Big Love on Staten Island
Courtesy of NYMAG.COM

Open relationships, little people, 100 kooky housemates: $710 per month covers room, board, toilet paper, and toothpaste at Ganas, New York City’s most exclusive commune. Serious inquiries only, please.

By Annalee Newitz

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From left: Melissa, 28, runs Ganas’s work schedules: everything from household chores to shifts at the community’s café. Her husband lives a few blocks away: They split their time between his place and the commune; Peggy, 46, a fifteen-year Ganas veteran, is “partnered” (Ganasian for a long-term but not necessarily monogamous relationship) with Tom but remains close to her ex, Richard, who is partnered with someone else; Steve, 49, co-manages the Every Thing Goes bookstore café with his partner, Katie. One of the few communards who truly act the part of hippie, Steve is interested in drum circles and spirituality.

I want a more traditional life,” says Ian, explaining why he wants to move in with his girlfriend and her young son. “I’m not sure I can keep being so experimental, but I’ve never lived like an ordinary person.” Gray-haired and clad in a suburban sweater, the fiftyish Ian certainly looks “ordinary.” He lives in an ordinary place—Staten Island—and works an ordinary job—event planning—from his home office. But home, as Ian lives it, is one big experiment: “In this place, we’re our own guinea pigs, and it’s our whole life—our work, our play, our family, our sexual relationships,” he says with a sigh.

Outside Ian’s office a hallway leads to a half-dozen rooms, filled with a half-dozen housemates. But home doesn’t end at the front door. Walks, backyard paths, and side streets connect this two-story clapboard house to nine others: All are buzzing with housemates, and all are equally home to Ian. Taken together, the houses form a compound called Ganas: a cross between a sixties-style commune and a contemporary urban kibbutz. At any given time, nearly 100 people live here as one family unit, sharing meals, cars, and toothpaste—some even share lovers. Run as a nonprofit, Ganas is possibly New York City’s only experiment in affordable communal living that doesn’t require you to join a cult.

Living at Ganas isn’t that different from sharing a big apartment with several roommates. It’s never lonely at home, and someone is always up for a night out in the city. But the drama quotient is exponentially higher: The more people you add to the idyllic garden pathways and airy dining rooms, the more potential there is for the inevitable personality conflicts that arise to escalate out of control and spread from one tiny bedroom to the next, until you’ve got a genuine social problem. Then there are the day-to-day irritations. If one roommate hogs the TV, that’s usually something you can work out—but what if six roommates are doing it?

Ian’s at the bottom of the current drama pileup. “Our relationships have become too sticky and incestuous,” he says. Unlike other members of the group, he has never found a way to cope with watching ex-wives and ex-girlfriends fall in love with friends and colleagues. “Most people would find it hard to live with their exes,” he says. “I just want to move into the outside world.” Before he does, however, he has to face his fellow communards at an early-morning meeting called “Planning.” Leaving Ganas is not as simple as moving out. It’s more like divorce.

It’s 7:45 A.M. in the community’s dining room, and the chairs are arranged in the circular pattern favored by countless kindergarten classrooms and therapy groups. Everyone is grabbing cups of coffee and breakfast cereal so they can eat and process simultaneously. The group gets down to business immediately by talking about what’s on everybody’s mind—is Ian leaving?

Ian—who is the only person in this article going by a pseudonym, concerned that publicity will put a strain on his newly forming family—is one of the community’s founders. Back in 1981, he sank his considerable inheritance into the chunk of Staten Island real estate that the Ganasians call home. If Ian leaves, one of the houses may have to be sold to pay him back. It wouldn’t be the end of the commune—which is probably the city’s oldest and certainly its largest and most stable—but it would be a blow.

Ever since Ganas’s 83-year-old guru, Mildred, retired to Brighton Beach five years ago, there has been a simmering internal conflict about the future. Most of the lifers have chosen not to have children, so a new generation would have to be recruited rather than born. Some want to see the community survive and spread to other cities. Others fear institutionalization more than death. This abstract debate has found its real-world expression in Ian’s threatened exodus, which could leave a dozen Ganasians homeless.

“I’m not sure if that’s what I want to talk about,” Ian says. But nobody else suffers from ambivalence on this topic, and the group plunges in without preliminaries.

“You’re always fantasizing about leading a traditional life,” someone observes. “Why don’t you just do it?”

Ian looks like he’s been punched in the face. “I’m just not sure whether my girlfriend wants to get married or . . .” He trails off, his voice hitting a resentful quaver. He seems to want coddling or a big group hug, but the group has no words of comfort for Ian.

