Pubdate: Thu, 28 Sep 2006
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2006 The New York Times Company
Author: Ginia Bellafante
Bookmark: (Students - United States)


Austin, Tex.

WILL STOVALL, a history student in his fifth and final year as an 
undergraduate at the University of Texas, returned from studying in 
Mexico last fall determined to go to law school. In service of this 
goal, he resolved to work harder, which meant he would have little 
chance to see old friends or to acquire new ones, and that, in turn, 
seemed to require a very particular kind of domestic arrangement.

"My thinking was that I wouldn't have time to make a social life, so 
I needed to have people around," said Mr. Stovall, who looks as if he 
has spent much of his life on the verge of hoisting a spinnaker. 
Instead of renting an apartment, the custom for most seniors, he 
moved into French House, one of 15 cooperative living facilities run 
by students on the university's campus. "People shudder when I say 
this," he said, "but a co-op is very much like a frat, without all 
the fratty people."

After a fallow period in the 1980's and much of the 90's, residential 
co-ops, where students cook and clean for themselves, have undergone 
a renaissance at the University of Texas and on other campuses across 
the country. About 10,000 students are living in co-ops in the United 
States and Canada, said Jim Jones, former executive director of the 
North American Students of Cooperation and a historian of trends in 
communal living. That figure is roughly as high as it was during the 
two liveliest periods of the co-op movement: the late 1940's, when 
cooperative housing emerged as a cost-efficient alternative to 
dormitory living for returning G.I.'s, and the late 1960's, when the 
culture of shared ownership embodied the era's anti-authoritarian 

The current interest in co-ops stems in part from the economic 
imperative that rising housing costs have wrought. But more than 
anything else, students suggest, it has grown up in reaction to the 
alienating aspects of modern campus life, where the increased 
presence of technology, while enabling certain kinds of connection, 
has had a hand in limiting others.

In Austin, the sense of social dispersion is especially acute. Fifty 
thousand students attend the University of Texas, though it has room 
for fewer than a fifth of them. This means that students seeking 
rental apartments in the city's booming real estate market, where a 
1,000-square-foot apartment near campus may command $2,000 a month, 
are often forced to live 20 or 30 miles away, divorced from any 
semblance of collective life. And dormitories at the university, 
chief among them Dobie, a glass tower that reaches up into the city 
skyline like the headquarters of a global bank, are typically likened 
by students to nursing homes or prisons.

Close to 650 students now live in co-ops at the university, which has 
one of the oldest and biggest systems in the United States, and the 
operation is undergoing an expansion. College Houses, one of the two 
nonprofit bodies that own and oversee co-ops in the area, is 
developing a $7.8 million building that will accommodate an 
additional 100 students. The project is set to receive financial 
assistance from the city of Austin, which, in an unusual move, has 
made funds available to promote student co-ops as part of a larger 
affordable-housing initiative.

"I think that I felt lost at U.T.," said Mr. Stovall, who first lived 
in a co-op in his sophomore year. "I remember at one point returning 
to my dorm -- which is so big that it's rumored to have its own area 
and ZIP codes -- and thinking that surely college would get better than this."

College co-ops, Texas' among them, began to spring up during the 
Depression as a means of providing students with low-cost housing. 
They have typically remained cheaper than dorms, but in recent years, 
Mr. Jones said, he has seen students choose co-op life even on 
campuses where the opposite is true.

"It's not just that people are arriving on big, anonymous campuses, 
but the homes these kids are coming out of are more isolated," Mr. 
Jones said. "One of the problems in American society today is that 
people don't eat together anymore. It's the whole bowling alone 
thing, and co-ops are one of the few places where people can really 
come together."

The simple matter of a shared meal -- making it, clearing up -- 
undoubtedly draws students to co-op life, many of whom, particularly 
at large universities like Texas, envision the alternative as a 
sandwich eaten alone in a sterile apartment. Even at the university's 
larger co-ops, which can accommodate more than 100 students, members 
eat together every night, the rotating kitchen workers among them 
spending up to four hours preparing dinner.

