Thanks to The Awl, the word is out: Summer Commune is coming to Moscow, Idaho in June. Because we’re young (late 20s, early 30s), creative, restless, and like coffee—I guess—some have said that throwing a Summer Commune just sounds a lot like hipsters mad that Williamsburg is full.
Because of hipsters (I have to sigh in exasperation before I can even type that word)—or the commonly held perception of hipsters—gentrification is commonly understood as something purely sinister and predatory, rather than something unfortunate & complex that often happens in urban areas where “starving artist” types and the working poor or otherwise marginalized find themselves co-mingling inadvertently. Sometimes uncomfortably.
I should know. I am a gentrifier.
At the end of the first summer after college, I wanted to move from the 2 bedroom 5th floor walk up I shared with 4 dancers beside the Metro-North in Harlem, and managed to upgrade to a 2 bedroom in Brooklyn where only 3 people lived (me, a painter, and a student at Fordham).
We lived in a beautiful pre-war limestone not far from Prospect Park and the Botanical Garden, in the only neighborhood we could afford to live in and still feel safe at night. It was a predominantly black neighborhood notorious for the architecture and the violence at the annual West Indian Parade (before which our landlady advised us to “Get out of town”). The only nearby grocery story was a Western Beef. Beside the train there was a Chinese take out place and a laundromat; no coffee shops or bars or feminist book stores, yet.
We didn’t know it then, but we were early adopters. My two roommates belonged to the only white faces I ever saw on the block. As in Harlem, I blended in—full disclosure: I am black—but I felt an unexpected and nagging guilt for having brought them there. (I hadn’t, really; it was totally a group decision. But still.) When we all moved out a year later—I went to Mexico, one roommate moved to Connecticut for grad school, and the other, to Flatbush—at least two of the homes on our block appeared to have been sold or rented to white gentrifiers. For the next occupants of our former apartment, our shrewd landlady had raised the rent about 60%.
When, a year later, I left Mexico for Los Angeles with Josh, we wanted to pretend we still lived in New York; we wanted to live in Los Feliz, or Echo Park, places where we could use public transportation (yes, LA has that) or walk to get to our favorite bars, restaurants, and venues.
But he was basically a professional blogger and I was a writer—like, the kind that hopes her short stories will be published without payment—and I had just spent my life’s savings gathering material in Latin America. We moved into a non-descript 1 bedroom apartment on a block equally settled by Armenians and Central Americans.
In our building we became among the first of what would be, by the time we moved out, a steady stream of young, mostly white, middle class, young professionals—creative types, student types, tech types, the usual. Even the building manager was actually an illustrator. They were drawn to the area for the same reason we were. It was cheaper than Silverlake—where struggling musicians like Elliot Smith paved the way for future legions of cheese shops, record stores, and vegan patisseries—but still within walking distance of Sunset Junction.
We watched eviction notices go up on the doors of apartments around us; we watched brown families load their belongings into the backs of vans; we watched as newly vacated apartments were hastily remodeled; we watched as a small, bean shaped pool was put in.
And we knew what we were: gentrifiers.
But we also knew that if we moved somewhere else, we wouldn’t change that. We were disadvantaged by our career choices, not systemically, but we were still too broke to move to the neighborhoods where the damage had been done. Where the poor had already been squeezed out by rising prices, so were we.
For the past year and a half, I’ve been in grad school. I live in graduate housing (aka dorms for grown ups) and haven’t had to grapple with this dilemma for some time. Josh and I spent last summer in Berlin because, even with the crap exchange rate, it’s cheaper than SoCal; artists can live pretty much anywhere there. For this reason, among others, Berlin offered us a kind of life that I had never been able to realize in New York or Los Angeles.
We only had to work part time (we had internet jobs) to be able to afford our pick of cool, fun neighborhoods. We could go out at night and still have time for our own creative projects during the day. And we wished that we could have that back in the USA. While we were still in Germany I was already anticipating spending summer 2012 in America, somewhere quiet and affordable, where I could finish my first book without worrying about visas.
I told Josh this; he said, “Let’s bring our friends.” His idea was to make cool/fun happen wherever we went. A few months later, Summer Commune was born.
Now more than 100 people have expressed interest in the project, and the number of people who will be joining us in Moscow over the course of the summer is still growing. Communers will find temporary rentals to live in via Craigslist, like we did.
The assortment of people who have already signed up say they’re planning to spend their time in Moscow making music, writing poems, throwing art shows, teaching play writing, developing start ups, tending gardens, networking, and making new projects on the spot. Much like when we gentrified, now we’ll get to drink cheap beer together instead of spending more than half of our paychecks on rent. But because our stay is temporary, it’s not gentrification.
While Summer Commune lasts, we’ll be a micro-community within the community that exists. “We won’t leave a lasting physical footprint this summer, though we do hope our ideas will linger.” “Our goal is to integrate with good will into the community that exists, not to impose ourselves upon it.”
And if some Communers do decide that Moscow suits them longer term, they probably wouldn’t transform the real estate landscape in a measurable way. It’s not cheap to live in Idaho because white people haven’t “discovered” it yet. In fact, Summer Commune might actually make mostly-white Moscow temporarily more diverse.
Summer Commune, at its core, is about collaborative community. But it’s also about the spirit of travel—about seeing new places, meeting new people, gaining new perspectives. Yes, we know we could make friends and have potlucks at home, because we already have. Now we’re looking for something new; something unexpected; something different, yet familiar. This summer, it’s Moscow. Next summer, who knows.