Generosity meets practicality in the East Bay’s new economy.
Once, the American dream was all about individual ownership. Success meant having your own house, your own car—and certainly your own gardening tools. But times are changing (thank you, economic downturn; thank you, global warming), and so are ideas about what we each need to possess. Members of the growing less-is-more movement include six North Berkeley homeowners who have taken down the fences surrounding their adjoining properties on a tree-lined street to create a “compound” with a shared yard, vegetable garden, and hot tub. Good friends since they met about 30 years ago, these companions have been staging a quiet revolution since the mid-’80s, gradually purchasing adjacent homes so they could share their lives on an informal, daily basis. Included in the group is Annie Leonard, creator of the popular anti-consumerism video, “The Story of Stuff.”
“Why should I buy a Cuisinart or a vacuum cleaner? They have one,” says 51-year old immunologist Jo Anne Welsch, gesturing toward neighbor Andre Carothers. “We all save money. By sharing, we all own less stuff.” Among these households, the types of sharing that happen without much fuss or planning include caring for one another’s kids, lending everything from a pair of tights to a car, inviting others for a home-cooked meal, and advising one another on real estate, editing, and medical care.
The lifestyle isn’t for everyone. From time to time, says Carothers, 52, a nonprofit management consultant, someone he doesn’t know shows up at his house on the recommendation of another neighbor. Carothers welcomes this type of surprise but “someone with a traditional perception of ownership and space wouldn’t fit in here,” he says. “Someone who’s upset if their Cuisinart is gone.”
That reminds him. He turns to Welsch. “All of my forks are miss-ing,” he says. “Do you have them?”
“Yeah, probably,” she responds. “I’ll look for them.”
As evidenced by arrangements like Welsch’s and Carothers’s, the trend toward neighborly cooperation is flourishing in the East Bay. Locals are sharing cars, tools, appliances, and even chickens; they’re swapping produce, books, and home repair help. Some arrangements are casual; others are based on written rules. Friends or neighbors often create their own sharing plans, while other setups are organized by a city or nonprofit.
The phenomenon embraces old-fashioned neighborly values and eco-friendly attitudes; it also has something to do with economic hardship and lightning-fast email. But whether the motivation is to save money or save the planet, sharing opens up possibilities that don’t exist when folks fly solo.
In the bigger picture, sharing offers profound advantages that may not be obvious, says Jason Marsh, editor-in-chief of the online magazine for U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “A lot of research from psychology, evolutionary biology, and even mathematics suggests that our tendency to cooperate with each other is prevalent across cultures and a key factor in the survival of our species,” says Marsh.
“Even subtle connections with neighbors create a network that over time brings not just practical benefits but also feelings of reward, belonging, and improvements to our health and longevity,” he adds.
Not, you understand, that the “practical benefits” are insignificant. “You can do a lot of things you would never try on your own,” says Luan Stauss, 50. The owner of Oakland’s Laurel Book Store, Stauss started a cooperative home repair group seven years ago in her Maxwell Park neighborhood in Oakland. Shared brawn and brains helped her team of six households tackle projects from pulling out a tree stump to designing and building a fence. At Stauss’s home, the group has showed up to repair her patio roof, landscape the garden, and install drip irrigation.
Stauss got the idea to form a co-op when she and some friends volunteered for Christmas in April, a nonprofit (renamed Rebuilding Together) that repairs the homes of elderly and disabled residents. “We realized that we could be doing this for ourselves, too,” she says. “We’re willing to help each other out, and we don’t all have to own a chainsaw or a wheelbarrow.”
After organizing a group in Laurel Park, Stauss took the idea with her when she moved to Maxwell Park in 2005. Her notice on the local listserv led to the formation of three groups, and hers is still going strong. Each household proposes one day-long project per year, with additional prep work if needed. One member of the group is a skilled electrician, a few are generally handy, and the others have learned by doing. “Everyone has become much more self-sufficient,” says Stauss, with her characteristic quick smile.
Self-described “sharing lawyer” Janelle Orsi, 32, helps people create legal agreements for barter, cooperatives, and sharing. Orsi has a knack for explaining complex legal issues using simple, hand-drawn cartoons. She co-founded and directs Oakland’s Sustainable Economies Law Center, and says it’s essential for everyone in a group like Stauss’s to be on the same page about expectations. “Any time people are investing significant time or resources it puts them at risk for coming into disagreement,” says Orsi. “It’s important to be clear about what each person is putting in and getting from the group.”
