This is great if you're passing through (OMG, so great!!) and great if you enjoy meeting and hosting lots of people and events. But, just like at my home (Cornerstone Housing Co-op), it can be hard to get on with your own life and projects if there's a stream of guests, particularly guests who want to know all about you and your project and who may not speak your language. The trick is to manage the flow of visitors so that residents and workers can relax in their own space, without being on duty the whole time.
Both Can Masdeu and Aurea Social are far more open than Cornerstone, positively inviting the public in and taking it as read that political travellers will want to drop by or stay for a night or a week. But other than that, the two communities contrast in almost every way.
Aureas is primarily a workspace: office, shop/cafe, studios and consulting rooms. It has a shop front and the core two floors of a city centre block. Other than the shop front, there are barely any windows, as the outsides of the building are flats (though it does have a great roof terrace, overlooked by 6 more floors of flats all round). No one technically lives there, though several people have their own spaces to work and often work through the night, and there are often guests staying over.
There are overlapping communities of users:
1. those working for the Cooperativa Integral Catalana (paid or volunteers) who work normal office hours, staffing the reception desk, managing the 'rebost' (pantry), working on the building or terrace garden, etc
2. those employed by the CIC and related projects who do IT stuff in their own time and have their own spaces
3. Guests, either using Aureasocial as a base or stopping off point while in Barcelona or (like me) actually studying or working with the CIC, sometimes for weeks.
4. people running and attending workshops in the studios
5. people who rent consulting rooms by the hour or day for therapy work (and their clients)
Communal lunches happen on an ad hoc basis, if anyone feels like doing it and collecting cash from the others. Yet all the people use the same kitchen and bathrooms and there is autonomous turnover of members within each group, so there's some sense of chaos and not knowing who other people are that are in the same space, occasionally for weeks at a time.
There are still one or two people in Group 1 who've been around since the beginning, about six years. Of Group 3, many are familiar with the project, possibly having been centrally involved or just having stayed regularly in the past. Multiple land projects and other projects have spun off from the CIC, taking core activists with them, who often return to the city. Unsurprisingly their sense of belonging in Aureas is obvious. However, of those who currently spend the most time in the building (Group 2), most have been there less than two years and are therefore unfamiliar with many visitors.
There's a lack of clarity over who's responsible for what. But what is clear is that all the building users focus on managing and developing the wider CIC project and managing the co-working and meeting spaces rather than putting energy into creating community within the building or staying on top of the property maintenance itself. Clearly I think this is problematic, but equally, to some degree that is the nature of 'autogestion' (self-management) - with such fluid group dynamics and gaps in responsibility, people will do the things they want to do, all of which are also necessary to the project.
My impression is that there are just gaps in the social ecology of the place that need filling with people who understand and want to put energy into the social/communication needs of the group and the physical needs of the building. These kinds of things can seem prosaic when you're working on exciting new international developments, but they form the foundations that support radical projects and the people within them.
Can Masdeu, in the Coll Serolla hills outside the city, is home to 23 adults and several children, distributed through a large house and its gardens. There is a very strong focus on Can Masdeu as a project in itself, with minimum time and work commitments, which probably average out at about 10-12 hrs/wk. The members are involved in all kinds of projects and livelihoods, usually with some ecological, social economy or other activist focus.
But there are many outsiders swelling the ranks:
- Every Thursday is a workday, where most residents do building related tasks and lots of volunteers come to work in the gardens. It's a sanctuary for people new to Barcelona, an opportunity to learn skills and make friends and there are many people who come every week.
- Nearly every Sunday Can Masdeu hosts the PIC, a day of eclectic workshops, discussions, performances, films and food in the social centre part of the building - there were 100-200 people at each one i attended. Sometimes a team from Can Masdeu organises the days, other Sundays are organised by outside collectives.
- Some of the gardens are managed by individuals from the local neighbourhood and there's a community allotment group. Neighbours often use the gardens for barbecues and family celebrations.
- There seem to be friends of friends and interested guests staying most of the time, and there's an 'habitacion de los invitados' bunk rooom to accommodate them. Many are students or young people interested in experiencing the community or actually studying it. Invitados are expected to muck in with the life of the community.
Communal midday & evening meals are served in the community's kitchen, though there are usually around half the members at any one meal, since many have their own cooking facilities. There's plenty of space to hide away even from the community itself if you've had enough of people. The community alternates between 'closed' and 'open' months for visitors who aren't friends of existing members and it's one person's role to liaise with them. As I was lucky enough to have friends at Can Masdeu already, i saw it in both closed and open periods - it was pretty busy either way.
The social centre is kept separate from the living areas, and has its own catering kitchen, hall and patio. The community gardens are also accessed without going via any living areas. This means that residents can easily ignore the goings on on Thursdays and Sundays if they want to.
The community has existed for 16 years now and it has (by my standards) a very slow turnover in membership - several founding members are still around and most members have been there more than 5 years. There are loads of rotas, procedures and agreements about how decisions get made and things get done. To my eyes it seemed like it was in a groove, with everything running pretty smoothly.
Is there actually anything to learn from the comparison?
Well, yes - the thing that I noticed was that despite the levels of organisation and apparent smooth-running at Can Masdeu, there were still people annoyed at other people, at lack of communication, at people doing things without discussing them, at jobs being prioritised differently by other members, at a lack of political engagement. And both places had members who were fatigued by (or uninterested in) strangers coming through the space. Which is just like Cornerstone and pretty much every other community I've experienced.
To me, it's just one more proof that humans adapt and can live in wildly varying situations while still feeling roughly the same levels of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, often based on how much control they feel.
My own experience and political desires tend to push me to the more chaotic, dynamic, less-than-totally-safe end of the spectrum of communities. In other words, I both love connecting with new people and also value Cornerstone's dual roles as
- an informative/transformative space, challenging assumptions and behaviours for visitors and residents alike and
- a social hub/hostel for travelling thinkers and doers.
I feel that having places that serve this latter role is necessary both to their own local radical scene (in terms of bringing in new ideas and making wider connections) and also to geographically spread out movements, enabling easier organising across various locations. It was definitely part of the vision of the 90s generation of Radical Routes coops, to have these 'homes' across the country which would welcome you on your travels.
So there is a constant tension between balancing these desires with the (often) conflicting needs for a feeling of safety and agency, a peaceful environment and having enough time/money resources to spend on communal property and group social health. Or possibly the tension is how to manage the conflicting desires of different residents ;-)
Another (completely subjective) question is: when do you decide just to accept that people will always be a bit irritated and a bit irritating and when do you decide to try and change the situation? Is it basically the case that things will change when someone gets pissed off enough to take the lead in addressing them? Clearly those who feel they have agency are more likely to try and change things they don't like, and those who feel very little will either numb themselves to particular aspects (which pretty much always creates greater or lesser levels of division) or eventually leave. And this is the thing that longer-term members need to be extremely conscious of, otherwise they might just find themselves the last ones standing.