A look inside Brown’s co-ops

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Walk into West House on a Friday night for open dinner, and residents will likely be sitting in the living room singing “Let It Be” or “Yellow Submarine.” Some might play Scrabble as they sing, while others piece together a puzzle. The scene may be reminiscent of family life, but it is actually a glimpse of the community living offered by cooperative housing at Brown.

The program house, located near the intersection of Brown and Meeting streets, is one of three co-op houses and the only one managed by the University. The other two co-ops are owned by the Brown Association for Cooperative Housing, a nonprofit corporation consisting of the approximately 30 residents in the two houses: Watermyn at 166 Waterman Street and Finlandia at 116 Waterman Street.

According to BACH’s Web site, the 1960s cooperative movement inspired student activists to initiate the association as a Group Independent Study Project in 1970. The co-op philosophy is based on the idea of synergy, which holds that working and living in a group is more meaningful than living alone. The co-ops appeal to students who seek a more tightly knit community or an alternative to residence halls.

“Most of us grow up in cultures where it’s all about ‘me,’ where independence and self-sufficiency are great virtues,” said Marc Carrel ’07, a resident of Finlandia who has lived in all three co-ops. “Here we work on being cooperative, collaborative.”

“The co-op model is very important in terms of identity formation and finding a community,” said West House resident David Schwartz ’09. “We’re never held accountable in dorms, but here you have to think about how your actions affect people.”

Residents say this cooperation is manifested in their required housework. At Finlandia, residents and food co-ops, people who eat but do not live at the houses sign up weekly for household chores such as cleaning, cooking or food shopping. “It takes some adjustment,” Carrel said. “I can’t just leave my mess here. It’s a learning process.”

For Benjamin Savitzky ’08, a resident of West House, the biggest challenge is when people neglect their jobs. “This has felt more my own than anywhere I’ve lived, including the home I grew up in,” he said. “But when people don’t do their jobs, the house can’t function. These jobs need to happen. If they don’t, the system crashes.”

Savitzky said this interdependence creates a strong bond among residents. “Everyone is equal here,” he said. “There is something bonding about working together, managing a house together.”

For Savitzky, this bonding happens mostly over food. “That’s my social life,” he said. “Spending time with people I love over food – buying it, preparing it, cooking it, eating it.”

Co-op residents cook and eat meals together every night. Eating at a co-op costs around $400 per semester, compared to $1722 for the largest Dining Services meal plan. Because eating at a co-op is cheaper, houses consider financial need when reviewing applicants.

“At Finlandia, we weigh race, co-op experience, financial need and sometimes gender,” Hannah Mellion ’09 said. “We then pick names out of a hat. If you have a factor that’s weighted, you get an extra slip.”

West House’s application process is similar to that of other on-campus program houses. Prospective residents fill out an application, and the house board decides who is accepted. “It’s the worst thing in the world,” Savitsky said. “It’s hard to choose 10 or 11 people out of 20 to 25 qualified applicants.”

Currently, 12 people live in Finlandia, 15 live in Watermyn and 12 live in West House. Of the three, Watermyn has the fewest Brown students: only four residents are enrolled in the University. Nine of the 12 Finlandia residents and all West House residents attend Brown.

“Because Watermyn is farther from campus, it has less Brown students and draws an older crowd,” said Heather Vail ’07, housing coordinator of Watermyn. “That’s its selling point and its biggest reward: Getting to know a lot of people who live in Providence and go to different schools, who bring different experiences to the table. When you live in a house with 14 other people, you’re never really lonely because there is always somebody around.”

Vail said living in a co-op requires a significant time commitment. “You are expected to do house jobs, and the houses are old. So a lot of things are falling apart,” she said. “That sometimes can be more trouble than it seems, but the community is totally worth it.”

Vail lived in Finlandia last summer and moved to Watermyn in the fall. She was also part of a food co-op at West House as a sophomore. “What drew me to co-ops was originally the fact that the food was vegetarian,” she said. Vail enjoyed the co-op’s tight-knit community so much she decided to move into one.

“Even though freshman units are pretty close, the community in a sophomore dorm wasn’t very prevalent,” she said. “There is such a great family atmosphere here.”

Carrel also cited the community as party of why he lives in co-ops. “It is one that is caring and accepting, one that doesn’t make you conform,” Carrel said. “Even at Brown, that is a pretty rare, extraordinary thing.”

Caroline Schepker ’09, who will be living at Finlandia next year, said she was “turned off by the institutionalized feeling of dorms.”

“This is more like a house, and I think the aesthetics of the environment you live in really make a difference,” she said.

Residents agree that living in a co-op is a great experience. Vail said she recommends it, though it may not be for everyone. Carrel said he will “absolutely” live in a co-op house after college.

Savitzky puts it best. “I can’t imagine what direction my life would’ve taken if I hadn’t gotten involved in a co-op,” he said. “This is my Brown experience. This is me.”

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