control of how they reacted to the world.
For most of the commune’s history, until she left Ganas in 2001, the creator of this theory, Mildred, directed the buddha-killing sessions. Now she returns once a week to conduct “feedback learning” at the commune.
On a Wednesday evening in a dimly lit room on the top floor of 139 Corson, Mildred holds court. At 83, she has curly red hair, thin down-turned lips, and attentive, inquisitive eyes. She leans back in a chair, the collar of her tan coat turned up, a green scarf wrapped around her neck. She wears unobtrusive gold-rimmed glasses and speaks with an aging New Yorker’s scratchy accent. To make a point she waves a limp index finger in the air. But mostly she listens. Her husband, 40-odd years her younger, sits at her side.
A slight man in his early thirties is speaking to the group, but he is looking at Mildred. His whole life, he says, quietly, has been geared toward social approval. You’ve mapped out your life as it was supposed to be, according to someone else’s map, says Mildred. He thinks that at 35 he should have a good career, a house, and a wife. That doesn’t have to be your fate, Mildred says. But how, he asks, do we live without a map?
The session carries on like this, as outside the evening’s full moon illuminates the faces of 15 people standing in a staggered line across the road. It’s just after dinner and many have just put down their plates inside 139 Corson. They are unloading pallets of Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee; buckets of tofu sloshing in water; and heads of cabbage, wrapped in plastic, into a basement filled with shelves of ketchup, bread, toilet paper, and 13 humming industrial refrigerators. Boxes of cereal and soymilk move quickly up from the white van. “Tooth paste to tampons,” says one resident.
“We are not all liberal, granola, commune hippies,” says Russ Jackson, a big man who moves with a slow purpose as he delivers food to each house in a red plastic shopping basket. Russ is in charge of food distribution and knows intimately the different tastes and moods of the community.
“We got some weird people who live here and they have some weird habits that would not be accepted outside,” said Melissa, 29, the youngest core member. “Each house has its own personality,” she says.
Of the problems on this Staten Island commune, most say it’s nothing that they can’t live with. “This place has flaws,” admits Matt Sweeney during an evening smoke on the porch of his commune-owned house. But he’s “done the search,” he says, and he hasn’t found anything better—most other communities are “cultish, religious, totally vegan, or in the middle of nowhere.”
ContributorJonah Owen Lamb
Jonah Owen Lamb is a New York City-based writer born on a boat in Sausalito, California, a small town on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge.