City Paper is not for tourists
On an unseasonably cool August day in a Mount Pleasant backyard, they’re talking revolution.
In the charmingly rundown backyard of the Lamont Street Collective, lifelong activist and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich is speaking to a motley collection of three dozen activists. Following a brief introduction by former collective member Hillary Lazar, Ehrenreich gets to talk about whatever the hell she wants—she’s Barbara Ehrenreich. “I know a lot of you are activists—at least that was the promise that was dangled out to me,” she jokes. She talks for 15 minutes, then opens it up for a free-wheeling discussion on the fate of the women’s health movement, stop-and-frisk policing, the remnants of the Occupy movement, immigration reform, and, after one 12-year D.C. resident chimes in, devising a collective society built on shared responsibility rather than a sense of personal entitlement.
Everyone’s hoping to impress Ehrenreich—but they’re also listening to one another, bonding over lemonade and pastries (courtesy of Tryst), and venting their frustrations. People feel safe out here, under the shade of the big magnolia tree.
The founder of the collective, John Acher—one of the District’s “last, true-believing socialists” when he died in 2004, according to the Washington Post—would probably love what’s happening in the Lamont Street Collective’s backyard. As the former headquarters of the Socialist Party’s city chapter, the collective is a piece of history, making it a natural base for the Occupy groundswell of recent years. Today, 38 years after its creation, the house remains a funky, progressive presence in Mount Pleasant, providing a ramshackle haven for activists, artists, educators, and other aspiring do-gooders priced out of D.C.’s expensive rental market.
Being a member of the Lamont Street Collective means agreeing to live with six other housemates in a three-story rowhouse at the corner of 18th and Lamont streets NW: cooking, cleaning, fixing, gardening, convening, making art and music—everyone’s all-in. The house espouses no particular political ideology but adheres closely to the consensus-based model set forth by Acher back in 1975. The members hold one mandatory house meeting a month to assign chores, plan events like the Ehrenreich talk, and divvy up cooking assignments. As current and past collective members attest, the sense of built-in community the collective affords makes This Town truly livable. And it’s a bargain, with current rent at $314 a month; adding in food and bills, it comes out to around $575. At other Mount Pleasant group homes, rent can be closer to $1,000 a month.
The collective is arguably one of the most Mount Pleasanty things about Mount Pleasant. But talks like Ehrenreich’s may soon be a scene out of D.C.’s past: The house is fighting for its life. With a decade-long eviction battle reaching its climax, the members of the Lamont Street Collective may soon have to find a new backyard for preaching revolution.
Many youngish folks who come to the District looking to do some good log time in a group house. You live with four or five other people, split the bills, throw parties, and cook together. Perhaps you do some yoga, throw down for a CSA, and learn to love your housemates’ cats. What’s usually forgotten or flat-out unknown by most is that modern-day group living in D.C. spun out of a unique history of intentional co-operative living spearheaded by houses like the Lamont Street Collective.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
Mara Cherkasky, a lifelong D.C. resident, literally wrote the book on Mount Pleasant. As she explains in Images of America – Mt. Pleasant, group living in the literal sense began in the 1930s and 1940s, when homeowners began moving out of the District, carving their homes up into separate living units, and renting them out to multiple families. By the ’60s, waves of younger, more social justice-inclined transplants—activists, artists, musicians—were flooding the city, riding the wave of the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests. And all those activists needed a place to live. White flight to the suburbs led to a growing prevalence of absentee ownership and cheap housing; the 1968 riots sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. accelerated that trend.
And so rose Washington’s experiment in alternative living: young families in Mount Pleasant sharing the cost of food, cars, childcare responsibilities, and agreeing not to sell their houses to turn a profit. These subcommunities often converged around strong ideological dispositions, both in Mount Pleasant and just beyond—Lanier Place, to the immediate south, was also known for its politically active houses.
