Names Give Life to Cooperative Spirit in Owendale, New Harmony Communities

PHOTOS BY DAVID THOMPSON

“New Harmony” is what they called it, and nearly a thousand people lived there at the peak of its popularity in 1825, on the banks of the Wabash River in southwestern Ind., where visionaries from all over the world gathered to experiment in the ideals of cooperative living.

Nothing at New Harmony was more important than the education of children, for both boys and girls, who studied side-by-side – a radical concept for its day. The leaders practiced science. They valued art. They emphasized equal rights and responsibility. To live in New Harmony, you had to be kind and courteous. You could say what you want, as long as you also listened.

Today, some of the spirit of the New Harmony community of two centuries ago still thrives under the banner of Mutual Housing California in two developments in Davis. One took its name from Robert Owen, the Welsh-born icon of the international cooperative movement. The other, the New Harmony Mutual Housing Community honors the community in the wilds of the American frontier, where Owen and his family and supporters and hundreds of followers put their utopian theories into practice; where their ideals helped launch the careers of practitioners such as Owen’s oldest son who later became a prominent abolitionist and a U.S. congressman from Indiana.

Top: Owen Building: The Robert Owen Hall is located in Newton, Wales, United Kingdom. Above: This name plate designates the birth place of Robert Owen, the Welsh-born icon of the international cooperative movement.

To be sure, the traditions of education, self-management and leadership development live on in all 19 Mutual Housing communities in Sacramento and Yolo counties. At the two Davis locations – the Owendale Mutual Housing Community and the New Harmony Mutual Housing Community – the concepts are embedded in the historical implications of their very names.

“Discovering the story of Owendale in our midst – the spirit of hope and the spirit that change is possible, and that it is possible when there is respect for individuals, and where there’s a voice, and where people can practice that voice – it renews the sense of values that make Mutual Housing what it is and what it wants to continue,” Mutual Housing California CEO Roberto Jimenez said. “All this time, that spirit has emanated from Owendale and from New Harmony.”

The naming of Owendale and New Harmony – it didn’t just come out of nowhere. David J. Thompson, a Davis resident and longtime advocate for cooperative enterprises, was president of the Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation in the late 1980s when the organization decided to pursue the creation of an affordable housing enterprise in conjunction with the city of Davis. Thompson, it turned out, was a huge fan of Robert Owen, one of the leading figures in the worldwide cooperative movement that took hold in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 

PHILIP CLAYTON-THOMPSON

When Twin Pines spun off Davis Mutual Housing Association to develop and manage an affordable housing community, and when the city awarded the property at the Albany Avenue site to Twin Pines, it was Thompson who suggested that it be named in honor of his hero.

Thompson, 76, is a native of the county of Lancashire, England, which is also the home of the world’s first consumer food cooperative, called Rochdale, which was founded in 1844. He also was a board member of the Davis Mutual Housing Association, and he thought that merging of Robert Owen’s name with the name of the historical experiment from his home-county made sense some 178 years later in the land of California.

“I would have called the place Rochdale, but that wouldn’t sound so good to Americans,” Thompson said. “Americans pronounce ‘Roch’ as ‘roach’ rather than as in Scotch. It would make you think of cockroaches, and nobody would want to live there. Owendale, though, just sounds lovely.”

Top: Owendale opened in 2003 in Davis, Calif. The community has 45 units one- and two-bedroom apartments and three-bedroom townhomes and is home to 92 residents. Above: The Owendale community recently underwent a $2.7 million upgrade in which all the apartments were remodeled with features that include extensive energy and water-saving improvements.

Owendale opened in 2003 with its 45 units that are now home to 92 residents. The Owendale community recently underwent a $2.7 million upgrade in which all the apartments were remodeled with features that include extensive energy and water-saving improvements.

Construction on New Harmony, meanwhile, began in 2011 and was completed in 2013, at a site right next door to Owendale. The new community’s 69 units house 179 people. Green Builder magazine honored New Harmony in2013 in its “Home of the Year” awards. Solar panels at the site produce around 80 percent of the community’s electricity.

Thompson was no longer affiliated with Mutual Housing when New Harmony opened and had nothing to do with the naming of Owendale’s next-door neighbor community. That distinction went to Kim Coontz, who was then the executive director of the Yolo Mutual Housing Association, (YMHA) which would later merge with the Sacramento Mutual Housing Association (SMHA) to form the current Mutual Housing California.

Koontz wrote at the time of the New Harmony opening that the name “reflects the efforts of SMHA and YMHA to bring the two communities together.”

“By naming the new project ‘New Harmony,’ we will be preserving the connection between Owendale and the new development and the symbolic links to the cooperation and community,” Coontz wrote. She is now the executive director of the California Center for Cooperative Development.

And it all goes back to Robert Owen.

By the time Owen moved his cooperative way of thinking to Indiana, he had already gained a reformer’s reputation when in 1799 he turned his father-in-law’s textile mill in New Lanark, Scotland, into a laboratory of social change. Owen’s first move was to fix what had been the deplorable housing and sanitation conditions for his employees. Then he reduced their work day. For the children, he raised the minimum work age from 5 to 10, and he made sure they went to school. Owen pioneered early childhood education with an emphasis on character development, taking them in as young as 2-years-old and turning the natural world and everything in it into their classrooms.