His conflict is a far cry from what the group is used to dealing with. When an athletic 60-year-old named Jessica arrived at Ganas four years ago, Mildred promptly invited her to a meeting with five men in the community. “All of these men are available for you—although most of them are already in primary relationships,” she remembers Mildred telling her. “Why don’t you date them all?” Jessica went through them one by one, eventually settling on the two she liked. The Ganasians understand experimental relationships. But monogamous marriage? That’s harder

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From left: George, 51, is one of Ganas’s founders and still part of the “core group,” the dozen or so people charged with running the place. His considerable wealth is tied up in the commune’s holdings; Mildred, 83, the commune’s guiding light and co-founder, recently retired and moved to Brighton Beach with her fifth husband, Dave, 38. She met Dave several years ago, when he became close friends with her then-husband, Bruno;Ashley, 34, performs in the political theater group Circus Amok and is living at Ganas for the five-month summer circus season: “It’s a starving-artist kind of thing,” she says. “I can’t afford anywhere else in the city.”

“Tell us what would happen if you moved out,” one woman demands with a bluntness characteristic of these meetings.

“Well, I don’t know. We might move into her house . . . or something else,” he hedges.

“Haven’t you talked about it?” a man with a beard asks incredulously. Ian’s leg is bobbing nervously, and he can’t come up with an answer. He wants something more than Ganas can give him, but wanting it is ripping him up.

With Ian mute, talk shifts to another topic. A couple of people are wondering if they should intervene in a situation where someone’s drinking problem has gotten out of control again. Then, with the same gravity, they discuss who has the communal truck today because some furniture needs moving.

Two hours go by. The morning is a mishmash of consciousness-raising, graduate seminar, and staff meeting—with a flagrant lack of closure thrown in for good measure. What is Ian going to do? Will there be an intervention for the alcoholic guy? Who has the goddamned truck?

Turns out Tom’s got the truck. A soft-spoken guy with a hint of Texas in his voice, he’s belted into the tattered driver’s seat and heading to Jetro, a grocery wholesaler in Brooklyn. There he’ll buy the week’s food supply for the community. This is his regular job, and it takes him all day to find the bargains that will keep the total cost under the budgeted $20 per person per week. As he looks for cheap cheese in the refrigerated section, he recalls his early days: “When I first started living at communes, my parents were seriously considering doing a cult-deprogramming thing—you know, kidnapping me and the whole bit. But my brother persuaded my parents not to do it until he’d visited the place and checked it out.”

He picks up some fresh mozzarella, checks the price, and puts it down again. “Anyway, he came and he liked it. He told me the problem was that everybody was so nice that he couldn’t find any problems.” Tom shrugs and laughs.

With the cargo hold loaded up with this week’s haul, Tom drives back across the Verrazano bridge. He gets to Ganas at dinnertime. As he pulls up to several houses half-hidden by trees, someone inside spots him and yells out, “Food chain!” Thirty or forty people abandon their empanadas and salads to spread out into a loose queue that stretches from Tom’s truck, up three flights of steep front steps, and into a converted rec room that serves as the community’s multiroom pantry and walk-in refrigerator.

Tom hands out a big box of oranges, and the next person in the line grabs it from him. She hands it off to somebody at the bottom of the first flight of steps, who walks up to the top, and so on through another two flights of steps and a long walkway, each punctuated by a long ellipsis of humans working. For about fifteen minutes, all anyone does is grunt and issue short communiqués like “Oof, this one’s heavy” or “Be careful: eggs.”

The food chain follows a flight of stairs whose structure has been subtly modified—blocks of wood are nailed to the edge of each step, creating a narrow pathway of mini-steps. The half-steps continue past the pantry and terminate at the door of a freshly painted house.

“Did you see the dwarf steps outside?” George asks sardonically. “Those are so I can get in here with these legs.” He makes a dramatic gesture that emphasizes his stature—a bit over four feet. A retired money manager, George is one of the architects of Ganas’s peculiar capitalist-communist economic system. “I wanted to create my own pirate island,” George recalls. “But we live in a country where there is no model other than private property. So we had to buy the island.”

George and the other lifers run their island’s communist engines on the pure fuel of capitalism. Room and board costs only $710 per month, and many residents work off their bill at Every Thing Goes, Ganas’s three Staten Island thrift shops that sell used books, secondhand furniture, and vintage clothes. The community is set up in two pieces: The residences are a nonprofit organization, and the businesses are a for-profit corporation.

Any shortfall is covered by the dozen or so in the “core group”—members like George and Ian who pool all their money, putting it at the community’s disposal. A quorum must approve any purchase over $50. “I have very few possessions,” says George. “I like sharing my house with people.”

But George has no illusions about collective ownership. “Our cars are a perfect example of socialism,” George says. “Nobody owns them, so we treat them like shit.”

The open-door policy is beginning to wear on him too. “I’d like to make it smaller by getting rid of some people,” he says, in what could easily be construed as an oblique reference to Ian. “That’s what makes me the radical of the group.”

