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The Co-Option

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Issue: 31 Section: Environment Geography: Quebec Montreal Topics: cooperatives

October 5, 2005

The Co-Option

A Montreal housing co-op experiments with sustainable living

by Juliet Lammers

Co-op resident in the co-op's spacious communal area. photo:Dru Oja Jay
Marc, a stout curly haired redhead, is alone in the huge communal living room when I arrive. It is messy with people's stuff, building materials, signs, notes, posters, garbage pails full of grains, random works of art, and the occasional quote, scribbled haphazardly on the walls. "Death is imminent, wake with fervor", one warns. The room feels warm, alive, and free.

"This is one of my favourite spaces in the house," says Marc. There are four large couches and countless easy chairs and beanbags throughout the room. A couple of turntables and piles of records are set up in one corner, while another corner is host to a small library. Six large windows and a huge skylight over the kitchen flood the room with warm yellow sunlight, while a refreshing breeze blows through the middle. The dining room table has space for fifteen.

Co-op Genereux is a housing experiment initiated by a group of students exploring sustainable living practices. The co-op began as a spin-off of a larger project called MUCS, McGill Urban Community Sustainment Project. Since MUCS is still in its planning phase, some of its founders decided to put their research and theories to practice. By June 2003 they had gathered a group of ten guinea pigs that were committed enough to the project to each lay down a personal loan of $2,000 to finance Sur Genereux's beginnings. Next they secured a five-year lease for two 1600 square foot loft spaces and convinced the landlord to allow them to make the necessary renovations to house a large community of people. "We wanted to be able to finance the project ourselves, we wanted to avoid loans in order to be completely autonomous," explains Spencer Mann, one of the founders.

Loft beds are the fashion at Co-op Genereux, where an eight by eight foot space marked or divided by colorful curtains and tapestries could be home to two people. There are nine bedrooms for fifteen people. Each bedroom houses one to four, depending on its size. "We do have to forsake some intimacy," Marc, a more recent member, admits. "It is both fun and difficult. It is definitely a more efficient way of living. You have access to a much greater pool of resources. There is always someone around with the knowledge and tools to do whatever needs to be done. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts," Marc laughs.

What the co-op members forsake in space and privacy they reclaim in financial reward. The average monthly cost of living at the Genereux Co-op is $320. This includes rent, bills, three telephone lines, high speed wireless Internet, and three square meals a day, five days a week. Monetary gain is not the only advantage to having fourteen roommates. Both Marc and Spencer spoke of the experience they have gained in group facilitation and agenda setting, not to mention such other worthwhile skills as cooking mass amounts of food, making homemade soy milk, building walls and doing renovations, drying herbs, and the plethora of skills and abilities inherent in a group of fifteen. "It is interesting in terms of resource use," Marc explains, "In North America people don't tend to share things. Here we share everything from books and music to space and food. It teaches one to be conscious of the space one occupies in terms of both things and behavior."

Dish washing is a part of the co-op's chore rotation. photo:Dru Oja Jay
The group has weekly meetings to discuss house logistics, politics, and long-term planning and visioning. They rely on 100% consensus to make their decisions and have developed facilitation roles and a series of hand gestures to help their meetings run smoothly and efficiently. Co-op Sundays are a recent invention, where those who can get together to toss a Frisbee in the park, to participate in skill sharing workshops or anti-oppression training sessions.

Mealtime is at the heart of the community. Five out of seven days a week a team of two to three cooks prepares a meal for the household. They always make enough for thirty so that anyone may feel free to invite guests and to ensure leftovers for lunch the next day. The food is vegan in order to accommodate everyone. There are two other kitchens that people use for personal cooking and snacking purposes. "The meal preparation and clean-up take about four hours, but you only have to do it once a week, the rest of the week you come home and sit down to a warm meal," says Spencer.

The cleaning responsibilities are divvied up to one chore per week per person. Spencer admits, "The chores are what we struggle with the most. Sometimes it is difficult to keep everyone accountable for their share of the cleaning. It is important to find a level of cleanliness that everyone is comfortable with and can live with."

Beyond being an interesting experiment for the young and daring, the Co-op Genereux is a model of an alternate lifestyle possibility. "There is a narrow range of lifestyles that is perceived as fulfilling, happy, healthy, and feasible in North America. We want to explore possibilities and provide options by putting different ideas into the world," explains Spencer, "This type of lifestyle acknowledges the impacts of choices we make in our lives about everything from food, to money, to decision making, to socializing. It is freeing to acknowledge and understand the destruction of communities and eco systems and to then be empowered to make changes."

Spencer also speaks of communal living as a remedy to the loneliness and disconnection that many in urban society feel. "It is challenging, but also a very powerful experience. Living with so many people broadens the caring that I feel. Some of my roommates come from very different backgrounds and situations. Cooking together, building beds, and throwing Frisbees connects us on a more personal level and makes me feel more connected to their differences and changes. It is powerful to have such a sense of community. It is a very tangible feeling. They care about me and I care about them."

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