A Different Path
In the heart of Palo Alto, a group called Magic lives and works cooperatively.
By Joshua Fried
A handwritten sign on the screen door at 381 Oxford Avenue encourages visitors to enter and find their host without “knocking on the door, ringing the bell, or calling out.” Immediately, it’s clear—this isn’t your typical Palo Alto home.
Inside, the house is buzzing with life. Three twentysomethings chat on a living room couch near a yoga mat and several hand drums and maracas. A white-haired man in a polo shirt and sweater—“Donald,” according to his stick-on name tag—wanders past a long bookcase, where shelves labeled “sustainable human settlement,” “gardening” and “seeds” alternate with “biology,” “astronomy” and “physics.” Lynn, in a green turtleneck and flip-flops, munches organic veggies from a metal bowl in the adjacent dining room, where a floor-to-ceiling bookcase brims with National Geographic magazines dating to the 1920s. Laughter erupts in the kitchen and, farther off, a little girl calls out for her caretaker.
Ten minutes later, the house grows quiet. Two circles form, and the evening workshop everyone has gathered for—“Beyond Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Value”—begins.
Welcome to Magic, an “intentional community” of three adjacent houses in Palo Alto. Home to 12 adults ranging in age from 22 to 57 (including four Stanford alumni) and 4-year-old twin girls, as well as a fluctuating number of interns, visiting scholars and guests, Magic has been a registered nonprofit corporation since 1979. Part cooperative-living venture, part public service organization, this self-described “residential learning community” espouses a simpler existence—just a few blocks from the industrial and office parks on Page Mill Road.
As a group, the “Magicians” value cooperation, healthy living, protecting the environment and, ultimately, the betterment of humankind. They also practice frugality. Residents and interns provide services in the community—swim lessons, mediation, life-planning workshops, math tutoring—and subsist on the cash and in-kind donations they receive. They spend, collectively, only about $30,000 per year (about half of which goes to property tax), eschew cars and television, wear secondhand clothes and eat too-old-to-sell organic food provided by local markets. Magicians also engage in at least a half-hour of aerobic exercise every day. Drug use and smoking are prohibited on the premises, and members are wary of “psychoactive substances,” including alcohol and caffeinated beverages. They listen to music regularly and converse as a group at least once a week.
Underlying this bare-bones lifestyle is an approach to living and decision making that, Magicians admit, can be confounding to newcomers. “We have difficulty putting it in a sound bite,” says Hilary Hug, ’91, a Magic resident since 1992. “We call it an ecological approach to value. We’re aiming to apply the scientific method—questioning, observing, reasoning, testing, repeating—to look at, ‘What do we want? What’s important to us?’ ”
Robin Bayer, who has lived at Magic for 15 years, acknowledges that using words like “science” and “ecology” to describe their methodology can muddle the message.
“People say, ‘I’m not a scientist,’ or they associate it all with environmentalism,” says Bayer, ’89. “But we’re talking about observing the world around you. Instead of taking ideas for granted—that our parents, teachers, mass media or other people have told us, all the information we absorb uncritically since birth—it’s applying a filter on that and saying, ‘Hey, what’s pertinent in my life now?’ ”
Every day, Magicians balance their individual desires with the community’s values when making choices. Often they will rank everyone’s wants and needs alongside a list of the available resources and try to match them up.
“It depends on the magnitude of the decision,” Bayer says. “There are times when we rely on our past practices and two of us make a decision. We’re not needlessly bogged down with what’s for dinner.”
Before reaching big decisions, however, the Magicians make a point of collecting information and considering it as a group. When Bayer wanted to have a child, for example, she sent out a survey to a range of female friends and relatives. The women shared their thoughts about the necessity of a lifetime commitment to a partner, pros and cons of raising a child in a communal living situation, the values they had taught their children and how much money was necessary. After Bayer presented her data to the house, residents agreed to allow one dependent per adult. Then Bayer became pregnant with twins.
“That changed the whole deal,” she says. “My wants were in conflict with what we had agreed on, and I’m going, ‘Oh man, I really want to keep these kids.’” Bayer gathered more data, including the fact that she could abort one fetus, but not without risk to the other. After more discussion, the house agreed to support the twins.
“It’s phenomenal what people here have given me,” says Bayer. “The first year of the kids’ life, Hilary stayed up all night and slept during the day so we had 24-hour care and coverage.” Bayer is the twins’ legal guardian, and they understand that she gave birth to them. But at Magic, she says, “these girls have two mothers and all these different adults” who help raise them.
Magic began in 1972, when co-founder David Schrom tried to open a post office box in Palo Alto with a community of friends but was told unrelated individuals couldn’t share a box. Families and organizations could, however. “Okay, we’re Magic,” he declared. “It’s an organization. This’ll be the Magic box.”
Schrom and company began renting a house together in 1975 and moved into their Oxford Avenue home in 1988. Since then, 10,000 Stanford students and alumni have participated in the Magicians’ tree-planting and dorm-outreach programs. And Schrom estimates the group serves more than 2,000 guest meals a year.
Some of Magic’s rules may seem rigid (a note taped to 381 Oxford’s sole toilet reads, “Gentlemen, please sit to pee or ask someone where to pee outside.”), but after more than two decades of trial and error, the Magicians believe they know what it takes to maintain an effective community. Communication and consideration are fundamental, they say. Common areas are kept tidy; the kitchen, for example, has a neat assortment of rags and sponges for different cleaning purposes. Every inch of space is used efficiently. The small, individual bedrooms are equipped with lofts or Murphy beds to increase storage capacity, and the basement is packed with everything from sealed jars of excess raisins to extra bike parts. Noise is kept to a minimum; at the monthly dance party, the music stops promptly at 10 p.m.
Although residents have limited privacy and personal space, they say they treasure the companionship that develops—slowly, they prefer—with each guest. Visitors are welcome to join the Magicians for a meal or planting oak trees in the Stanford Foothills. Familiar faces get one night of lodging, then two, then four. If both parties are happy with the arrangement after perhaps a year has passed, the house decides whether to offer permanent residence.
“There’s a certain mutual-selection process,” says Hug. “We have fewer conflicts than if we just took a random sampling of people.”
Some people just stick a toe in the water. Andrew Papson, for example, attended two “Beyond Illusion” seminars at Magic last year. “The subject matter and the dynamics of the organization were interesting,” says Papson, ’01. “But I couldn’t relate to the logic used. During the first session, we were talking about how there are no needs, only wants. And it came to, ‘Well, I need to breathe,’ and David said, ‘Isn’t that really a choice?’ And everyone just kind of nodded at the wisdom. That sort of turned me off.”
Hug acknowledges that Magic isn’t for everyone. Its primary purpose, she says, is to provide an example of “living well” in a world where few people “walk the talk.”
“The most powerful thing about our example is that we’re living differently,” she says. “And people will see, ‘Oh, here’s a different way to do family, here’s people who have remained fit at 70, here’s people who are cooperatively raising kids.’ It expands your idea about what’s possible.”
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