In 1824 Owen learned that the original founders of New Harmony in Indiana were abandoning the cooperative living project. He made a $150,000 offer to basically buy their town from them, and the next thing he knew he owned 20,000 acres and 160 homes and other assorted buildings. On his trip from Scotland to the Wabash River, he stopped in Washington, D.C., to give a talk on his theories about utopian socialism. It was quite a crowd that gathered to listen, one that included the president of the United States, James Monroe, three former presidents (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison) and one president elect (John Quincy Adams).

At New Harmony, Owen sought to create what he called a “community of equality.” Its founding principles included such concepts as equal rights for women, community property and equal pay for equal work, as well as sincerity, kindness, courtesy, order, learning and obeying the law. The community made its living off agriculture and manufacturing, but ultimately, it failed, when its people dissolved into factions, and when Owen himself sewed a spirit of disunity with his attacks on what he viewed as the evils of marriage and religion. By mid- 1827, the New Harmony experiment was over, and Owen had returned to England to pursue his version of cooperative economics.

Many of the scientists and others who tried to make New Harmony work advanced into notable careers. The most prominent among them was Owen’s son, Robert Dale Owen, who was elected to Congress in 1842 after writing and speaking for years on subjects such as free public schools, birth control, the rights of women to property and divorce, universal suffrage and – most notably – the abolition of slavery. As a congressman, Robert Dale Owen introduced the bill that led to the founding of the Smithsonian Institution. After the Civil War, he was appointed to the forerunner agency of what became the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist the former slaves in their transition to freedom.

In assessing the Robert Owen legacy, Thompson said that the godfather of the cooperative movement tried to make pure demo-cracy work but that it was a tall order with an idealistic population that he said had “not enough sense of economic responsibility.”

“Robert Owen had a fascination for building utopian communities here on earth in his lifetime,” Thompson said. “He wasn’t happy just to write about what they looked like. He wanted to build them, to carry out a utopia on earth. They all ultimately failed. Building a perfect community in an imperfect world, he found out, was just not possible.”

While perfection may be unattainable, the Mutual Housing model continues to create opportunities that translate into stronger communities. Affordable housing is the necessary first step in that equation. Once it is achieved, residents in Mutual Housing communities live together in a supportive, possibly even a cooperative fashion, where education is paramount, where leadership is developed, and where a sense of responsibility is created. It’s happening at Owendale, at New Harmony and at all 19 Mutual Housing communities.

“It’s not just about the housing,” said Jimenez, the Mutual Housing CEO. “It’s about the people who live in the housing. We can design communities that facilitate community engagement and foster a sense of community and possibility. That’s what the programs are actually designed to elicit.”

Andy Furillo is a former newspaper reporter who is now a writer and communications consultant. He wrote this article for Mutual Housing California.

 

Housing Cooperatives are Shining Examples of Community

The Concept of cooperative community living has produced self-sustaining communities.

A community can be defined as, “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common goals for maintaining a living environment.” Even brief attention to most news outlets can leave one with the feeling that the fabric of America is being ripped and shredded. Fortunately, we who live by and/or support the cooperative concept see a different picture within our communities based upon the Rochdale Principles. No other form of multi-family housing has successfully removed the profit as an underlining motive from consideration. Cooperatives are democratically controlled, and, therefore, the residents make the decisions as to what they want and keep budgeted monthly charges as low as possible to remain affordable to its members in perpetuity.

Additionally, that democratic control ensures that each member has a voice and that their concerns regarding how the community is ran are heard. By their design, cooperatives are inviting living environments, insulated from much of the divisive behavior that is plaguing our country. We stand as a shining example that people can exist as “we” rather than “us and them.”

To ensure that our communities sustain that sense of harmony and security, we must be vigilant in our efforts to create programs within our cooperatives that are intended to educate our members and their families. It should be hoped that the children of our members would become members of the cooperative when they’re faced with the decision to make housing choices. Some NAHC member cooperatives enjoy multi-generational membership. This is a testament to the strength of those cooperative communities. NAHC can help your cooperative create these educational opportunities. We have many publications and traveling training sessions that will help you maintain your cooperative’s cohesiveness. Simply visit our website and look for the Education tab. There, you will find links to training opportunities for your cooperative. Additionally, many regional associations offer publications, training and one-on-one coaching opportunities for you to review. Cooperatives also are encouraged to buy copies of publications or make copies for cooperative member occupants. Go to the Publications tab for back issues of the Cooperative Housing Quarterly, the Cooperative Housing Journal, the Cooperative Housing Blog and the bookstore.

As you engage with the youth in your communities, strive to prepare them for cooperative living by involving them in the business of the cooperative. Young cooperators should understand the type of homeownership they enjoy and that their families have chosen. This understanding will result in a sense of pride. That will pay huge dividends to any cooperative housing community. When the youngsters buy-in, you truly have achieved community.

The Rochdale Principles open with, “Voluntary and Open Membership.” The mere fact that cooperative communities are open to all is an example to the surrounding neighborhoods of what community should be. Therefore, if we’re all in it together, the us/them feeling cannot exist in a community that is supported by this principle. Cooperative boards are encouraged to adopt policies that guard against community division and that foster inclusiveness that addresses every family.

You’ve heard the saying, “There is power in numbers.” NAHC calls upon its members to increase the number of thriving cooperative communities. Use the resources available to you. Get training where needed. Partner with your towns, cities and county governments. Raise the banner of cooperative homeownership high for all to see. Be cooperative-proud.

Fred Gibbs
NAHC President