Retrofitting Community

Remaking life in the Midwest suburbs

Written by Ann Kreilkamp

Photography by Mia Beach

A friend asked if he could interview me regarding our Green Acres Permaculture Village, one of the vibrant little local lotus blossoms sprouting up out of the decaying swamp of the existing culture. He sent me a list of questions he wanted answered. I addressed them all, beginning with the first, which proved the most difficult: what was the origin?

As my favorite philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: "It's hard to go back to the beginning and not go further back." For when does anything actually begin?

What we’re evolving here in Green Acres Permaculture Village is a transformed culture that values community and individualism equally, as a dynamic balancing act between these two polarities. The seeds of both polarities were planted in me soon after my arrival in late 2002 with my husband, who suddenly died in January 2003. Jeff had come for law school. His death left me, alone and grieving, in a ranch house located in a suburb. 

I had always hated both ranch houses and suburban design as boring, wasteful, separative. Little did I know, but I was about to begin an experiment on how to embrace and transform them both.

The process was slow. 

I discovered that my neighborhood had a name, “Green Acres,” and that there had formerly been an active, complaint-based neighborhood association taking on threats like zoning. One woman in the neighborhood wanted to bring the association back to life. I told her I would join her, on one condition: that we create a culture of creativity rather than complaint. She loved the idea, so we began—a daunting task. This neighborhood, at the eastern edge of Indiana University, holds 440 homes, at least 65% of which were student rentals (probably more now), with most renters moving every year. Over the next few years we held monthly meetings, created neighborhood clean-ups, walks, concerts, Fourth of July celebrations, even a parade. A few long-termers in the neighborhood had joined us in a core group, but then even some of them moved away and several died.

So that’s one way of saying how the project of building community began. For the most part, unsuccessfully. It’s much easier to start where you personally, live, in your own home—and gradually expand and deepen from there.

After our years-long, exhausting, failed attempts to unite the entire neighborhood as a conscious community, I pivoted to the opposite approach. Why not begin here, at home, where I personally live? Though I didn’t realize that was my strategy at the time, what we now call Green Acres Permaculture Village began in earnest when I made a single, seemly simple (though rare for a then 65-year-old widow) choice: to decrease my "energy footprint" by two thirds by inviting two people to share my three-bedroom home. These people were young, as have been most of my housemates in the twelve years since then.

Alternatively, I could say that the project began in earnest when, after renovating this house to my satisfaction (fewer walls, more flow), I installed both a screened-in front porch and a bench facing the street—to signal friendliness to people walking by.

I’d say now those are the formal beginnings of our project, in what the permaculture movement identifies as "Emergent Design." From those small decisions on, I opened to allow an experimental, organic process, with each incremental decision shifting the landscape of mind, heart, people, and place further and further in the direction of connectivity, complexity, and differentiation, through developmental stages. 

Though not recognized at the time, I can look back and remember these crucial stages: taking a Permaculture Design Course, the decision to buy the house next door and transform its large sunny lawn into a neighborhood permaculture garden, and the decision to instigate the garden itself by holding workshops there with permaculture teachers. 

Then, in 2011, the Shadow finally showed itself, via a dispute with a neighbor over a cob oven which we had built with IU students. This dispute, difficult as it was at the time, was successfully resolved within one year. The “shadow work” I personally had to do to resolve it then served as a model for igniting the next and continuing developmental stage of the experiment: conscious enactment of shadow work (individual, interpersonal, group, and neighborhood), which by this time had begun to cohere into a living community via garden work and various seasonal celebrations.

Recognizing the value of viewing this experiment as a new “retrofit” template for how to live in the suburbs, via re-imagining both people and place, four years ago we began to host weekly Community Dinners, for neighbors and friends far and wide, as a way of sharing the bounty of our own social and spiritual practice of “growing community from the ground up.”

Green Acres Permaculture Village now consists of three homes, with a greenhouse, chicken house, yet-to-be-renovated-into-workspace garage, interspersed with gardens and paths, a common patio, shed, and tiny designed spaces throughout. To walk into this little paradise is to discover “another world,” as many visitors have remarked, so rich and full and complex that it’s easy to get lost. Our plan is to add a fourth adjacent home in the next year or so, which will bring the total approximately-square land base to just under one acre. At this point, nine people live here, as per zoning laws, although a bedroom in one of the homes also functions at times as an Airbnb.

The ignition of COVID-19, and the fear that surrounded it, shut down our Community Dinners instantly back in mid-March. Otherwise, however, our lives inside our little homegrown earthy heaven remain very full and rich. We hold two hour work parties twice weekly and we hold our own residential dinners weekly. And though we no longer hold larger dinners open to visitors, thanks to the collective soul-searching brought on by lockdown we hear more and more from both neighbors and others who walk by conscious recognition that our way of living and being in community with each other and the land is the way of the future.

I advocate retrofit community, rather than building intentional community from scratch. First of all, the structures are already there, holding immense embedded energy. Why not just repurpose them and, especially, the spaces between them? What we call “the suburbs” were developed after World War II, when returning G.I.s and their wives wrenched themselves from their extended families for life elsewhere. The G.I. Bill provided for both college and help for home ownership. Little suburban tracts thus sprang up on the outskirts of cities. The result: life became more and more separative, with the husbands going off to work in their cars each day, leaving wives and children at home. This too-small “nuclear family” structure, sooner or later, was bound to explode. And it did, in the 1960s, as those who grew up in the cozy little stable homes of the ‘50s found themselves of draft age, with the Vietnam War and Civil Rights and Women’s Rights hot button issues for massive unrest and protests. 

