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Lifestyle

Collective efforts

Peter Thomason at his urban farm in Ypsilanti.
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Published 4/15/2009

At first glance, Ypsilanti resident Peter Thomason and his family don't have a lot in common with the residents of the Detroit collective known as Trumbullplex.

Thomason, who's in his mid-50s, is a politically conservative, NRA card-carrying, churchgoing father of 10 who teaches construction management at Eastern Michigan University. Trumbullplex, on the city's near west side, is an anarchist housing collective and show space inhabited by 11 people (at the moment), none of whom are older than 30. And none of them, it's safe to say, belongs to the NRA.

Both households would be living as they do regardless of the economic crisis currently under way. But each, in its own way, offers an example of how to withstand hard times, through collective effort.

Thomason and his wife, Rebecca, a nurse, have been urban farmers for more than three decades. "But we definitely have ramped things up in recent years," Peter says.

Their back yard in downtown Ypsi features a new greenhouse constructed of "scavenged and recycled" material. There's also a small barn that shares the same low-cost materials. It houses chickens, rabbits and four small goats, which produce milk.

Growing is also done at the homes of four of the Thomason brood. This year, for the first time, crops will also be grown on nearby land owned by a friend. With each site producing what it's best suited for it — based on sunlight and soil quality — they grow potatoes and onions, squash and melons, greens and herbs and mushrooms, wine grapes and more. What the family doesn't eat is sold at a local farmers' market.

The effort takes a lot of work. Peter Thomason figures he puts in a couple hours every day doing chores. And that's just him. And there are other hassles: The family is currently in court fighting for the right to continue raising their goats in the heart of the city.

Thomason says that he's long believed in the value of cooperative effort, and in the sort of sustainable approach to life that's now getting renewed attention as the economic crisis and the climate crisis converge to bring the problems that created them — and the solutions that can help address them — into focus.

"Things don't have to be bigger to be better," he says.

"With cooperation and a collective approach, people everywhere can do this."

At 25 years old, Trumbullplex resident Carolyn Leadley might seem to be living in a world far different than the one occupied by Peter Thomason, but, for all their differences, much of what they say sounds remarkably the same.

"My life goal is self-sufficiency," she says. An old commercial refrigerator that once held beer in a bar now contains trays of sprouts that are part of Leadley's attempt to achieve that goal.

She and her 10 housemates occupy two battered Victorians (connected by a show space) on Trumbull, several blocks north of Grand River Avenue. Living cooperatively, sharing chores and buying their food in bulk, they are the latest inhabitants of an effort that formally began in 1993 when a newly formed nonprofit corporation called the Wayne Association of Collective Housing purchased the property.

Staging performances and art shows, tending fruit trees in the back yard, growing some of their own food at the house and participating in a larger community garden down the street, kicking in $20 a month to buy grains and beans and lentils in bulk to keep the cost down — all these things are examples of communal living that can serve as a positive example for those suffering through the financial downturn.

"We definitely think that's true," says Carmen Mendoza King, a 23-year-old Wayne State student.

Living like this isn't for everyone, she and Leadley say. Making decisions in a collective like this can be time-consuming, "and it takes longer to fix things up." But, just as extended families often found their members forced to come together under one roof during the Great Depression, the current crisis and the wave of foreclosures that is accompanying it are forcing people to again consider alternatives to having a nuclear family living alone under one roof.

"We all need each other," is the way Mendoza King puts it.

"People resist change as long as possible," adds Leadley, who wears army boots, green fatigues and a hoodie the same color. But sometimes forces beyond their control force them to see the benefits of a lifestyle they never would have considered before.

"More and more, I think, people will come around to accepting alternative ways of living," says Leadley. "They're going to have to."

Thomason invites anyone interested in urban farming to contact him by e-mail at peterthomason@comcast.net.You can learn more about his family's farm and their legal battle at notmyplans.blogspot.com.

The Trumbullplex is located at 4210 Trumbull, Detroit. The collective holds an open potluck monthly. The next one is April 30. For info call 313-832-7952.

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