A way of living

Print edition : May 07, 2004

Inside a collective in Hamburg. -

Community living is not a just a low-cost option for Germany's homeless. It offers an alternative survival strategy and embodies a vision of living that does not destroy nature, oppress the weak and create hierarchies.

THERE was no street or house number. Yet, it was not difficult to locate Wohngemeinschaft Jung und Alt, a place of communal living for 15 people in the age group of 24 to 70, in Hamburg, Germany. The house formerly functioned as a kindergarten, but has come to epitomise the merits of communal living, since the 1980s.

The house stands facing one of Hamburg's many canals, the Osterbekkanal, and is situated close to the famous city park, equivalent to London's Hyde Park or New York's Central Park. Past a wild garden, children's sand-pits and some high trees, the two-storeyed house comes into view. There is an informal, casual air about it. On the ground floor, there are three living rooms, furnished in as many ways as there are persons. The stairs lead to a common room with only a blackboard and facilities to play indoor games. There is no television set to provide a glimpse of the world outside, only a grand terrace with a broken glass roof. Students and teachers, architects and government officials, technicians and pensioners - all occupy the living rooms on the first floor. Cooking, cleaning and shopping are done in turns. The costs are worked out once a month and shared. Anyone who wishes to have any special food item pays for it. Rubbish is sorted out for recycling.

There are a few dos and don'ts: No one smokes, and alcohol is drunk only in moderation. A typical meal consists of plenty of fruits and vegetables, and rarely meat. The arrangement sounds simple and uncomplicated, but is the result of a complex process of learning and de-learning.

It was Ulrich Schmidt, 75, who inspired community living and intervened at several critical stages to make sure that it sailed through successfully. Most community living projects are torn apart by differences among the residents. Schmidt, a retired journalist, who was in the German Youth Movement and in the military service, and participated in the war, during which he lost a leg, says: "People who wish to live in a community can only do so, and it can be made a lot easier if they are public-spirited, ready to learn from others, prepared for communal ownership, open, tolerant, and willing to lend a hand. It is simpler if they are considerate to others. However, they must also be prepared to take a stand for what they believe in, value giving more than having, feel responsible for themselves and their community, be aware of their environment, think and act for the cause of peace and world solidarity, and know how to value the advantages of a simple life."

An old house in Berlin, which is now occupied by a collective.-

HAMBURG'S Wohnemeinschaften (residence collective) is not an exception in Germany. Various forms of community living emerged in the country during the 1990s, and have continued to be in existence ever since. They are not of course the `communes' of the 1970s, or bearers of the political and social ideals of that period. Nonetheless, they have an alternative vision through which they are trying to make it possible to live and do things differently in a world that has changed dramatically. They are exploring ways of living that do not destroy nature, do not exploit and oppress other human beings, do not create hierarchies, inequalities or unhappiness. There are no official figures available on the number of such collectives or the number of people who live in them, because the concept of a `chosen family' has no place in the government's scheme of things. Thus, there are no regulations covering this form of community living. Estimates of the number of such collectives vary from 50,000 to 100,000. They are of different kinds - those in which people live together and meet the living costs jointly, those in which they live and earn their livelihood together, rural collectives, alternative collective economic projects, dwelling projects, and non-economic social and community enterprises. While in no way can they be called a `movement', they do have some collective ideals and principles such as equality, common ownership, ecological sensitivity, social and political justice, cooperation and division of labour.

The collectives are capable of catching popular imagination. Even a small experiment like that of Schmidt's has takers in Hamburg district. A `House for Young and Old' was opened at Ottensen, a Hamburg district, in 1998. Twenty-three people belonging to different age groups and incomes moved in it together. Schmidt started an association with 10 persons in 1984 and now it has more than 100 members.

Wohngemeinschaft Jung und Alt began in a rented, two-storeyed house in 1984. A devastating fire ruined the place, and the group moved to a new place, which it owns now. There are several ownership patterns: a group of people register themselves as an association, which then owns the property; economic collectives are in the form of a company, where the owners and the workers are the same and have a stake in the company. (At times one person owns the place or the company, but there are several internal arrangements to ensure that the spirit of equality is maintained.)

