Building a Commune in San Francisco

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This utopian community movement began in San Francisco.

Out in San Francisco — where alternative lifestyles grow like blackberries — there’s an energetic bunch of people who call themselves The Purple Submarine. By their own description, they’re “utopian test pilots … single, intellectual artists united in the creation of a new, universal religion and a model, utopian community”.

Heard it before? So have we all, from any number of do-it-yourself world savers. No, that’s not a put-down: If we don’t do it ourselves, who will? The trouble is, too many of us use good intentions as a substitute for good thinking … and time is running out. Which is why it’s heartening to come upon a systematic, thorough and hard-nosed organization like the Submariners.

The California utopians have been together three years now and regard themselves as the prototype for many such groups, which will share resources and facilities in the future. They’re a demonstration project for “a lifestyle which, if adopted globally, could provide everyone on earth with enough, yet not too much, so that human life … could continue for as long as the sun shines without the depletion of natural resources or over-industrialization”.

The Purple Submarine’s model utopian superfamily — toward which they’re now working — is to be a closed group of twelve men and twelve women who form no exclusive pairings among themselves and have no intimate relationships outside the community. Each female member will have one child and then undergo voluntary sterilization. This policy is called “minus zero population growth.” It’s a tough doctrine, all right, but think of the alternatives to self-imposed limits on childbearing: government control or, more likely, decimation by famine, warfare and endemic disease.

The youngsters thus produced will be reared cooperatively by the whole group and educated in behaviors which make for psychological health and self-actualization. (The Submariners — methodical utopians that they are — list 38 desirable traits, arranged alphabetically: art, beauty/aesthetics, cooperation, creativity, equality … ).

Even if that revision of traditional family life isn’t to your taste, you’ll find it hard to fault The Purple Submarine’s ecological rationale for group living. The nuclear household as we know it is, after all, a remarkably wasteful institution. Look at it this way: How many automobiles, stoves, refrigerators, washing machines—and, of course, houses — would twelve couples need to set up conventional housekeeping (especially when you consider that, at present divorce rates, at least four of those pairs would eventually split up)? On the other hand, how many such items would be required by two dozen adults living in close community?

That same kind of concern for the planet’s resources is built into the community’s daily life. One example is diet. The members eat meat, but only about 50-60 pounds each per year as compared to the average American’s 200 … and they hope eventually to meet much of their protein requirement by raising their own poultry and catching their own fish, since those sources don’t require high inputs of feed. Chemically processed foods are avoided, along with all unnecessary items such as sugar, tobacco, alcohol and drugs. And the Submariners don’t keep pets, which consume food that could be eaten by humans.

Last we heard, the first utopian superfamily was in the process of filling out its membership. When the quota of 24 adults is reached, the second group will be started … and before long the community will acquire land where they’ll live part of the year.

The plans for the country facility include the use of natural energy: solar heating and the generation of electricity with wind, sun and possibly water power. All organic wastes will be converted to methane and fertilizer, and the gasoline-fueled engine will be phased out in favor of vehicles run by electricity, hydrogen or methane.

Meanwhile, the members of The Purple Submarine are citybased and cooperatively self-employed (which is also good ecology, since they don’t have to transport themselves to work or occupy expensive offices which are used only in business hours). Their economic base is a monthly theatrical performance and the publication of a bi-monthly newspaper called The Storefront Classroom … an attractive journal of social and environmental concern which includes a people’s-Yellow-Pages-type guide to San Francisco.

Five dollars will make you a member of the Utopian Society of America and bring you one year of The Storefront Classroom. The money will also help support the group’s educational projects: a Museum of Utopian Art and a directory to San Francisco’s free and low-cost health care facilities. And, if you’d like more information about The Purple Submarine’s philosophy and activities, the utopians will be more than glad to help you. “We’ve never met a question yet we couldn’t answer,” they say, “and we like answering questions.”

Editor’s Note: The Purple Submarine eventually became a commune known as Kerista, which was dissolved in 1991. If you would like to read about the commune, visit Kerista.commune.