The Jersey Utopians Aspire to be More Than Just Fantasy

Visions of communal living run smack into a wall of financial and zoning-board reality.

Illustration by Fabio Consoli

Steve Welzer had always wanted to play in a rock band. The retired computer programmer has jammed on keyboard and guitar with various groups over the years. But geography—the distances people are willing to travel to play—eventually split the musicians apart.

That’s one of the factors that aroused Welzer’s interest in communal living. Like others in New Jersey’s so-called co-housing movement, he envisions a community where human resources are pooled. It would be an ideal place where resident musicians like himself could amble down a path to be with neighbors and play.

The desire to cobble together perfect unions is nothing new in America; we’ve been trying to do just that since the Constitutional Convention. Sometimes the goal is an entire nation. Usually, the union is something smaller, such as a community formed around a specific utopian ideal.

In the current century, such communities—sometimes called intentional communities—take different forms. But almost all envision daily interaction among neighbors, fewer cars, frequent communal meals, and some form of consensus-driven decision making. Few are totally isolated from the outside world. Typically, the communities rely on nearby municipalities for schools and utilities.

“It’s all about human scale,” says Welzer, an East Windsor resident who started a meet-up group called EcoVillage New Jersey in 2014. The group now has 500 members. The vision, he says, is “not really utopian, but just a way to get back to village living.”

If only it were that simple. In recent months, as members of EcoVillage New Jersey tried to turn their vision into a reality, they repeatedly ran up against enough stumbling blocks to put an end to anyone’s dreams.

Separately, Abe Gruswitz, 41, of East Orange, has also been on a mission for several decades to build an intentional community, but with a more radical vision. Gruswitz is committed to social justice. He wants to create two multiethnic communes, one in Newark and one on a farm in northwest New Jersey. All property would be shared, down to the food in every refrigerator. Homeless people would be invited to share in the community’s bounty as resources allow.

Gruswitz has about 1,400 followers on his Facebook page, ​but just two co-organizers. He says he is “looking at what our resources are.” That could mean personal loans from members, loans from family and friends, crowdfunding, or funds from other sources like credit unions or banks.

Welzer, 68, and Gruswitz are the latest in a long line of New Jersey utopians. In fact, the Garden State ranks behind only California in the number of utopian efforts it has spawned, says Perdita Buchan, author of Utopia, New Jersey: Travels in the Nearest Eden (Rutgers University Press, 2007). Historically, says Buchan, “most ideas came from New York and Philadelphia”—but it was New Jersey that had the cheap land.

North American Phalanx, established in 1843 in Colts Neck, was a secular utopian commune modeled on the ideas of a French philosopher named Charles Fourier; it was damaged by fire 11 years later. Later, Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author of The Jungle, founded the Helicon Home Colony in 1906. Sinclair’s community in Englewood burned down after just five months. A third high-profile community, Stelton, was the Piscataway outpost of the Modern School, an educational experiment founded by New York City anarchists, Emma Goldman among them.

Then there was—and still is—Free Acres, formed as a “single-tax commune” in 1910 in Berkeley Heights. Lawyer and activist Bolton Hall, who donated a farm he owned to start the community, believed that, as Buchan puts it, “the only fair tax was a land tax.” Free Acres has had a remarkable history of attracting artists, writers, theater people and assorted eccentrics. While it’s no longer “this quirky place where left-wing socialists came to swim nude in the summer,” says Cheryl Venter, the community’s treasurer, “it does take a certain kind of individual to pursue a property here.” Free Acres remains an “experiment in social living,” she says, with 85 households. They hold monthly meetings at the community farmhouse—one household, one vote—and continue traditions of bonfires, potlucks and a Halloween parade.

the state’s colorful history of intentional communities doesn’t make starting a new one any easier. The current aspirants don’t have a Bolton Hall to deed over his farm, or an Upton Sinclair, who donated the proceeds of The Jungle—$16,000, or $442,000 by today’s standards—to start Helicon Home. Modern utopians are stuck seeking financial backing from idealists, not necessarily the most flush population. They must also deal with a slew of legal and zoning issues.

“I can’t imagine trying to create something that’s communal from scratch in the legal environment we have now,” says Venter. She struggles with bureaucrats who incorrectly want to lump in Free Acres with homeowner associations.

One of the tenets of co-housing communities, especially ones that favor a small carbon footprint, is density. People attracted to co-housing communities want to live closer together, leaving cars on the perimeter. They seek to preserve large tracts of undeveloped land for the community to enjoy.

But high-density communities are generally frowned upon these days by zoning boards and local politicians, who fear an influx of school-age children, says developer George Vallone, president of Hoboken Brownstone Co. and past president of the New Jersey Builders Association. Vallone has been helping Welzer’s group pro bono. “Change requires effort, and big change requires big effort,” Vallone says. “And this is a big change.”

Then again, in a broad sense, the co-housing concept is not entirely uncommon. As Welzer points out, many over-55 communities are built around a clubhouse, providing social activities and, often, meals. But while catering at those places is handled in “an institutional way,” Welzer says, “what we’re talking about is a communitarian way.” Same with groundskeeping. “In our vision, we could be the management. Take care of the grounds, community and each other.”

