Stairway to Haven

Inside the world of communal living at Penn Haven


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Photo: / 34th Street

The co–op used to be a frat house. From the outside, the Victorian structure on Woodland Terrace looks like it could host throbbing techno music and shouts of beer–breathed conversations. Instead, the sprawling, paint–chipped porch stays silent. Bikes lean against the walls. In the back, chairs circle a brick fire pit beside a patch of unruly plants that some members want to turn into a garden.

Once you step inside, though, it’s clear the co–op is a world apart from the buildings that line Locust Walk.

“Welcome to Penn Haven Housing Co–op!” a markered sign reads across from the door.

Black and white photographs of student protests are taped to the walls. In one, students swell the area outside of Van Pelt; the crowd swallows the library. “International Student Strike,” one is captioned. The wall beside a narrow staircase crams with painted figures: birds, amoebas, a female gender symbol with a fist in the center. A sign printed high on the wall of the living room reads: “In 2011, approximately 248 million turkeys were slaughtered in the US, and 35 percent of perfectly–edible turkey meat produced was thrown out.”

For the ten students who stay within these walls, where they live is more than the space they inhabit. The co–op is part of who they are.

Penn Haven defines itself as “a non–hierarchical consensus–driven, anti–oppressive living community.” It’s important that the residents share the same values—social justice, sustainability and, perhaps above all, “cooperative thinking.” The co–op is a commune designed to be an alternative to the rest of Penn—an oasis for different thinkers who might otherwise feel lost on campus.

The co–op was founded in 2011 by a group of students who were frustrated by Penn’s dominant culture. A co–founder told the DP in 2010 that she wanted Penn Haven to combat Penn’s “culture of complete misogyny” and “culture of excessiveness—sexuality, alcohol, greed and never wanting to stop.” Today, Penn Haven remains a secluded space, anchored more in West Philly than in Penn itself.

As Ella Konefel, a sophomore who moved into the co–op a month ago, says, “You’ve got Penn, you’ve got the main attitude at Penn that demands so much and then there are these pockets that go against the rest of it. And the pockets are dope.”

***

Penn Haven’s residents stem from all across campus. They are members of Greek life and leaders of environmental groups; they are engineers and sociology majors. When they moved into Penn Haven a month ago, most of them didn’t know each other.

The decision to live in a co–op seems radical, but for some residents, the choice was based on convenience more than anything else. Emily Vo, a junior in Engineering, stumbled into Penn Haven almost by accident. “I was having trouble finding pet–friendly housing,” she says. She found out that she could keep her dog at Penn Haven, and then learned more about what the co–op stood for. “The sense of community was surprising,” she says. “And I like sustainability, I like the idea of meeting new people.” Annie Freeman (C '18) came to the house because, aside from wanting to live in a community with shared values, she didn’t like the idea of a randomly–assigned roommate in on–campus housing; Berenice Leung (C '17, W '17) wanted a space she could feel comfortable in, but was also really drawn to the house’s system of communal cooking.

“It’s out of the mainstream Penn culture,” Peter Thatcher (C '17) says. “I was looking for something different. And it attracts a certain kind of person.” He slurps a spoonful from the bowl in his lap—a stew of tofu, cabbage and lima beans, cooked for him earlier that night by one of the residents.

Ella heard about the co–op while at a house concert in West Philly. She was excited by the idea of living with students in different grades—she had taken a gap year and lived in Mexico by herself, and after that, “It just felt weird living with only 18–year–olds,” she says. “It was a leap of a thing to do,” she says. “You go to live with these people, and nobody really knows anyone at the start. It’s really cool.” For Ella, the difference between the co–op and the rest of Penn lies in what people prioritize. “It’s kind of unusual for Penn,” she says. “Not that many people are focused on having this sort of purposeful lifestyle, like, I want to live this certain way, let’s really do that.”

For some residents, though, the desire for an accepting community led them to Woodland. Ava Dagostino, a College senior who uses they/them or she/her pronouns, said she came to the co–op because, “None of my housing experiences in the last three years were good. They ranged from okay to bad, and most of them were bad.” Ava had friends who lived in Penn Haven, and figured it “seemed like a nice place.” Importantly, the co–op would be trans–friendly.

Nancy is new to the co–op this year. “I was introduced to Penn Haven through a friend, and she’s also a queer woman of color,” Nancy says. Her septum piercing glints in the dim light. “I wanted an inclusive space, and I shared the values—I like sustainability, I like the culture of social activism. It feels very inclusive and very accommodating.” She laughs. “Oh, and I like cooking. Add that.”