PEOPLE have different reasons to choose to live in a collective. It is hard to differentiate between economic and political motives. For a woman like Ulri, who lives in the Hamburg Collective, it is about being in a place free of the patriarchal order and one that is conducive to learning. Besides, it is light on her purse.

Middle-aged Lilo views the house as a large family of select relatives, a house where one can live alone and still not be alone. She also finds it extremely economical. "Living in an old people's home with hospital and nursing charges would have cost me at least 54 euros a day. But here I pay 88 euros a month for food and an extra 215 euros for my room, which is 27 square metres in size, and the common space. That means 303 euros for accommodation and food. A place in an old people's home would cost five times more," she said.

In Cologne, there are the Emmaus Collectives, which are formerly occupied houses that have been bought and regularised and where more than 200 people live. In one of these collectives, there are 43 persons - workers, teachers, unemployed persons, youth and volunteers from non-governmental organisations - living and working together. There are some who have been living and working almost on a permanent basis for the past 10 years and others who stay only for a short while. Everybody gets an equal share of the money earned from common tasks, which is distributed on a monthly basis. Guests, activists and volunteers visit the Emmaus house frequently, but they have to live in the simple way that the other residents live and contribute to community work.

What are the common tasks to be performed at the Cologne collective? Deter, one of the members of the core group, took this writer to the common workshop where television and other electronic items are repaired, and other work like upholstering is done. In another new, profitable enterprise, they have developed a workshop to recycle discarded glass bottles or old newspapers and magazines on a commercial scale. There is a big and a small conference room, which are regularly rented out to other organisations. According to Deter, each of the 20 core-group members is able to raise 300 to 400 euros every week from such ventures.

Ulrich Schmidt, who made the concept of community living a reality.-

Sozialistische Selbsthilfe Koln (Socialist Self-Help or SSK), another collective in Cologne, has more than 250 people, mainly homeless persons, immigrants, trade unionists and social activists. At first the group occupied an old but livable house in the centre of the city, working against the designs of real estate agencies and the city development authorities. There were just 30 persons in the beginning, but in their struggle for an equitable housing and urban policy they became the centre of gravity for a whole lot of marginal people. Regular conflicts with the local government authorities in the early 1990s made life difficult, with arrests, detentions and chargesheets becoming a regular feature.

However, they have now been able to establish themselves in the locality, both economically and socially. "We try to live collectively a self-determined life. We earn our livelihood and the money that we need for political actions. We do not take any help from any government authority or any party, and try to live entirely by our own labour. Decisions are made by majority vote on all important issues and till now this has worked well," says Heffa, a woman member of the collective.

With an upsurge in different kinds of green alternative movements in Germany, the SSK has consciously taken up various ecological projects. For example, collecting old and discarded furniture and selling it at low prices, which makes both economic and ecological sense, or, collecting kitchen waste from the neighbourhood and producing compost out of it. The SSK wants its waste removal work to be recognised officially by the city authorities so that it is entitled to the support of the urban waste disposal systems, not harassed by the police, and is paid a proportionate part of the garbage removal fees that the citizens pay.

Germany saw the rise and fall of the students' movement, the Beat-Generation, the Beatniks, the Provos, the Hippies, the Diggers, the Underground and the Kabouters from the 1950s to the 1970s. The collectives of today may have some elements of the 1960s and the 1970s, but increasingly they stand on a new ground. Thinner in number, and more diverse in social backgrounds and political visions, they are not directly an outcome of any big socio-political movement. When the official unemployment figure is increasing, inequality is widening, and homelessness and social insecurity are rising, the collectives offer survival strategies for the subalterns and the struggling people. However, their dream to create another world in some concrete way and to reject the oppressive present, is making a comeback. Schmidt, Deter and more people like them have dreamt of this for the past 10 years or so. There is room for hope that the vision will emerge in many more places, not just in Hamburg and Cologne.

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