The Sugar Shack, a 10-year-old, 15-20 person community in Los Angeles, occupies one of the most striking houses I’ve ever seen. It used to be a store (on a street full of smallish shops and no other houses), then a church, and probably some other things that I can’t remember. It fell into disrepair and the founders of the Sugar Shack purchased it for cheap, turning it into a vibrantly colorful, playful, dare I say hippie-esque mansion of sorts.
Bus downstairs (!!):
The Sugar Shack’s ic.org description is quite brief:
The Sugar Shack is a Los Angeles intentional community committed to social change through cooperative living, art, and activism. We do this by living communally in mid-city and providing free of charge spaces for individuals and group gatherings.
Perhaps they figure that words are relatively meaningless if people don’t come visit and see for themselves, talk to residents, and experience the colors and sights and smells in person (I quite agree!). I was told by one of the founding members that there is an unwritten rule of utmost importance: NEVER try to talk someone into moving in. An applicant really has to want it, on a deep, instinctual, personal level, for their membership to work out. Coming from a community that’s always struggling to make rent (and is therefore constantly recruiting), this rule seemed like a huge privilege!
I visited the Sugar Shack twice, the first time with a number of Technicolor Tree Tribers for a dinner visit, where everyone except me and Max got to mingle and chat because we were babysitting our very food-driven puppy. I felt like parents of an infant in a stroller, both of us completely occupied by feeding, cleaning up after, monitoring, and talking about our charge while the rest of the noisy world just passed us by.
Because I didn’t get to learn much about the community during that first visit, I made a point of returning just to chat, and ended up spending a few hours talking with the founder and property owner of the Sugar Shack. The visit was very satisfying; I felt like we were on the same page.
Unlike with most of our community visits, I went through my list of “interview questions” and we spoke about each one. I’m usually frustrated when people say that the intention of their community is to “live together,” because any group of people can try living together and so often it ends up like random housemates who maybe do their basic chores but rarely talk about the greater societal implications of communal living (examples might include gender disparities in housework/yardwork/construction, lack of racial diversity in the community, opportunities for using the community as a hub of political activism, etc.). The Sugar Shack was different. It’s true, my host/guide did tell me that their intention was to “live together and share resources.” But this community definitely took it farther than that; the nature of the art and the diversity and openness of the people I met made it clear to me that the Sugar Shack really is committed to social change through art and creative expression.
The Sugar Shack is impeccably clean. The community abides by a clever indoor adaptation to the decree “Leave No Trace,” as community members are asked not to leave their personal belongings in the common spaces. There is also a complex (but apparently manageable, since it clearly works!) system of chores. There are two parts to the system: Sugar Love, which involves each community member committing 1-3 hours of general cleaning tasks; and Energy Exchange, wherein each community member does certain tasks for the community and records their work on a paper spreadsheet, tallying hours as they go. Work hours/tasks can be traded and exchanged among members, and it seemed they were always in flux.
When I asked about conflict resolution, my guide had a lot to say, and a lot of experience to back up her statements. She said that the community is always working towards greater transparency and personal accountability, and that she believes the best way to work through conflicts is to have everything out in the open — no secrets. We talked about the difference between gossip and constructive discussion among friends. Gossip, she explained, requires keeping secrets; talking to one person and asking them not to talk to others leads to divisions in the house. Talking to as many people as possible, especially at a weekly house meeting with a goal to resolve the conflict in mind, airs out the issue and lets everyone know what is going on, so that no one is talked about behind their back. She explained that back when she and the other founding members were looking for a house she insisted that it had to have only one kitchen. The kitchen is where everything comes out — at the TTT this is also very true. Multiple kitchens would lead to factions, which could be the community’s demise.
I have often wondered if many (if not most) of the TTT’s problems were simply due to age: everyone there is in their late teens/early-mid20s; the more “mature” people often end up spending most of their time in their rooms because they can’t stand the mess/noise/whatever of the rest of the house. Well apparently the Sugar Shack has recognized the implications of having a lot of young community members; another unwritten house rule is to never accept more than one or two applicants in their early 20s, OR to accept a whole group of friends in the early 20s so that they can have their own area of the house to contain their energy (and stuff). I found this very interesting. I’ve never lived in a community with a large age range, and I often wonder if the older people resent being pushed into a “parent” position (I feel this at the TTT, and I’m still in my 20s!). I can see how this “unwritten rule” takes care of some of those issues.
In conclusion I’ll just mention I’m telling all my LA friends who are older than 25 to live at the Sugar Shack. I think it would be the perfect fit for most of them: colorful, joyous, genuinely socially/politically conscious, and also quite mature.