***

Penn Haven revolves around food.

The co–op has an organized system of cooking meals. They buy bulk foods and order huge boxes of produce from local farms; they stick to a schedule of two people cooking per night. All the meals are vegan.

The kitchen looks like something out of suburbia—huge, tiled, pristine—only the contents of the kitchen table give away that this is a home for college students. On a Saturday morning, the kitchen table is cluttered with pepper, Himalayan pink salt, a bottle opener, glasses with the crusted remnants of wine or juice, the sports section of the DP, a textbook on political theory, a case for Beats headphones and a dried sponge. The wood shelves swell with boxes of tea, jars of cocoa powder, cans of oats. Cookbooks cram the shelves. Glittery nail polish sits next to a family–sized box of Cheerios.

The walls across from the kitchen table are decorated with stapled leaves and painted signs. One reads, “Unsafe jobs are not okay! We want this to end today.” Beside it, in blue and red marker, another says, "Sweatshops kill."

It’s in this space that the residents transition from housemates to friends. Mealtimes are when Penn Haven residents come together.

“I really like the process of gradually, with no pressure, just getting to know people,” Ella says. “It’s not going to happen all at once, but there are these little chunks of time when we’re eating together, we can just talk. The kitchen is a grounding space.”

***

At 9:15 p.m. every Sunday night, the co–opers assemble in the living room for their weekly meeting. They plop on the couches and against the stools; some sit cross–legged on the floor. Tonight, Annie is leading the meeting. They go around the circle, responding to her prompts: 1) How are you doing? And 2) Did you do your chore for this week? When they’ve all had their turn, the group looks around, staring at each other. Who’s the Shepherd for this week? They whisper to each other. Wait, hold on, the newer members whisper to each other, What’s the Shepherd again?

The Shepherd is the designated co–op member who calls on people when they raise their hands. The Shepherd rotates from meeting to meeting; they check a Google doc to find out whose turn it is this week. Then they launch into the agenda items. First up: Their doorbell’s broken. Do they want to file a maintenance request? After discussing the issue for five minutes, they raise their hands to vote. They’ll put in a request.

They cycle through other issues––the basement partially floods when it rains (“It’s kind of creepy at the moment,” Berenice says. “Last year, they had a seance there”), fixing the insulation previously held together by plastic wrap. The main discussion point of the night, though, is the upcoming housewarming party. They spend forty minutes discussing, and then voting, on every element that goes into a party:

What time do they want to start? (“We don’t want it to turn into a rager,” they agree. “We don’t want people to go to other things first and show up tipsy,” Annie adds.)

Should they have it in the living room? In the kitchen? With a fire pit outside? (If they have a fire pit, they smile at each other, they can make s’mores. But can they make sure the s’mores are vegan? Berenice says she once went on a Philly–wide food tour to find honey–less graham crackers; she knows a store on 43rd and Walnut Streets.)

Who’s going to make the Facebook event? Who should they invite? (Close friends, they decide. “It’ll be good for social cohesion to meet each other’s people,” Peter says.)

The dog scampers up and down the stairs as they talk, at one point trailing along the edge of the couch.

Should they buy alcohol as a co–op? (Berenice found a handle of vodka while cleaning the living room today. They’ll buy more.)

Will they get disposable cups?

Should they have bottles of beer, or mixed drinks—which is better for the environment?

When will they clean the house, as a group?

By the end of the discussion, the co–opers are slumped low in their seats. They run through their last agenda items quickly: updating their website, getting communal access to their email account. They struggle with where to buy airtight food containers (“They’re cheapest at Walmart,” Annie says, “But personally, I don’t like Walmart as a company”).

By the end of the meeting—their checkout questions involve how they felt the meeting went and what they’re doing for themselves in terms of self–care—the group looks around sheepishly.

“I guess we’re done?” they say.

***

Ella walks her bike back from breakfast at the Green Line Cafe in time to complete part of her chores for the week. She’s already cleaned the bathroom; her role today is to take a peeling green bucket of compost to the composting facility at 43rd and Pine Streets. The trek to 43rd Street is out of her way—she has a lot of work to do, and she’ll spend the rest of the day holed up in Van Pelt. But she doesn’t mind.

“It’s nice to be able to contribute what you can,” she says. She looks over her shoulder at the house, smiles. “It’s worth it.”


09-29-2016, co op, commune, coop, essentials, features, front, front page, frontpage, haven, home, home page, homepage, news, Penn-Haven, top, top stories, top-news, topnews, topstories

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