As a law student at U.C. Berkeley, Orsi lived in co-housing, sharing a washing machine, vacuum cleaner, tools, garden space, and meals. Her studies focused on social justice and she was struck, she says, by the extent to which our society, with its plentiful resources, doesn’t provide for all its members. In 2009, Orsi and attorney Emily Doskow co-authored The Sharing Solution, a book filled with hands-on help and creative ideas for people who want to share goods or services.
Lucky for Stauss’s Maxwell Park home repair group, Doskow is Stauss’s life partner, so the group got free advice about getting organized and coming up with a list of expectations. These rules were especially useful early on—for example, one person didn’t attend several of the required work days and subsequently left the group before anyone had to ask. As members have gotten to know one another, flexibility has increased. “If you have people you can trust, you don’t have to be really rigid,” says Stauss.
Another form of friendly swapping takes place through the Bay Area’s local time bank, the Bay Area Community Exchange, one of the five largest of about 130 time banks nationwide. “With no money trading hands and just an agreement and some trust you can trade hard products for soft brainy stuff,” says California State University instructor and permaculture expert Fred Klammt, 61, who recalls swapping red cedar logs and branches for web programming. The 900 members use the exchange’s website to list services they’re offering as well as items or help that they need. In this economic system, all labor is valued equally, so an hour of plumbing might be exchanged for an hour of gardening, or an hour of cooking swapped for an hour of massage.
Although people start out by carefully tracking hours, friendships often develop, leading to a less formal give and take. Of course, not all exchanges go smoothly—Klammt was irked when someone sent him a proposal with a dollar amount for work that should have been traded.
For some, a time bank or other form of barter is a way to learn to bake or get a haircut. But for people who are un- or under-employed, an exchange can keep skills fresh and offer a sense of purpose. And, for those without ready cash for essentials, barter can provide access to meals, transportation, or health care. Orsi notes that last fall, as Greece was hit with an economic crisis, several barter networks arose there, allowing people to use an alternative currency to offer and receive food, child care, computer help, and a host of other goods and services.
How common are these various forms of exchange? “We don’t know what portion of the economy is constituted by barter,” says Orsi. “The thing about the informal economy is that it’s largely under the radar.” However, Orsi says that she gets frequent requests from individuals and organizations who want advice on setting up an online barter network, a time bank, or alternative currency. (One local currency, Bernal Bucks, encourages shopping in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Residents who shop with Bernal gift certificates or a Bernal Bucks debit card support local businesses and gain rewards of five percent on bucks spent.)
While some turn to experts like Orsi for help with legal agreements for co-housing or other major investments, others set up shares on their own. Lynne Elizabeth, a 62-year-old publisher who lives in Oakland, shared a used Prius with neighbor Elaine Kurtovich from 2005 to 2008. “When we first decided, we weren’t even sure people could co-own,” says Elizabeth, who quickly learned that both the Department of Motor Vehicles and insurance companies make car sharing fairly simple. The DMV has a form for co-ownership, and an additional driver can be added to an insurance policy. The two women divided their expenses down the middle, agreed that one could eventually sell the car to the other at the Kelley Blue Book price, created a system for gas costs, and reserved the car on a shared online calendar. Because neither woman commuted by car, conflicts about its use were limited to weekends, and were handled with a can-do attitude. “We’d figure out a way to make it work,” says Elizabeth.
Matt Nichols, a 49-year-old transportation planner for the city of Berkeley, supports car sharing at work and at home. One of the original board members for the nonprofit City CarShare, Nichols rents his South Berkeley driveway to that organization. Along with four of his neighbors and many other CarShare members, Nichols uses the car as needed, reserving it in advance for an average cost of $6.50 per hour including gas, insurance, and repairs. “There’s a big element of self-interest; I hate owning a car,” says Nichols, a self-described environmentalist who rides his bike to work and lives near BART. When his car was stolen in 2005, Nichols did the math and realized he could save more than $2,000 per year by renting through CarShare. “I like the communal aspect,” he says, “but you can be selfish, too. You don’t have to be noble to do this.” The downside—advance planning, lack of flexibility—are worth the benefits. “I save a ton of money and a ton of hassle,” says Nichols. “I don’t mind thinking through a few details.”