Members of Welzer’s group took a field trip in October to Ecovillage at Ithaca, a successful upstate New York co-housing community that dates to 1991. It serves as a model for EcoVillage New Jersey and has become a regular pilgrimage site for Welzer. “That’s my ideal,” he says.

Would-be EcoVillage residents share proposals after a recent pot-luck dinner. From left: Jonathan Cloud, Victoria Zelin, Lois Schneider-Ross, Paul Schneider-Ross, Karyn Jorgensen, George Vallone, Larry White, Steve Welzer and an unidentified participant.

Would-be EcoVillage residents share proposals after a recent pot-luck dinner. From left: Jonathan Cloud, Victoria Zelin, Lois Schneider-Ross, Paul Schneider-Ross, Karyn Jorgensen, George Vallone, Larry White, Steve Welzer and an unidentified participant. Photo by John O’Boyle

But an ideal location is also essential. Welzer’s group has looked at properties in Andover and Mount Eden—both in the northwestern corner of the state—and had the whiff of an opportunity in Camden County to the south. The Camden option had an intriguing ring of practicality, as it involved an already-proposed housing development, with the idea that one of its subdevelopments could be built to the specs of the EcoVillagers. Unfortunately, members of the group—mainly from North Jersey—had little interest in the South Jersey location.

Larry White, 62, a theatrical stagehand who lives in Englewood, emerged late last year as a new leader of the EcoVillage movement. The Eden he hopes to create has its roots in the tight-knit neighborhoods of Chicago, where he grew up.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 lit a fire under White. He joined his neighbors to fight for immigrants’ rights—but he found himself craving a greater sense of community than he felt in Englewood. He turned his focus to EcoVillage New Jersey.

Welzer and other EcoVillage leaders welcomed White’s energy. At the end of a very long meeting in December, White stood up like the son of a preacher he is and exhorted the group.

“I’m here today to make you a proposition,” he said. And that’s when he laid out a proposal for investors: commit $1,000 now, $24,000 later. His goal was to raise at least $500,000 to show sellers the group is serious.

By the time the group reconvened in January, White had drafted a commitment letter and spread the word to the group’s mailing list. Despite his efforts, only about a dozen people showed up at the meeting; another handful joined by videoconference. Still, he said as the meeting opened, he was looking for “whoever is ready and willing to throw down.”

After the obligatory potluck lunch, White distributed the commitment letters. Jonathan Cloud and Victoria Zelin, a married couple who have been hosting the group’s meetings in their Basking Ridge home, signed immediately—to a round of applause. But others balked, including Welzer, who said his wife wouldn’t go along with the $24,000 commitment. One remote participant wouldn’t sign until the group had decided generally where it wanted to build, north or south. A third person didn’t like the 20 hours a month of volunteer time required under White’s proposal.

For almost an hour, Zelin tried to broker a deal with the third holdout. As they struggled with the terms, it was possible to imagine them as delegates to the Constitutional Convention laboring to thread the needle of compromise.

“I want to work with people who are doers,” White insisted, “who are ready to fire and then aim.”

Eventually, reluctantly, White agreed to drop the time requirement to 10 hours a month. But the third holdout did not come around. “I need freedom,” she said. “Even this bargaining, I don’t like it.”

In the end, there were just a handful of pledges. The core group—White, Welzer, Cloud and Zelin—held videoconferences the next two Sundays to try to drum up more support. But White felt enthusiasm waning rather than growing.

“I took 48 hours to reassess my commitment to the group, and I decided to resign and redirect my energies elsewhere,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I bear no animosity for anyone. I wish them well. My journey will take a different path to some kind of cooperative living.”

In March, the core group of EcoVillage New Jersey had a new reason to be excited.

“HOT NEWS!!” Zelin wrote in the subject line of an e-mail.

Zelin and the others thought they were on the verge of a deal with a yoga teacher, Elaine Hansen, who owns a former foundry in Jersey City. Hansen had come to their February meeting to introduce herself and said she was seeking to develop the space. The ivy-covered, brick building had a tiny courtyard, a massive factory floor and some small, enchanting apartments and offices. The space already looked like an urban artists colony. The group quickly teamed Hansen with Vallone, the real estate developer, who coincidentally had built the single-family houses across the street. But almost as quickly as the opportunity had arisen, it fell apart. Hansen and Vallone couldn’t reach an agreement.

By May, the group had moved on to another idea, buying three connected buildings in Hazlet, close to the Raritan Bay.

Welzer chuckles at the suggestion that he’s like Moses wandering the wilderness. He wears his disappointment lightly.

“A lot of this work is educational,” he says. “None of it is wasted.”

“Eventually”—and he pauses here to laugh—“we’re going to spark a fire under enough people to make this happen. Eventually it’s going to result in an actual place to live.”

Debbie Galant, an artist and writer, observes the world from the front porch of her 19th-century home in Glen Ridge.

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