An overzealous experiment with communal living descends into a madhouse of shouting matches, bedbugs and aspiring artists gone wild.
It was the voices. I heard the voices first. Some random, some familiar, all of them angry. On my second night at Surreal Estate, there was an emergency house meeting taking place outside my bedroom door. A woman who was staying with one of the residents accused him of raping her. I could hear her frantic voice: “He raped me! I want him gone! This cannot be a safe community with him here.”
I sat up, wiped the sleep out of my eyes, reached for my phone and auto dialed my best friend. “Tim,” I whispered, “ I think someone just got raped at this collective I’m staying in.” Tim paused, “Are you serious? Are they, like, calling the police or something?” I shook my head. “No, they don’t want to get the police involved because they’re bad or something. So instead they’re having some sort of mock rape trial in the living room.”
I was barely unpacked and there was already major drama. The next morning I would find out that it was Kyle’s guest Raven who’d accused him of sexually assaulting her when she was drunk. Raven, either a lesbian or a female-to-male transgender, depending on her mood that day, didn’t actually remember this encounter; Kyle had told her about their hook-up session after the fact. Despite not actually being a member of the house, Raven got her way and Kyle was given a stack of zines on sexual assault and evicted within a few days’ time. Up until then I had been excited about my decision to move into Surreal Estate. But after that incident, I wasn’t so sure.
* * *
I first learned about Surreal Estate from Gina, an art student who was living there for the summer. Gina and I worked together at DO IT NYC, a non-profit that was collecting signatures to get a reinvestigation of September 11th off the ground. “We’re a live and work collective,” Gina said. “We host a lot of events and stuff, so everyone basically adds to the house in some way.”
Ever since moving from San Francisco to New York, I had felt very alone and isolated. I was a theater and literature student at The New School and the chance to live with a group of creative and artistic people my age sounded appealing. I pressed Gina for more details. “ I mean, the house needs a lot of work.” She paused to scratch the swollen, red dots on her arms before continuing. “Right now we have bedbugs but we’re trying to figure out a way to get rid of them.” Today, the mere mention of bedbugs would send me running the other way. But four years ago, at twenty-two, I didn’t even really know what a bedbug was. When I got home that night I emailed Quinton, one of the founders, and made plans to come see the place that Saturday.
“Where the hell am I?” I wondered to myself as I walked the two blocks from the Morgan L-train stop to Thames Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Aside from an expensive-looking bodega and a cafe or two, the surroundings were pretty sparse. The building was located on a desolate street with no sign. Quinton led me on an impromptu tour, sharing bits and pieces about the organization’s history. He told me about some of the parties they were becoming famous for. “Last year, one of our parties raised over $10,000,” he boasted. “But we gave it all away to charity.”
“The idea of an intentional community,” Quinton explained, “is not to separate your outside life from your home life. So we’ve tried to create a structure that will get people involved in the house no matter what.” I was told that general house meetings happened every Sunday and everyone was required to attend at least two a month. Additionally, everyone was required to be on a committee, such as finance, events, housing or food. House meetings were a time when they made collective decisions and met potential new housemates. Roommate hopefuls had to come meet everyone and state their case.
Surreal Estate occupied two floors of one apartment building, and one basement floor of an adjacent building. One of the living room areas housed a lending library with hundreds of National Geographics. The screen-less windows led the way to an open-air rooftop. Many of the walls were covered with poems, quotes and original artwork. Sure, the place was in need of a scrub-down, but there was a lot of open space and I could imagine it being a great home if given a little attention.
The bulk of the space had been converted into makeshift bedrooms to accommodate the growing number of house members. The basement area did double duty as both an event and living space, with three or four lofted bedrooms built overhead. I made a mental note to advocate for a room on solid ground for myself.
“Initially we set out to be a freegan paradise of sorts. Real freegans don’t use any money. They squat abandoned houses and eat their food out of dumpsters,” Quinton explained as he led me down to the basement. “ But it’s very hard to live anywhere in New York City without paying rent,” he continued. “So what we strive to do is live as close to that model as possible.”
I had done the communal living thing once before, in Berkeley, so I wasn’t so stoked about that part, but I was excited about the prospect of living in such a cool and hip place in the middle of an up-and-coming part of Brooklyn. I paid Quinton a $425 deposit, and one week later Surreal Estate became my home.