For those who want to share in a more casual way, neighborhood swaps are convenient and fun. On a bright December morning, about 25 people, toddlers to seniors, gather at Berkeley’s Ohlone Greenway. Hoisting bags laden with chard, tomatoes, herbs, paperbacks, sweaters, and hats, this small crowd is ready for the monthly swap organized by the group Transition Berkeley.
“It’s a way to create abundance from scarcity,” says Berkeley resident and organizational psychologist Nan Cowardin-Lee, 58, who arrives by bike with her husband Jeffrey, a massage therapist. Cowardin-Lee donates dried oregano, two dresses, beet green seeds, and baking apples. She goes home with two shirts, a dress, a scarf, two persimmons, two bunches of kale, a jar of honey, and a book about herbs.
Transition Berkeley, which hosts the swaps, was formed last year by residents Susan Silber and Linda Currie as part of the international Transition movement, a collection of neighborhood and city-based groups trying to become more self-sufficient and less dependent on oil. To this end, members of Transition groups—branches also exist in Albany, Richmond, and Oakland—advocate growing food, learning to fix and build everyday things, and collaborating and sharing with neighbors.
For about an hour, swappers peruse and chat. A group of women discuss the best way to cook a pumpkin as others confer over book choices. Berkeley resident Andrea Paulos shows her niece Penelope, 3, and her daughter, Mabel, 11, that the fleece hat, summer shirt, and purple sweater the little girl outgrew and donated are now being worn by an even littler girl.
At the produce table, a group debates whether a rounded, light-green squash is a pepina or a pepita, and Barbara Edwards, co-author of From Tree to Table, discusses crop swaps as a great way to see and taste all that grows in Berkeley. In warmer weather, she says, people bring pineapple guava or feijoa, along with figs, pears, lemons, and an assortment of apples.
Even local governments are getting into the sharing act. Chelle Putzer, community services manager for the city of Albany, brings personal passion to the idea that urban neighbors need to connect. Thanks to Putzer’s vision and energy, Albany actively supports block movie nights, a garden swap, and a seasonal dinner swap.
When Albany resident Pam Tellew, 50, approached Putzer to suggest a clothing swap and free events where people could learn new skills, he readily agreed.
“People are capable of doing a lot more for themselves than they think they can,” says Tellew, who homeschools her two sons and stepped up to help with coordination. The Albany events (known as “skill shares”) have featured presentations from volunteers versed in everything from backpacking to knitting to how to select shoes (this from a podiatrist). Upcoming gatherings will focus on home repair and maintenance, keeping backyard chickens, and soap making.
In Richmond, swapping takes place at the local library—but seeds are exchanged, not books. A project developed by the Richmond Rivets Transition group, the library “lends” vegetable, herb, and flower seeds. To keep the inventory up, volunteers show borrowers how to return new seeds from the plants they grow.
For people who want to make sharing a daily practice, one solution may be right in the backyard. Silber of Transition Berkeley has taken down part of her fence to accommodate a three-way chicken-raising project with her next-door neighbor and a friend who lives across the street. She also trades babysitting and meals, and works at The Hub, a shared office space in Berkeley’s David Brower Center.
Sharing enthusiasts would like to see people rely on one another more than they do. “We should ask more of each other,” says Carothers, referring to the members of his Berkeley compound. “I can’t think of one thing we couldn’t accommodate.”
Paulos, who came to the Transition Berkeley swap with her daughter and young niece, lives the kind of cooperation that sharing theorists describe. As someone who grew up poor in a family of 10, Paulos says that swapping and sharing are not new concepts to her. “I have scrounged and swapped and worn hand-me-downs my whole life,” she says. “I make it a practice to offer my stuff and to ask for stuff I need on a regular basis. We share our truck with the neighborhood, and borrow the wagon/shovel/down jacket/ soap/whatever in return. The world would be an amazing place if everyone just looked right next door and saw, really saw, who was there and what they need.”
Rachel Trachten, who lives in Berkeley, is a frequent contributor to The Monthly. She often shares her backyard lemons.