At Texas, no matter the size of a co-op, students must contribute 
four to six hours of cooking, housework or building maintenance a 
week. Assignments are made at the beginning of each semester when 
students voice their preferences to a household "labor czar" who 
works out an elaborate schedule and is responsible for coming down on 
lax members and implementing a fine of $10 to $15 for every hour of 
work missed. Students can pay a housemate $10 to do their work for 
them, but few do because such behavior is considered distasteful and 

For anyone with a certain idea about the free-ranging spirit of 
American college life, the taste for bureaucracy and logistics among 
co-op members can seem staggering. "One of the things that amazed me 
when I came here," said Alan Robinson, the general coordinator of 
College Houses, "was that so many students wanted to impose rules on 

In addition to a labor czar, each house has various managers and 
officers, committee and subcommittee delegates, as well as a 
representative who serves on the board of either College Houses or 
the Inter-Cooperative Council, the other umbrella organization 
through which the co-ops here function. In most houses, regular 
meetings are held to discuss paint colors, parking, guest policy, 
labor infractions and ways to market co-op life.

"It's work, it's a lot," acknowledged Ana Wolfowicz, a senior living 
in Pearl Street, a 120-member co-op with its own pool. "But there's 
not an R.A. telling me when to turn the lights out, and we decide if 
we're going to buy a TV or organic coffee. No one is doing that for us."

Members can also decide whether the ornery or impertinent among them 
should be submitted for review. The choice of one condiment brand or 
another can prompt impassioned debate. Recently, at Pearl Street, 
there was much discussion over how to handle students who might use 
drugs. A few weeks ago one member called the police to report the 
smell of marijuana in a nearby room.

Such an act would have seemed unimaginable 30 years ago on the 
premises of Pearl Street, easily the most storied building on campus. 
Originally constructed as a women's dormitory in 1961, the house, 
called Mayfair House then, was home to Farrah Fawcett in her 
undergraduate years. Later it was reinvented as a co-op known as the 
Ark, where in the late 60's and the 70's beer replaced soda in the 
vending machines. By the 80's drug habits were so pervasive in the 
Ark that it was shut down in 1988 because of "anarchy and building 
destruction," as the brochure for College Houses puts it.

French House, the co-op where Mr. Stovall lives, is in many ways 
emblematic of a new ethos in student communal living, one in which 
social hedonism, commitment to a vegetarian diet and a monolithic 
political view no longer hold as the predominant conventions. French 
House is also known as the carnivore's house; meat is served every 
evening. Ten of its 20 residents attend the Hill Country Bible Church 
nearby every Sunday. Dating within the house is discouraged. "The 
stereotype is that we are hippies and drug addicts," said Patrick 
King, an art student and one of Mr. Stovall's housemates. "We are 
neither hippies nor drug addicts."

The new co-op that College Houses is about to build will rise seven 
stories, with every two floors functioning as a co-op with its own 
kitchen and the ground floor for mingling. Phillip Reed, a local 
architect, found inspiration for the building in a giant jungle gym 
he saw at the Burning Man festival, but the specifics are being 
dictated by his client: a board of students who have asked for ample 
outdoor space, common areas and courtyards where they can show movies 
and watch bands. The building has been designed so that moving 
through it will enhance sociability, because sociability is the 
students' primary concern.

"Students now come to college with a whole set of different 
expectations," Mr. Reed said. "They want a double bed, their own 
bedroom, a walk-in closet" -- some of these amenities are available 
in co-ops, some not -- "but what they don't want is forced isolation."

Nor, it seems, do they have much interest in the cool palette of 
modern interior design and the lack of intimacy it implies. One way 
that co-op members in Austin in 2006 seem similar to their 
counterparts 30 years ago is their choice of appointment. Batik 
thrives, so too Che posters, acid wall colors and sofas seemingly 
rescued from meth labs. To visit the bedrooms in many houses is to 
think one has stepped into a Tunisian massage parlor.

The co-op by way of Elle Decor apparently has yet to come; on the 
other hand, graduation is a gateway to a lifetime of beige. 
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