* * *
My 25 new housemates ranged in age from twenty-somethings to senior citizens and had a host of interests, jobs and agendas. Quinton started Surreal Estate in 2008 with the help of two friends he met while working at the freegan bike workshop. Originally from Florida, he attended Wesleyan University before graduating and becoming interested in intentional communities and the freegan lifestyle. The freegans, who headed up the food committee, were a mostly young-ish group who spent a lot of their time climbing through dumpsters to “reclaim” food that restaurants and grocery stores had thrown out. If there was communal food lying around, you best believe it came out of a dumpster.
There were very few people who held down a job. Most everyone at Surreal Estate was an aspiring something. We had Project Runway wannabes, radical revolutionaries, spoken word poets, writers, a female rapper, every type of artist, and underground party promoters, to name a few. Then there were people like Clementine, an older conspiracy theorist who didn’t trust authority, and regularly engaged in anti-government protests. Her adult daughter, Sally, had schizophrenia and lived with us as well. There was Kat, a fiery redheaded grandma who taught improv dance classes and had a somewhat unhealthy attachment to her blind and seizure-prone cat, Brainstorm. There were university and college students of every variety, along with random long-term couch surfers who would crash whenever they were in town.
“Initially we set out to be a freegan paradise of sorts.”
It became apparent pretty early on that Surreal Estate wasn’t exactly the inspiring creative utopia it was billed as. Not much art and activism seemed to be taking place. There were a few serious artists like Emily, who ran an experimental performance company with her husband. Lily was also a working artist and activist who headed up the Bushwick chapter of Food Not Bombs, volunteering regularly at anarchist bookstores and finding time to produce some really beautiful watercolor paintings. But there were far more artists like Travis, a graphic designer from the Midwest who spent more time getting blazed and obsessing over his childhood hero P.Diddy than he did trying to get his own art aspirations off the ground. Janie, a former resident, was twenty-one and had just dropped out of a Christian college when she moved in. After enduring a repressive upbringing in rural Oregon, Janie was interested in the communal lifestyle. “I was very naïve when I moved in,” she remembers. “I thought I was going to live this great artistic life. I thought I’d fall in love and make all of these lifelong friendships.” The reality of life at Surreal Estate, however, was unlike anything she imagined. “The most disappointing thing was the fact that there was no art happening. The environment was so toxic that you really couldn’t do your artwork there.”
Thirty-five-year-old Joseph, another former housemate, echoes Janie’s sentiments. “I was told everyone was an artist or an activist, but I quickly realized that everyone was either high all the time or mentally ill,” says Joseph. “I bought all of these cleaning supplies to share and try to make the place better. But I went away for the weekend and came back, and instead of using the stuff, it was all thrown out.” With so many people in one space, finding a little peace and quiet in order to write or study was a rarity. It wasn’t uncommon for jam sessions and parties to go on into the wee hours on a weeknight.
When you have so many poor people in one place it gets really easy for bills to go unpaid. It was rumored that Clementine had managed to rack up around $2,000 worth of back rent. Since she had been one of the founding members, no one wanted to see her evicted. Instances like this would fuel animosity among some of the other house members. Why should some residents have to pay while others didn’t? The open-door policy that allowed any old traveler who had heard about us to crash indefinitely was also a strain on house resources. On top of that, the city condemned the building as not being suitable to live in, and it seemed for a while that we all would be forced out. The house stayed filthy because there was no accountability to ensure people were doing their fair share. Money and possessions went missing constantly and coming home to a dirty house full of strangers got old quick. There was a lot of talk about being a community but the collective mindset was very much every person for themselves.
It wasn’t all bad. Surreal Estate was probably the most fun place I’ve ever lived. The parties were, for a lack of a better word, live. A lot of them were themed and featured numerous bands, DJs and other musical acts. It wasn’t uncommon for there to be hundreds of Brooklynites partying on all three floors, as well as the roof. The communal meals are among some of my most cherished memories of my time there. Even though I could never bring myself to go on a dumpster-diving expedition, seeing my housemate Wendy bring home bags and bags of unopened and unspoiled food from grocery stores and restaurants opened my eyes to how wasteful we are as a society when it comes to food. All of the house and committee meetings could be tedious, but hearing the voices and opinions of so many different people made me a more open-minded person.
“I learned many things about myself there,” seconds Faye, who moved into Surreal Estate four years ago, when she was just 18. “I became a great facilitator and moderator, and learned how to deal with difficult people and situations.”
But all that wasn’t enough. I moved into Surreal Estate because I thought living in an artistic community with people like myself would make me a happier, better person. At the time, I was wrestling with some serious inner demons which made connecting with people and making friends difficult. I had fun and did my fair share of partying, but deep down I was extremely unhappy with myself and life in general. I don’t know why exactly I stayed at the collective when I was so miserable. I guess I’d have to say that even with all of the turmoil, it felt better to be around someone rather than to be alone. As they say, misery does love company, and luckily, I had plenty of it.