One of the notable homes of yesteryear, the Blue Sky House, was located at 1910 Park Road NW and formed in 1973 on the eve of Richard Nixon’s second inauguration. Founding member Rick Reinhard says most of the other group houses in and around Mount Pleasant were part of or connected to political and ideological causes. That roster included one Christian intentional progressive peace house, and one called the Taber House, a precursor to Petworth’s Assissi House. Many were run by lawyers pursuing civil rights causes. “There was a house that was kind of a combination of women’s theater, Middle East studies,” Reinhard says. “There was a house on the corner going around the bend on Park Road toward Pierce Mill [that] came out of the October league,” a ’70s-era Marxist party.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
In 1975, out of that ether bubbled the Lamont Street Collective. It quickly became a center for radical politics in the District, taking on the character of founder John Acher, who organized social justice activities at All Souls Unitarian Church. By the early ’90s, it was just one of the more than 100 group co-operative homes in the city. As one of the older calls for new members puts it, the house wanted “greens, reds, [and] theory abusers of democratic bent” and welcomed anyone “mak[ing] this a better planet.” Since the early 2000s, however, the once-thriving co-operative movement in Mount Pleasant has all but vanished, thanks in part to the rapid gentrification of Northwest D.C.
For years, the house at 1822 Lamont St. NW was owned by a woman named Marian Morrison and managed by her son Roger, an attorney. (No Morrisons lived at the house after the collective’s founding in 1975.) Before she died in 2001, Morrison put the legal title of the property into a trust managed by the Branch Banking & Trust Company of Virginia. Typically, a bank will manage the assets in a trust for a fee and direct its benefits to specifically designated beneficiaries—in this instance, Morrison’s children. Why Marian Morrison chose this route rather than handing the property over directly to her children is unclear. (Roger Morrison did not respond to a request for comment.) Sometimes people will opt for trusts when they’re uncertain that their beneficiaries will be up to the task of managing a property; other times, they simply prefer that it be handled by a professional to help avoid thorny legal disputes over inheritance.
At the time, the Lamont Street Collective’s members were unable to finance their own purchase of the house. So instead, they transferred their right of first refusal to buy the house, which D.C. law provides tenants, to Morrison’s adult children. The plan was that the Morrisons would purchase the house and keep the collective there. The family agreed to allow the members to continue living there for another three years without increasing their rent.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
But while they worked that out, BB&T continued taking offers on the house. In early 2002, it accepted one from two people named Lina Bahn and Jeffrey Logan for $531,000. Morrison’s son, Roger, offered a counterbid for $459,000, which BB&T rejected. It also rejected the residents’ claim that they had transferred their right of first refusal to Roger.
The matter eventually moved into the courts, with Morrison and the house members suing BB&T, Bahn, and Logan four separate times in the mid-2000s seeking to enforce their right of first refusal. Until the legal dispute was settled, BB&T could not close its sale to Bahn and Logan. Then, in August 2011, D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff issued a final ruling against the Morrisons and the collective for failing to follow the correct right of first refusal procedures under D.C. law. The house members contend that their right to purchase the house was mishandled.
Bahn and Logan don’t fit your mental image of rapacious real estate flippers: Bahn is a Juilliard-trained music professor at the University of Colorado and serves as the executive director and violinist of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s in-house string ensemble. Logan works as an energy policy analyst. According to Blockshopper, a real estate tracking site, they’ve bought three homes in Mount Pleasant since 2000; the Lamont Street Collective would be their fourth. Neither they nor their attorney responded to a request for comment.
When the court ruled in Bahn and Logan’s favor in 2011, the collective’s long-running fight suddenly became starkly real. The history of the house, its place in the neighborhood, its artistic legacy, and tradition of affordable living were on the line, Lazar says. “The clock started ticking for many of us in the house. What are we doing? What’s our strategy?”
If you create something strange, beautiful, or strangely sublime, the Lamont Street Collective embraces it. Burrowing into the living room’s cozy, worn couches, you stare up above the fireplace at a painting of what appears to be a purple-speckled Siamese fighting fish. Beside it stands a headless blue-silver mannequin, like something out of a David Bowie acid-flash nightmare. Hanging in the archway leading to the wide, creaky staircase is something surely unique to the Lamont Street Collective: an old skeleton of a dolphin’s tail. (Its owner wants it back, I’m told.)
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
The pink dining room is adorned with paintings, photos, and a pair of green jade figurines of mythical Chinese creatures. Bedecking one wall is an arresting, nearly floor-to-ceiling length mural of several nudes, layered atop one another in a black, cloudlike, dreamy swirl.
