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.