“Every other person had something wrong with them,” says a former housemate who did not want her name published. “Everyone seemed depressed. A few people were recovering junkies, some were still abusing, one dude was a sex addict, the list goes on and on.”
I was dealing with a full course load, a part-time job and crippling depression. Having to come home and argue for or against locking our doors was aggravating to say the least. I began to withdraw and push everyone away and engage in riskier, self-destructive behavior. I did a lot of daytime drinking and took on several sexual partners, namely an 18-year-old homeless kid who squatted in the apartment below us.
If you let it, life at Surreal Estate could be really overwhelming. I can remember sitting in the living room one evening trying to catch up on some reading for school when my friend and housemate Duncan perched himself on the side of the couch and started talking to me about my lack of participation in the house. It wasn’t enough to pay rent on time. In order to be considered a good resident you had to actively participate in the house.
“I became a great facilitator and moderator, and learned how to deal with difficult people and situations.”
We argued constantly about things that would be no-brainers to the average person. One topic that always divided us was what to do about the growing bedbug problem. The bedbugs had been discovered in Quinton’s room a year earlier. By the time I moved in during the fall of 2009 they were everywhere; no room or surface was safe. The infestation was making life unbearable and several people had stopped paying rent because of it, myself included. It became really hard to rationalize handing rent money over to live in a place where I was being assaulted nightly by blood-sucking bugs. Something needed to be done. A special house meeting was called right after the holidays to brainstorm solutions.
An exterminator would have cost $15,000, an amount that neither we nor the landlord were in a position to pay. Others thought we should take a D.I.Y approach by getting some giant heaters and burning them out. Some people wanted to use herbs, fearing that chemicals would be harmful to us. “Well, what are we going to do?” asked an exasperated member. “My grandparents won’t let me visit and are pressuring me to move out.”
By the end of the second hour we decided that trying to burn them out would be the easiest and cheapest solution. Just as we were getting somewhere, in walked Don, a middle-age trust funder who dedicated his life to animal rights. “We can’t kill the bedbugs,” he shrieked. “They have feelings, you guys.” Half the room moaned. “Don, are you serious right now?” countered Duncan. “They’re just bedbugs, O.K.! They are biting us! We have to get rid of them. We need to for the sake of—”
“That’s not right,” Don blurted, with tears building in his eyes. “Just a bedbug,” he continued. “JUST A BEDBUG? Well, you know what?” He pointed at Lily. “That’s just a woman.” His gaze shifted to Jeff, her boyfriend. “And he’s just a Jew.” Finally Don looked around and set his gaze upon me. “And she’s just a nigger!” We were stunned silent as a sniveling Don stomped back to his bedroom.
After only four months at Surreal Estate I could see the place for what it really was: a failed bohemian idealist’s post-college experiment. Being an African-American girl from Cleveland, I had experienced real adversity and didn’t need to live like a homeless person in order to feel better about growing up privileged. By January of 2010 I’d had it with the collective lifestyle. The bedbugs were still in full effect, and the fire department was running up on us every other day because of all the illegal bedrooms that had been built. I had money stolen from me, and my depression wasn’t getting better. I needed to live in a more stable environment. My attitude was increasingly combative and pessimistic, so I was of no use to the house either. Besides, it felt like nothing ever got done and we were just following our tail in circles. I didn’t have the energy or interest to stay and try to work it out. I was going to be 23 at the end of the month and I realized if I wanted anything good to happen I would have to start taking my life into my own hands. I made plans to study abroad for a semester in Amsterdam and moved out at the end of the month.
The last time I spoke to Quinton was a few years ago. He had fallen in love with Jodie, another housemate, and seemed pretty over Surreal Estate himself. I’m told he did move out, after which he and Jodie ended up getting married. After I left, the building owners changed a few times; the most recent landlord was accused of hiring a biker gang to intimidate and drive out the remaining residents. They eventually won the right to stay. Good for them.
* * *
Niesha Davis is a freelance writer living in New York City. She has written for: Time Out Amsterdam, XoJane, Clutch Magazine, Bust, Bitch, and more. She received a BA in Theater and Literary Studies from The New School. Originally from Cleveland Ohio, Niesha has lived in San Francisco, New York, Amsterdam, and soon South Korea. Keep up with her on twitter @nieshasharay
Keny Widjaja is an Indonesian cartoonist who resides in White River Junction, Vermont but migrates to the warmer climates of Asia during the harsh northeastern winters.
The names of characters in this story have been changed.