Why I Loved and Left the Commune
I first heard about the Convent, an artists’ collective and living space in the Lower Haight, at a “global peace party” called Earthdance. I was 23 at the time and vaguely homeless; my plan was to cruise from festival to festival and this one was at a Vallejo fairground. I met a long-haired, elfish type there selling crystals and pendants. He was a member of the Convent. At that point I had decided – based on intuition or something equally nebulous, possibly Tarot cards – that I belonged in San Francisco. The Convent sounded like a safe haven for the progressive and weird, a utopian extension of the festivals I’d been attending, where we could each be whatever kind of freak we wanted.
From that point on, the idea of the Convent and collective living began, however insidiously, to represent San Francisco for me. I’d grown up in New York and I saw San Francisco as something like a massive intentional community, full of donation-based yoga, community gardens, and cannabis clubs. San Francisco has long been a beacon for young idealists and nomadic types; I was no exception.
I moved to San Francisco and lived in several parts of the city, subletting rooms for a couple of months at a time, my belongings moving through a series of garbage bags. A year later, I had trouble with a landlord who wanted to raise the rent, and I decided to leave my apartment. I had lost touch with the pendant vendor, but a friend called someone at the Convent, where, she said, there were usually open rooms.
There are 20 rooms at the Convent and roughly 23 members at any given time. I had been to a few crowded, labyrinthine parties there since my festival days, events that included Klezmer bands, fire spinning, and seminude women in gold body paint. I was aware that it housed a glass blowing station somewhere, as well as a music room. It was a space in which living adventurously seemed essential to making art. I had been seeking out people with similar convictions for some time, but never felt cool enough for the collective. Once it became an option, I wanted only to join. I was an aspiring writer working at a restaurant, still relatively new to the city, and looking for a creative community that was more interested in experiences than security.
The application process was like rushing a sorority, something I had always hoped to avoid. It involved a written application, a speech, and a few visits to the house to see if I “vibed.” Although I was supposed to impress everyone, I was aware that I should vibe most with Michael Latronica. He was the cheerful installation artist and studio manager who rented the structure, which was built in 1937 as an attachment to the Sacred Heart Church, and converted it into a live-and-work space in 2010. I suspect that I seemed mellow and New Age enough. My friend from Earthdance, when we reunited, greeted me warmly. So it worked out, and soon I was in my own cell, sleeping in a nest of towels, knocking myself out with red wine and saltines.
The Convent is an outwardly bland, two-story cube. The interior is dark and gothic, with long hallways, an abundance of open and closed doors, and labeled staircases for visitors who tend to get lost. I spent my first week there getting lost too, and managing sensory overload. I was afraid to introduce myself to roommates I hadn’t met. I couldn’t always find my room. We had studio space in the basement, a fire pit in the backyard, stained glass windows in the chapel, and sacred geometry murals on the roof. Clouds of incense floated through the halls, down the spiral staircase, and out the door into Oak Street. “Welcome to the family,” someone said, and then my family was a congregation of hot, affectionate strangers in their 20s and 30s, and my house was a playground for adults.
My early days at the Convent were full of oxytocin-related joy. At home, I was almost always hugging or being hugged. San Francisco, seen through the prism of the Convent, was pretty much what I had imagined it would be. I was swept up in the privilege of constantly socializing and of belonging to a group of people who had managed to do (or were trying to do) what they wanted: photographers, videographers, painters, musicians, installation artists, engineers. Together we went to shows and potlucks, costume parties and bars. Sometimes we would rush home after outings to “make art,” which meant, more than once, a kind of slam poetry. The house was full of music. It smelled like palo santo and sage.
Between the Convent and the Center, a sister collective in the former rectory next door, we were a group of about 50 people. The Center focuses on the healing arts, the Convent on visual art and music. The two houses shared a local network large enough to put on acoustic concerts, film festivals, and figure drawing sessions with models who accepted payment in feathers and bones. I gardened and cooked for the house. I wasn’t consistently writing, but instead, I told myself, “taking notes.”
My home circumscribed my world. It was a changing, volatile thing.
Although they’re essential to the Bay Area, communes and collectives are more vulnerable to entropy than other homes. Many disintegrate because of power struggles, ideological conflicts, disorganization, or money problems. In the year I spent at the Convent, we suffered from all of those. A dozen people moved out. New members moved in. When SXSW arrived, and almost everyone left to support housemates playing the festival, the house was overrun with subletters and their friends. I would find kids in hemp pants in the kitchen at four in the morning looking for the water. A rash of bitter emails followed: “This house feels like a hostel,” someone wrote. And then 21 people would reply, and reply again. I would sit in my cell, compulsively checking my inbox when I was supposed to be working. This was not the kind of collective formed in the interest of lowering the cost of living. My rent was almost a thousand dollars a month, which, as a freelance writer (that is, a hostess), was depressing.
Our first serious power struggles began when Latronica moved to the Center. Without a definite leader, a few people tried to take excessive control and responsibility. Others, like me, participated too little. Fewer and fewer of us came to the biweekly house meetings, when, ideally, someone would cook and we would get drunk together and talk pithily in turn. We had a chore chart; it was neglected. Some offenders were almost expelled from the collective. We bought a stripper pole and a trampoline. I had little time to use them – or the toys, maybe, had lost their appeal. The house changed daily. The Convent was a transient place, sometimes rewarding, sometimes exhausting, with a slippery core. It was supportive creatively, then distracting.
Perpetually broke, I spent almost all of my time working, which meant that I was also cranky and sad. I began to count the times I heard the words “magical,” “amazing,” “beautiful,” and “rad.” The house smelled like palo santo and shit. “Jesus loves you,” one new guy would tell me, every day. I had been intoxicated by San Francisco’s hippie culture, and it was gloomy, withdrawing from this version of it, sobering up.
An increasing number of strangers subleased rooms while permanent members traveled or tried to save money. I turned quiet and reclusive. The subletters would ask if I was subletting. I collected reasons to leave. The toilets were backed up. The planter boxes in front of the house seemed to be growing hypodermic needles. It had been over a month, but the house still hadn’t recovered from our last party: Black velvet hung haphazardly from the walls, and there was a bloody handprint on the bathroom door.
In July, I moved to an apartment in Oakland. The day before I left, while I swept my empty room, I remembered my first night in the nest of towels. I wandered the house, and threw myself on the seedy couches in the basement, and went to the roof to watch the sun set with the garden beds I’d built when I first arrived. It was nostalgia at its worst. The Convent was the only place I had stayed, in my adult life, long enough to catch my breath. It is still the place that is most San Franciscan to me, equal parts harmony and chaos, crystallized in the way that one housemate, when I collided with her in the kitchen, would say, “We’re dancing.”
Now that I’ve moved out, it’s easier to remember what I love about the Convent and collective living. At its best, the Convent is an eccentric, supportive tribe, home to a spectrum of working artists just coming into their personhood – painting their first murals, playing their first big gigs, selling their first pieces – and to the more established ones who act as mentors. The atmosphere, when I lived there, was opulent and filthy and tender and proud, like San Francisco, city of the sweet and lovely and slightly stoned. The Convent is the place where I was youngest, where I had my second adolescence, and where my second family lives.