Rising and Blooming: The Bread and Roses Collective

The Bread and Roses Collective House is located on Cambridge St. in the Westcott neighborhood on the east side of Syracuse, N.Y. Through years of collective work and the shared values of sustainability, non-hierarchy and mutual aid, we are now in the process of expanding to a second property, located through our back yard at 405 Westcott St.

When the first members of what would become Bread and Roses moved in, the house was owned by an energy efficiency consultant and populated by four older men who kept mostly to themselves. The house, an 1850s Victorian, was spacious and beautiful, but it lacked community. Some house members set their sights on transforming it into a co-op and  recruited friends to move in who shared that interest. Within a year, six of the eight people were sharing food and beginning to define our nascent co-op.

From collective experience in numerous political groups, house members felt it was invaluable to have a statement of principles that would be the foundation for all of the group's actions and decisions. We have also learned that the quality of community interaction greatly improves with explicit, democratic systems for handling responsibilities like food shopping, cooking, cleaning and maintenance. Without such automatic and democratic systems, much of our time would be spent discussing trivial matters and take away from time spent on our larger vision. Structure - that is, increasing accountability and participation - can be liberating when it is created together and entered into voluntarily.

During the first few years, our group was transient and our vision was short term. But eventually, members stayed longer, and the house developed more political cohesion. With the victory in Seattle, the house became a host for students and community members organizing against the IMF/World Bank Meeting in D.C. in April 2000 and the FTAA meeting in Quebec City in April 2001.  As we gained identity as an activist house, we also gained a name. "The Cambridge House," named for our place on Cambridge St., was not a name we chose; it was given to us by our community.

In early 2001, the owner of our house asked if we were interested in buying the place. It took us three years to develop our bylaws, define our legal structure and determine a means for owning the house. On June 14, 2004, our newly created legal entity, the Bread and Roses Collective House, bought our home. The name Bread and Roses seemed to embody the ideals we wanted to be known for: activism, sustainability, gardening, work solidarity, joy, community and equality. We recounted the story of the Bread and Roses strike - especially the leadership role of women and the solidarity of the greater anarchist community in supporting the strike - then we played Utah Phillips singing "Bread and Roses," and we knew we had found our name.

The base rent is set so that with a minimum of five people we are able to pay the mortgage, insurance and taxes. With more, the extra rent money is devoted to maintenance and paying off the mortgage capital. In addition, there is an income-based fee charged to residents whose basic rent costs fall below 25 percent of their income. Thus, everyone bears a proportionate responsibility for the costs of the house while not developing an unequal share. Our goal is for Bread and Roses to be an affordable place to live for activists while also being sustainable.

When the house is paid off, future residents will pay a similar rent to current residents, as to not unfairly benefit from their predecessors' work. In lieu of mortgage, future rent will be put into a fund for local activism. If the house is ever sold, the money from the sale will be distributed similarly.

We make our decisions using Formal Consensus. As an example of our process, consider house maintenance. Shorter tasks are handled by our house chore system. The group decides what chores need to be performed and divides these tasks into eight separate jobs. Larger maintenance projects are handled during biannual work weekends. We strongly encourage people to work on projects about which they care most and for each project to include both skilled and unskilled housemates.

We have an organic garden, and although we only cultivate about 1,000 square feet, our use of intensive planting allows us to harvest and preserve significant amounts of food. We grow all the garlic we use, most of the tomatoes, and from May through November, we have an abundance of greens, roots and herbs. By late fall, our cupboards are filled with an array of jams, pickles, peppers and various tomato products, and our freezer is stocked with vegetables.

In the past year, we've started offering more regular public workshops, and we've begun a community composting project providing compost buckets and pickups to friends and local businesses. From one restaurant alone, we've collected over two tons in the past six months.

Unfortunately, our primary garden plots are located in a community garden over a mile away. We have dreamed of having a larger garden at the house to grow more of our food and so more of us can participate. Having more land would also help us become more of a model of sustainability, urban agriculture and activism. We wanted not merely to develop these skills but to teach them to others and to become a community resource. Even before we bought our first house, we began to ponder how we might take over the overgrown, abandoned lot behind it.

Once a horse paddock that stretched for a double-long block between Westcott and Cambridge St., it was later divided and annexed to adjacent properties on either street. The property behind our house was part of a larger tract that had been bought by a local slumlord who owned a rundown rental property. The roughly half-acre lot forms an L-shape that abuts our property.

As neighbors began using the neglected land as a dump for trash and yard waste, Bread and Roses members carved out a section of the lot for compost bins. We spent years trying to buy the land, but the owner refused to sell until 2007 when the house, along with its land, were put up for sale. Up until this point, our interest was focused around the potential use of the land, not the house. But the sale was all or nothing, so we decided to put in a purchase offer. After more than a year of legal confusion over the title, one of our members was able to front the funds for a mortgage and purchased the house on Dec. 31, 2008.

In January, we videotaped interviews with each housemate discussing the new house and land, and we began to transform our individual ideas into a collective vision. With the second house, we will not only double the size of our collective, but we hope to address specific shortfalls of our Cambridge St. house. Our new house will be more welcoming for a range of generations and ages, with room for families and children, and it will be accessible for people with mobility issues. With the visibility provided by its location on a main street, workshop gardens and other projects will welcome community involvement.

We created a committee of four and began to transform our dreams into action. They conducted research, worked with the architect, and coordinated deconstruction work on the badly neglected house. Although we had hired an architecture firm, the main elements of the house were agreed upon and directed by the collective through consensus. As time spent in meetings rose and fell throughout the spring and summer, physical transformation of the back lot and the house gained steam. We reached out to friends and family to help clear brush, cut down trees, remove invasive species, cut and stack wood, and pile stone and broken concrete slabs in the lot. Inside the house, we removed walls, floors, ceilings, trash, fixtures, old wiring and plumbing, and pulled nails from salvaged wood and trim.

As summer turned to fall, the work seemed more daunting, leading to stress and burnout for many in the collective. Although all of us had consented to a specific monthly work expectation, most were unable to fulfill it, and for at least a few members, the stress resulted in thoughts of leaving. We've continued to take individual capacities into account rather than expecting uniform standards, and we've found that working together on scheduled days to be more rewarding than working alone. From the beginning, we knew the work would be overwhelming and that attempts at expansion can sometimes push a group over the edge. But so far, with a shared vision, understanding and support through collective work, we've found endurance.

We are now raising funds to complete renovations by creating a "shoebox bank" based on models we've seen of other projects. The shoebox bank will act as a revolving loan fund, allowing us to accept loans from friends and supporters on more flexible terms and with lower interest rates, while offering investors better rates than typical savings accounts or CDs. Come spring, we'll be busy building terraces and raised beds for gardening, rain barrels for rain-water harvesting and more. We have already received five applications to live in the new house and have begun scheduling interviews. We're still seeking additional members. Get in touch if you're interested in visiting or joining our collective.

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