By Rich Hannigan
Before my wife and I separated (as amicably as possible; my ex- is a terrific person and I’m grateful that she put up with me for 25 years), I lived in a great neighborhood in Wakefield.
Which, in a roundabout way, is why I’m looking forward to living at Bay State Commons, our cohousing community in progress.
My ex- and I lived in a cute, old (1925-ish) Queen Anne-style house. We had a half-lot of yard on the side, where we put in a vegetable garden with enough room left over for dogwood, redbud, river birch, pin oak and cedar trees. In summer, shade was abundant in our corner of Wakefield. In autumn, our yards were carpeted with the reds, oranges and golds of fallen leaves. In the spring, we would hear the songs of robins, mourning doves and mockingbirds, along with the occasional screech of a red-tailed hawk.
What made the neighborhood truly special was its social fabric. Every February, we helped our neighbors organize a progressive dinner—with appetizers at one house, dinner at another, desserts at yet another, and drinks at every stop along the way. Every June, our neighbors put on a collective yard sale, with folding tables and assorted “stuff,” ready to be cast away for a small price, on both sides of two adjacent streets. Every September, our neighbors threw a block party, often with a DJ and dancing in the streets. (Only once did we rent a bouncy house. They’re fun for the kids but dangerous, it turns out, for the adults: Just ask our neighbor, Maryellen, who badly sprained her ankle.)
If we needed a tool or a ladder or some extra chairs for Thanksgiving, we just asked. Running late after work? No problem, someone could pick up our daughter from school or soccer practice. Out of town during a snowstorm? Our driveway was plowed out by the time we got back. And in 2006, when my dad passed away, food appeared at our door, day after day after day.
Since I’ve been separated, I’ve lived in one of those new-ish apartment complexes. In its own way, it’s a fine place to live. It’s ridiculously close to the T and the Fells Reservation. It’s modern (goodbye, 1925-era closets!). And it comes with “amenities,” including two fitness centers, a business center, trash pickup at my door, a clubhouse, a patio with a gas grille and a fire pit.
But it’s not … a neighborhood—not in the sense that I experienced in Wakefield. It’s harder to get to know my neighbors. There are no progressive dinners, no communal yard sales, no block parties. I suppose that I could borrow a hammer or a screwdriver if I needed one, but I suspect my asking would be unexpected. If one of my neighbors lost a parent, I’m not sure if or how I would know.
When I decided that it was time to search for someplace new to live, I considered buying a house—maybe a small Cape, with a big-enough yard to garden? But I wondered: What if? What if I bought the perfect house, but in a neighborhood without the social fabric that I had found in Wakefield? How would I even know before making an offer? And what if my new neighborhood did have a strong sense of community? Neighborhoods change. People move on. Social cohesion can be a fragile and fleeting thing.
That’s when I stumbled upon Bay State Commons. I had Googled “cohousing near me” and up popped “Bay State Commons” in the search results. I checked out the website and sent in an email. Someone named Tom emailed me back and I came to a meeting.
I found a group of people striving to do something that’s very hard to do well: make decisions by consensus. People seemed open and honest. They disagreed with each other on this or that point, but did so respectfully, without rancor. And somehow—in a minor miracle of planning, organization and focus—they stuck to their agenda, keeping the meeting to two hours, just as they had planned.
As the months went by, I attended more meetings and social events; I moved from “prospective member” to “associate member” to “equity member;” and I came to better know Tom, as well as the other members of the group. But it didn’t take long for me to figure out that these were people who were intent on building with each other precisely what I was looking for: a real community, one bound tightly, but comfortably together by a resilient social fabric.
I’m looking forward to breaking ground with them; to sharing a garden and the fruits of our communal labors; to the comfort derived from knowing there’s someone around to lend a hand and always being willing to lend a hand in return; to being an extra pair of eyes and ears and hands for other parents, the way that my neighbors were for me and my ex-wife when we were raising our child; to the lighter burden of shared responsibilities and the hard work of shared decision-making; and to the blessing of living in a place where, as my favorite singer and songwriter put it, “nobody crowds you but nobody goes it alone.”
I’m grateful that I’ve found the community that I was searching for. If you’re looking for something similar, drop us a line.
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