There are only four rules at Ganas: (1) no violence to people or things, (2) no free rides, (3) no illegality, and (4) bring complaints about the community to Planning.

The “no illegality” rule is generally interpreted to mean “no drugs on the premises.” But that doesn’t mean the place is a haven for straight-edgers. One night I’m watching The Daily Show with two guys named Adam and Matt when suddenly Matt steps out the back door—“to smoke,” he says with meaningful emphasis.

Every culture spawns its own counterculture, and the Treehouse is Ganas’s local outlet of subversion.

He retreats to a dark nook between two buildings, where he sparks up a funny-looking cigarette and passes it to a couple of people who materialize out of nowhere. I don’t know what we’re smoking, but it sure smells like weed to me.

“This ain’t Ganas,” Matt says by way of explanation. “We’re over the state line.”

“Yeah, this is the Treehouse,” says someone else, taking a hit. “We’re off Ganas property.”

The Treehouse, whose porch is decorated with chained-up stuffed animals and overflowing ashtrays, is a proto-commune that’s taken root in the house next door to Ganas. Eight dissidents rent the place, trying to make a home that’s freakier than the mother ship—they don’t care if you get high, and they don’t come down on you if you’re drinking. There are no big group dinners here, no organized cleaning schedule, and no early-morning meetings. But in the dorm like basement TV room—where the door is always open—there is a big bag of community tobacco and a rolling machine. It’s like a flashback to how Ganas got going back in the seventies, when the original founders of Ganas got drunk one night and realized that what they had together was like a family, or a marriage. They became the first core group. Perhaps every commune begins by collectivizing the means of intoxication?

A Treehouse guy mentions they’re having a Halloween party that weekend, and the next day everybody at Ganas is buzzing about it. Ganasians of all ages show up at the Treehouse party dressed as rock stars, witches, and naughty fairy-tale characters. People are smoking and drinking and dancing to MP3s sucked down from the file-sharing service LimeWire in real time. Every culture spawns its own counterculture, and the Treehouse is Ganas’s local outlet of subversion.

Bok Choy, a recent college grad who is visiting from Twin Oaks, Ganas’s sister community in rural Virginia, is trying to get things started with some hot boy-on-boy action. She plants herself between two costumed guys and giggles her way through a plea for them to kiss—just once! It will be like Jake and Heath in Brokeback Mountain. The guys aren’t so sure. Adam, a refugee from Cleveland with a devilish smile, looks like he might do it—he’s in that early-twenties phase where he thinks every day in New York is like a week, and he wants to try everything. Mark, a pedicab driver who claims he’s on the verge of a deal with MTV to do his own show where he’ll “go places and do stuff,” says no way. “I don’t make out with guys.” Then he spends five minutes asking Bok Choy over and over if it’s “really true that chicks want to see guys making out.” (“It’s hot!” she insists.)

Many of the younger Ganasians divide their time between Ganas’s protective plenitude and the Treehouse’s late-night social life. Of course, owing to the early-morning nature of Planning, the biggest partyers have the least amount of input into the social machinery that runs Ganas. “The one and only time I went to Planning it was because Bok Choy and I stayed up all night drinking and we stumbled in before bed one morning,” Adam says, tipping a beer bottle to his lips.

Despite the cultural divide, Ganas remains an inspiration for many Treehouse kids. “We’d really like to buy this house together and do more things as a group,” pines Treehouse resident Kate, the D.J. at the party. “It would be nice to have regular dinners—or even just regular house meetings.” A woman next to her lights a cigarette and nods. “I’m living here for now, but I keep hoping that I’ll be invited to move into Ganas,” she says.

Two months after the party, Ian’s girlfriend and her son are checking out rooms at Ganas, trying to decide which ones they like best. Ian won’t be leaving—instead, his girlfriend will be joining the community on Ganas’s terms, just like any other new resident. “She changed her mind,” Ian says, his voice free from its old strain. “Honestly, I never thought it would happen, but she’s selling her place.”

When Ian finally talked to her, he discovered that his girlfriend had been wanting to make a life change. “She’s the chair of the department where she teaches, and she would like more time to write,” he says. “Without all the stress of dealing with a house and such, she’ll finally have time to do it.” When the euphoria wears off, Ian’s characteristic ambivalence may return—or not. For now, he’s loving being a radical communitarian with traditional family values.

“My girlfriend’s son calls this place a ‘house town,’ ” Ian says. He stares intensely at the interconnected houses and gardens that make up Ganas, as if trying to imagine the place with his new family in it.

“This way she can really get to know me,” he says. “It’s like when you marry someone from another country but you don’t truly understand them until you visit that country for a while. This is my country. I built it. This is where I’m from.”