Yet the form of the suburbs has hardly changed, except to feature larger lawns with larger homes, thus more and more separative and energy-intensive. I consider us fortunate here in Green Acres to have been among the first suburbs built in the 1950s. Just across the now-widened bypass, the suburbs to the east feature those larger houses on larger lots. Much easier to build community when you don’t live very far apart from one another—with just enough, but not too much, space between the homes. 

Retrofitting also is advantageous in that you don’t spend vast amounts of time deciding how and what to build. Many co-housing communities designed from scratch have foundered in the years dedicated to the planning stages. 

We are still intergenerational, though with not nearly as many people in their early twenties as before. Given that we live in an academic town, the presence of the continuous flow of young people helps us remember that our purpose is, in part, to introduce them to a new way of life. Many have cycled through here, staying on average one to three years. In the years since I invited in my first two housemates, fully 32 people have lived in this little village carved from a regular neighborhood. 

In part, the challenges for students are those that all of us experience: how to value living in community equally with valuing one's own unique expression as an individual? Too much of the former leads to cult-like conformity; too much of the latter leads to anarchy, chaos. 

Regarding young people, whether students or not, the transience of their being here certainly affects all of us. On the other hand, this place has emerged within a university town, so the transience of various residents is assumed. How to to work with permanence and change? What is permanent? Well, the land and the seasons, the structures, my owning the place (at least at this point), and that's about it. All the rest is in motion, with people coming and going sometimes after only a month or two, other times after many years.

The one constant with students and other young people that I have noticed—when they arrive here, most of them are simply not in their bodies, so how could they connect with the earth? They need to pay special attention to direct experience in the world, rather than just experience mediated through screens. Many have not ever put their hands in soil! Most of them are careless with tools and must be taught, sometimes over and over again, to put them back where they found them, to clean them after use, and for example, not to put a rake down with the tines up, lest someone step on the tines and konk themselves in the head! 

Young people's presence is essential here. They are the future. Their energy and their experience here is helping them to prepare for a future that will, hopefully, be much more connected to both each other and to the living land beneath their feet.

A few years ago, a young couple moved into a house across the street, telling us they were originally interested because of what we are doing here. They now have two young children, their front yard is half garden (she grows plants to make dyes), and this year we gave them one of our garden beds to grow vegetables. Another young family a few blocks up the street from here are now busy converting their front lawn into a vegetable and fruit garden. We helped them get started during two of our work parties this summer.

Advice? Dream big, but start small. For example: a front yard garden. That will get your neighbors walking by when you’re out there. Get to know them! Ask their advice! Sit down with them and dream! Start a shared garden between your homes. Or a shared chicken project. Or share tools, experience, plants, produce! Just begin. Every decision, no matter how small, rearranges the universe in the direction of your intent. Put another way, the arrow of time travels in the direction you are facing.

In our case, anyone living in any of these three houses feels free to walk into any of them. The single basement (with storage for supplies of all kinds, worm bins, and an herb drying area) is shared by all three homes. We have individuals and groups touring through here, both from Bloomington and places farther away. Also lots of visitors throughout the years, WWOOFers and others, some of them staying for weeks at a time and contributing in some way, usually with work—cleaning, harvesting, working with structures, weeding, etc. 

Life inside this transformed culture changes each person, helps him or her grow. Shadow work is an aspect of understanding that in this three-dimensional world, we are always dealing with polarities. Our task is to identify them, over and over again, and strive to occupy the space between them as dynamically balancing opposites, i.e., paradoxes, rather than come down on one side or the other. 

What feeling are we cultivating here? As much as possible, that of allowing and even encouraging people to be both fully themselves and cooperative with others. Meanwhile, to recognize that all the edges we discover among and between us as we "come into our own" are actually growing points. As in permaculture: the edges are where the action is. The attitude of allowing, when cultivated, results in evolutionary shifts over time. As we learn how to "get along" by working together on various projects, sharing meals and seasonal celebrations together, we discover more and more how to work with both the shadow and the light of all beings, including the larger being here that we call the "community."

We are just beginning to formalize decision-making processes, and will proceed slowly and with great care to do that. Since we are still so small, and we are learning to trust one another when difficulties arise, informality has not been difficult. Though I “own” all three properties, all rents go towards costs involved with utilities, insurance, property taxes, and maintenance. Thus my power-over position of “landlord” is mitigated through the fact that I don’t personally benefit from the rents. 

Looming on the horizon: what kind of legal structure to put underneath the properties so that the community can continue to thrive and evolve after I die? What kind of legal structure to create for the Green Acres Alchemy product line (dried herbs, tinctures, salves, soaps, candles, jellies, jams and so on) that we are just this year beginning to rev up? This follows several years of experimentation with a CSA—successful, but a lot of work, and no one this year willing to take the project on. We do sell seedlings in the spring and give lots of surplus produce to neighbors who, over the years, have sometimes worked with us in the gardens.  

I would like to see more and more tiny two-to-four home villages sprout up within Green Acres Neighborhood, all of which could network with each other and synergistically help spread the idea that we can transform life in the suburbs. Our close proximity to Indiana University has resulted in several classes with projects using our community as a base. This entire neighborhood might become known as an adjunct demonstration project in the transformation of people, place, and culture, by featuring classes in sociology, psychology, city and urban planning, architecture, horticulture, design, art, business... the sky’s the limit! As usual. 

You’ve wondered, what would I do differently? Not sure there’s anything of the way this little experiment has evolved that I would change. I feel extremely fortunate to have stumbled upon a fertile, emergent way of life that both showcases my life-long philosophical interest in integrating polarities and offers me a nurturing place to grow old while remaining both flexible and open to the present moment. 

And all of it thanks to the legacy left to me by my deceased husband Jeff, who used to say to me whenever I would lapse into harsh judgment: “But Ann, what can you do about it?”