In Search of Utopia: New Book Explores the Troubled History of America’s Intentional Communities

Issue 270

Eleanor J. Bader Mar 4, 2022

When teacher-writer Adrian Shirk began working on Heaven is a Place on Earth, she set out to create a “playful but straightforward social history of American utopian movements.” Then, like many well laid plans, as she began her research the project morphed into something else.

The result is an engrossing read, part deeply-personal memoir, part travelog of her visits to numerous contemporary intentional communities, and part reflection on the troubled and troubling history of domestic attempts to create collectives and communes. The book is not comprehensive. For example, Shirk does not include the cohousing movement and for the most part skims over communities that fell sway to the cultic authority of a leader, typically a charismatic white male.

Nonetheless, what makes the book most compelling is Shirk’s willingness to interrogate her own yearning for fellowship and her own privilege as a white, college educated, professional. She also acknowledges the overt appropriation of many Native American customs by early utopian planners. “The life those communities created, which we call American utopias, was more or less a paltry mimesis – consciously or not – of the kind of life that North American indigenous people had been living for centuries and were, at that time in the mid-1800s, defending with their blood and bodies,” she writes.

Other facts and insights add to the sobering recognition that, with few exceptions, collectives tend to be short-lived – riven by financial insolvency, personality clashes and emergent inequities. Timing is also a factor. “Utopia-making emerges in force,” she writes, “especially during times of economic and social precarity, after wars, depressions, natural disasters, sexual revolutions.” What’s more, many are steeped in Christian theology, inspired by the Book of Acts which reports that after Christ was crucified, his most ardent followers relinquished their material possessions and moved underground where they lived communally, far from the watchful eyes of Roman authorities. Still, there were deviations from anticipated piety: “Almost always, Christian or not,” Shirk explains, “American utopia vanquishes the nuclear family, the blood ties, the marriage, often sex, so that we are only, all of us, strangers and pilgrims together on the same path.”

Utopia-making emerges in force especially during times of economic and social precarity, after wars, depressions, natural disasters, sexual revolutions.

That path, of course, has taken multiple forms. Among them are the early 19th century Zoar community, Harmony Society and the Most Divine of the Most Divine, whose members believed in adult baptism and holding “all things in common.” There’s fascinating history here. At the same time, it is Shirk’s visits to current “utopias” that are most eye-opening.

Take The Simple Way, located in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, a collective that offers members a place to live while also providing concrete mutual aid – from housing assistance to food – to area residents. The group, Shirk writes, “is mostly led by women, the majority of whom are white; all have roots in different evangelical movements but they have been part of this community for many years, and their theologies have evolved a lot over the past 25 years.”

Indeed, since its 1995 founding by six friends, The Simple Way has expanded into a looser, larger network and has become a 501(c)( 3) nonprofit while continuing to shelter its core members.

Similarly, The Farm, formed more than 50 years ago in rural Tennessee and one of the longest lasting US collectives, has gone through many incarnations, from a place where “free love” predominated to today’s collection of individual dwellings, A-frames to tee-pees, that are located in close proximity to one another, but still off the grid. In fact, the community is now completely fully self-sustaining thanks to the development of a solar technology company; a New Age publishing company; and a longstanding midwifery practice created by Farm cofounder Ina May Gaskin. At the same time, Shirk notes, most of its members are now elderly which makes the community’s future profoundly uncertain.

Shirk, herself, now lives in a collective house in upstate New York where she and other residents run what she calls a “beta-residency program” for writers, musicians and fine artists. I doubt that she considers it a utopia. That’s likely okay though, since one of the lessons she gleaned from writing Heaven is a Place on Earth is actually quite simple. “Nothing is ever done,” she writes. Plans and projects change as we change, both individually and collectively, in an unending circle of trial, error, birth and rebirth. 

Heaven is a Place on Earth: Searching for an American Utopia
by Adrian Shirk
Counterpoint Press
March 15, 2022

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