NY Times

September 28, 2006

On Campus, Finding Face Time in a Virtual Age


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 sensibilities.

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 “noncooperative.”

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 themselves.”

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 Décor apparently has yet to come; on the other hand, graduation is a gateway to a lifetime of beige.