Everything about the collective is possessed by a sense of inheritedness. Furniture and knick-knacks from housemates past crowd the second- and third-floor landings: a red leather couch, a coffee table, and a pile of empty film reels and projection equipment. Forty-year-old dog walker, musician, and collective member Seth Campbell says the house recently got a massive, old-fashioned desk and stashed it in the basement; what’ll happen with it is unclear. Such is the way of acquired things at Lamont Street Collective.
Natalie Camou, a 24-year-old documentary photographer originally from San Diego, moved into the house in August 2012. She was immediately struck by the sense of security it afforded. “It was a safe environment to discuss anything,” she says. “We’re not shy about getting into debates.” As former collective member Wil Kristin puts it, living at the collective is “a cure for the common D.C.-er, focused too much on moving their own stuff forward, and not enough on their hyperlocal, caring community.”
To create what the house considers to be an avowedly intentional community, everyone has to commit to everything. Picking members requires a rigorous and competitive vetting process. Applicants are typically found through Craigslist or by word of mouth. Filling just one spot at the collective often means whittling a list of more than 100 applicants down to 10 or 15, then bringing them in for interviews. But there’s no one, ideal type. The collective’s recent members have included a bike messenger, a neuroscience post-doctoral student, a waitress, a landscaper, nonprofit managers, a county water manager, and a food stamp administrator.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
Among the house’s more treasured attributes: its roof, where the view spans across the District line. From there, you can gaze at the National Cathedral and look across the Potomac River into Virginia. “Sleeping on it, reading on it, projecting movies on it. It was one of the few ways I could get myself above the D.C. bustle,” Kristin says. The collective excels at creating such spaces and simple activities that transport you out of D.C.: working in the garden, listening to an LP in the dining room, lounging on the porch out front or around the fire pit out back, hot toddy in hand, meditating on and grappling with the forces that stymie collective action.
The record collection housed in the dining room is another piece of Lamont lore. Nobody can trace the exact history of each individual LP. What sounds are showcased depends on the temperament of the cook for a particular night; Camou opts for reggaeton, while others prefer classic Springsteen.
Like the record collection, the house library is a thing of eclectic beauty, spanning the likes of Kierkegaard, Hesse, and Salinger. There’s a copy of something called Who You Meet at Burning Man—a “great picture book,” Camou notes—and an antique, hand-bound edition of One Thousand and One Nights tucked into the shelves. The house recently undertook a project to reorganize and catalogue the collection, as a first step toward building a library for anarchy-inclined Washingtonians.
Unsurprisingly, the collective celebrates all things local, like fresh fruit and cheese from the Mount Pleasant farmers market. Those snacks are but a teaser for the sometimes-improvised, sometimes-elaborate, vegetarian meals (though they’re often supplemented with optional meats), like crêpes with a Polish variety of cheese called oscypek on the side. “Did the kitchen look like a water theme park when I was done [cooking]? Absolutely. Were some of my experiments terrible? Nobody likes soy-sauce-soaked, soggy vegetables,” Kristin says. “Did it make me leave work at a more reasonable time because I had a community to eat and laugh with? Every time.”
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
The collective’s long dining table is its heart, where members listen to music, drink wine, plan events, debate over how to live the healthy life, and, of course, eat together. As with the books and records, no one actually knows who the table belongs to. But it’s been there forever, and continues to serve as a meeting space for the groups that hold workshops at the house.
People choose to live at the collective, in part, to champion “intentional living.” This means experimenting with just the right permutation of values and practices to yield the most balanced sort of life. That starts with staying well-informed—there’s generally a copy of that day’s Post ready in the breakfast area—and open-minded, ready to grapple with the strange contradictions that animate life in D.C. Residents are frequently opinionated, strong-willed, and ambitious, despite what their crunchy lifestyles may suggest.
“Openness is essential,” Camou says. As collective members have come to learn, applicants often want a group space that prioritizes basic communication. One person who recently sublet her room “was running away from her group living situation because nobody talked to one another, ever. ‘I don’t want to live my life like I’m a passing ship in the night,’” Camou recalls her saying.
Engagement has always been central to the Lamont Street Collective’s identity. But these days, with the house’s future at stake, you can’t help but detect a renewed determination to re-embrace what John Acher preached. Natalie Camou has witnessed the shift. “Before, there was a soft expectation for people in the house to join activities,” she says, whereas now “you’re essentially asking for someone to join the house and make it their personal project to help with fundraising events.”
