Josh Heller and Nicole Kelly tried an experiment last summer. What would happen if they got their friends to descend on a small town in the U.S. as part of an intentional, temporary community?
“Cities are really expensive and it’s crazy to think that someone who is a struggling artist or creative should have to spend half their income on rent,” Josh says. “The thing is that less affordable places are less desirable. The idea for Summer Commune was that we could make a place desirable by bringing the people we think are cool.”
Josh, a travel writer for Matador Network, and Nicole, who was a grad student at UC Irvine for fiction writing at the time, were perfectly poised to lead the project. Avid travelers by nature and community builders by default, the couple already had a list of people they knew they could reach out to.
So they got to work. They read books about communes past, deciding that in the age of Craigslist, people could simply sublet their own apartments. They set up a Facebook group, website, and Tumblr blog. They called it Summer Commune, and at the beginning of June, rolled into the city of Moscow, Idaho to find their faces on the front page of the local newspaper.
“Moscow was a perfect place. It’s this unique city that is close to Washington, has two major universities, and there’s only several hundred thousand people. So it’s pretty remote and isolated, but you still have artists, intellectuals, and old hippies. A lot,” Josh says.
Before they arrived, Moscow residents ranging from farmers to Buddhist professors were waiting to welcome them with open arms. Those who came from other places—thinkers, comedians, designers, and other creatives, some of which Nicole and Josh knew and some of which they didn’t—were at a liminal time in their lives and excited to connect and explore. What started out as an initial way to live cheaply became something much deeper.
“A lot of people who came were looking for an alternative. People wanted to test out another way of life, another way of having community, another way of doing things. They were open-minded and curious,” Nicole says.
Over the course of the summer, Nicole and Josh held weekly open meetings at a nearby tavern for the core group of 10 Communers and the 60-plus interested locals to commingle. They also hosted literary readings, salons, a variety show, and a Pecha Kucha night at other venues throughout the city.
“The mayor told us that the tourism initiative we put together was something she had tried to pay for and it had not come out so well. Our grassroots efforts had really stimulated the local economy during the summer,” Josh says.
When Nicole and Josh weren’t orchestrating events, they and other Communers were hanging out with punk and bluegrass bands, dining with aging hippies, making friends with the coffee shop and co-op crowd, hanging out on a farm, and volunteering at the city’s Artwalk. They fell in love with Moscow—and with an alternative way of living.
“For me personally, it made me be more open to living other places and seeing other parts of America I was less interested in before,” Nicole says.
3 things they wish they did differently
From the beginning, the two wanted Summer Commune to be a model that anyone anywhere could take and copy. If you want to create one of your own, here are three tips to keep in mind:
1. Be clear about who you want to target.
They initially pitched the idea just to artists, but realized halfway through that Summer Commune would’ve been great for anyone who worked remotely or wanted to, like freelancers, small business teams, etc.
2. Write a manifesto.
While Summer Commune was always an exploratory project which they wanted to give room to breathe, having principles of community framework from the beginning would’ve helped. “We wanted it to be collaborative, but I realize now that was unrealistic,” Nicole says. “I think people wanted a structure but they didn’t want to help build it. A lot of people felt, ‘We’re happy to be here, but what do you want from us?’”
3. Email the mayor.
Nicole and Josh were so focused on amassing a crowd to go with them that they unintentionally forgot about local outreach. When they saw how responsive Moscow was, they realized they could’ve easily gotten in touch with local government, city council, and more much earlier, possibly tapping them for budget and infrastructure help.
Nicole and Josh are currently back in California, and are taking a break from communing this summer. But for them, it was an experience that changed how they relate to the world and their place in it—not to mention boosted their confidence in moving from intention to action.
“It was cool to see something come to fruition. I’m now more excited by having ideas and actually building them out,” Josh says.
“When people would ask, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ that would’ve stressed me out a year ago,” Nicole adds. “Now it’s fine. I know now opportunities will present themselves and that I can make my own things.”
Of course, Nicole and Josh did many things right and would love to share their tips on choosing the right place, branding, and more. Get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.