Members are expected to bring to each house meeting at least one event or project idea with an eye toward integrating the community into the affairs of the house, and vice-versa. On top of that, new additions to the house are expected to quickly get up to speed on the growing court docket ensnaring their residence.
In today’s increasingly expensive D.C.—one that seems to have shoved aside affordability as an aspiration, one with less room for the ornery and rabble-rousy—the Lamont Street Collective’s value is more than just symbolic.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
Every Halloween, the collective throws a family-friendly, psychedelic spectacular, transforming its wide front porch and lawn into a weird diorama of freakish delight for neighborhood kids. Last year, the theme was “something like Ghosts-kabuki-butch,” Campbell says.
The house also hosts a twice-a-year art show called Salon de Libertad, where artists and musicians from all over D.C. can show their work. Paintings and photography line the walls; sculptures and interactive pieces perch atop the fireplace mantle. In recent years, the collective added a screening room for short films and transformed the basement into a crawl-through installation space.
One year, a theater troupe dressed themselves in “very professional vegetable costumes,” as one former collective member recalled, and performed for an array of toddlers in the dining room. The Salon has also featured work by children and held interactive workshops on screen-printing, crochet, and guitar-playing.
In addition to the arts, social justice continues to play a major role in the collective’s identity. The house has served as a staging ground for protests against Walmart and the fracking industry. The collective also opened the house up to award-winning photojournalist Jenna Pope, who presented her work on the 2013 Turkish uprising in June. It’s also deeply committed to the queer community in Washington, recently holding a queer shorts film festival and hosting a fundraiser event for the Latino LGBTQ group Casa Ruby.
Camou has helped push the Lamont Street Collective in this direction and argues that D.C. offers the LGBTQ community few such spaces. She recalls talking to a transsexual woman who attended the queer shorts festival. Nearly in tears, the woman thanked the collective members for creating a place where she didn’t have to worry about her appearance or being harassed. “I’m happy to have added that element to the house,” Camou says.
The collective’s basement serves as a studio for “Voices of the 99%,” a radio program featuring the stories and ongoing activities of the Occupy movement. The house also holds meetings for the D.C. Learning Collective, a radical education group, and other Occupy-associated enclaves.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
But its own best intentions sometimes gum up the works. Because of the Lamont Street Collective’s collectivist decision-making process, there’s no one leader deciding how to reinvigorate the house’s presence in Mount Pleasant. “In a community that’s also trying to be a house and live together and support one another for the long term so you can survive, that creates tension,” Campbell notes. And he admits that trying to create a space that’s both livable and a vessel for activists sometimes stretches the collective’s abilities and resources. So it’s an ongoing experiment.
That experiment has turned the collective into a beacon for frustrated activists and informed the sense of resolve that animated the evening with Barbara Ehrenreich. No one, not the disillusioned former law student-turned-Occupier, not the jaded women’s health advocate, not even some of the skeptical progressive journalists in attendance that evening, wanted to give up the hopes of Occupy.
Perhaps inadvertently, one audience member, a long-time District resident named Russell, crystallized the house’s spirit in his question to Ehrenreich. His premise: The U.S. is founded on a belief that there are fundamental things we’re entitled to, a schema that doesn’t include taking responsibility for the impact of our actions on the greater community. “What does it mean to be more responsible as citizens? To actually do more than focus on, ‘What is my right as an American?’ I have the right to this space, I have the right to this food, I have the right to own a gun, I have the right to have…” He trailed off.
Ehrenreich confirmed Russell’s grim reading of contemporary American living. We’ve “lost any sense of collective and mutual responsibility. Any idea that we’re looking after each other.” In the process, she said, we destroy community and labor networks, prioritizing individual achievement. “It’s not that easy to reverse that. Except in action…We do have the strength if we stick together to do things.”
After the ruling in 2011 against Morrison, the collective launched a conscious effort to reinvigorate its relationship with Mount Pleasant in order to underscore its arguments about why it should be able to stay. Current and past members helped collect nearly 600 signatures in a petition drive and presented it to Bartnoff as evidence of the neighborhood’s support for the house.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
Late last year, the judge threw the members a bone and gave them another chance to make their case in a series of mediation sessions that have brought together the collective, BB&T, and Bahn and Logan’s attorney. Through the sessions, periodically scheduled through the rest of the year, the collective hopes to set up a plan to purchase the house at a reasonable price.
But as the mediation is ongoing, the bank and the house’s would-be buyers are simultaneously trying to make the case that the collective doesn’t, technically speaking, exist.
On a Friday late in July, Seth Campbell sat in a tastefully decorated room on 16th Street NW, dressed in a blue shirt and gray suit. He was there to deliver a deposition in what’s known as an ejectment suit, in which BB&T, Bahn, and Logan are arguing that the collective’s members have no right to live there because the collective isn’t a legal entity.
Campbell and some attorneys representing the house from the University of the District of Columbia’s housing and consumer law clinic sat on one side of a table. On the other loomed Carol Blumenthal, BB&T’s disarmingly rumpled, jocular attorney. Her casual demeanor belies a razor-sharp focus. Campbell was nervous: “The most basic questions were the ones I didn’t think of.”
Campbell had done his best to rehearse the more contentious points of the house’s history. As an 11-year resident, he arguably has more invested in the collective’s continued existence than anyone else. Given his long membership, his deposition ran long and probed deep. It was “like you’re facing your inquisitor. And you basically feel very much, like, alone,” he explains, adding that counsel is not permitted to intervene. “Every question or every nuance is important…it’s a little bit Kafkaesque or something, you know what I mean?”
The mediation and ejectment processes will continue into the fall. If the mediation falls through, the ejectment suit will move to a trial phase.
To help demonstrate that the Lamont Street Collective is a vital community resource, the members want to turn the space into a permanent entity, one that cannot be taken over and resold for personal gain. They plan to enlist the help of City First, a D.C.-area nonprofit that helps residents finance the purchase of their own homes. One path would be to find an angel investor interested in buying the house for them. Another would be to become a community land trust and an official Mount Pleasant community center for arts, activism, and co-operative living. Under such an arrangement, rent paid by the collective members would go right back into the community and help sustain the house—in effect, putting the house under the ownership of the neighborhood.
The members’ concern is that Bahn and Logan could increase the rent significantly over time if they buy it. Campbell noted that Bahn and Logan’s attorney has pointed out that the collective members currently pay well below market rate for the neighborhood. So their lawyers have proposed allowing a gradual increase of the rent.
For now, at least, Bartnoff’s been persuaded by the collective’s case. In March, the judge gave members two to three years to buy the house; past appraisals have set the price anywhere from $850,000 to $1.2 million, which the collective would pay to Bahn and Logan, minus the $530,000 Bahn and Logan want to pay the bank for the house.
For as long as it exists, the collective will foster artists of all stripes, refining their vision and projecting it into Mount Pleasant and the straight-laced city surrounding it. Now, it’s a home for activists to flourish alongside the avant-garde.
Sure, the collective shares in the spoils of the new Washington; the house isn’t wedged in some vacuum-sealed time capsule buried out in Rock Creek Park. Yet in all its inherent crunchiness, its color, its direct lineage with D.C.’s past, it feels like a relic with no obvious place in the city’s future.
In fact, there’s a sad parallel between the collective’s potential fate and the wisps of activist sentiment leftover from Occupy. Ehrenreich lamented the loss of collective responsibility at her talk at the house. “All these ideologies of, ‘you can get ahead, you can do it. Just think in a different way!’ and so on, [are] part of that,” she says. There’s “more and more emphasis on individual achievement.”
Ehrenreich was talking about the “neo-liberal predation” that pervades the Western world. But she could’ve just as easily been describing the Washington striver-industrial complex, which, arguably, is steadily internalizing the hierarchy of individual-before-collective—a norm totally antithetical to the collective’s very basis for existence.
A Mount Pleasant without the Lamont Street Collective would still be Mount Pleasant; the Raven, the farmers market, Ian MacKaye, and the rowhouses aren’t going anywhere. But the reality of D.C.’s rental market is that the do-gooders whose names don’t show up in the pages of Politico can’t afford to live in the neighborhood, at least not exclusively through their own means (to say nothing of the city’s many residents without college degrees and idealistic career dreams).
The question for Washington—those who govern courts, invest in its future, live in its more colorful, vibrant enclaves—is whether all that stuff actually matters. For now, the answer is very much in doubt.