A Home away from Home: Examining the unique culture of the Dudley Co-op
By CHIDAMBARAM “CID” THILLAIRAJAH
The Dudley co-op is situated in two warmly appointed Victorian houses. The main building bears a sign proclaiming it The Center for High Energy Metaphysics in large friendly letters. The common spaces eschew the impersonal décor of house common rooms for the warm and cozy aesthetic of a well-loved family living room, full of small personal touches and the smattering scattered personal effects that belies the presence of people who call the place home. The dining room has a single long table used for communal eating, clearly made with the intention of letting everyone sit at the same table as they eat. The kitchen where students prepare all of the community dinners is always bustling, filled with people cheerfully cooking food or baking. The walls of the hallways are covered in quotes and drawings, as well as the phrase “Workers of the world, unite!” in every language ever known by a co-op resident. While not technically a Harvard house, the Dudley co-op feels like a home.
The co-op is known as a hub for counterculture and radical political thinking. It has a strong and extremely welcoming community and offers a much-needed refuge from the often harsh and sometimes impersonal nature of Harvard life. While it is often somewhat reductively described as a “hippie commune,” it offers a caring home filled with genuinely awesome people to everyone who chooses to live there. As wonderful as this place is, communal living comes with a lot of responsibilities, thing that are taken for granted in the course of house life. Food needs to be prepared, bathrooms need to be cleaned, and trash needs to be taken out. It is a big commitment to take on this lifestyle over the comparative ease of house life. So what exactly is it that makes people choose co-op life over the house system?
Harvard’s house system can be great. Regardless of whether they get their first choice of the recently renovated river houses or moan about getting quad-ed, most students eventually come to love their house. People generally have a blocking group full of people they care about, or at least enjoy being around, who are always there to go out and paint the town red, or to decompress with after a particularly rough day. House events and activities provide ample opportunities to make new friends and through sheer law of large numbers it is almost certain that students will find people they connect with. Any house can be a great place for to find your place on campus.
Unfortunately, there are issues with the system that can make the house feel somewhat unwelcoming. While randomized housing has done wonder for diversity in the houses, it does mean that house culture is at best mostly random and at worst all but non-existent. If for people looking for a strong, distinct culture, this can be a big loss. Several people who have joined the co-op fell in love with its robust alternative culture during their freshman year. Most of them gave the housing system a fair swing, but after not finding what they were looking for they transferred to the co-op and are happily part of the culture there.
Another aspect of the house life that seems to cause many people some degree of discomfort is dining. Sitting in the large open dining halls can be source of discomfort. The sheer number of people surrounding you on every side can often engender feelings of being watched or constantly observed. Moment that should be relaxed, like tossing on a pair of sweats and some slippers to grab some breakfast can bring about a sense of being judged and on display. Sitting alone for a meal can be awkward or embarrassing and some find the constant movement of people makes some feel like they’re always in the way. For others, the process of cooking meals gives them joy and plays a calming role in the never-ending maelstrom of student life. While cooking is not impossible in the houses, routinely making your own meals is a difficult proposition at best. In stark contrast, the dining room in the co-op is a cozy affair. This single large table let everyone sit and eat together without being surrounded by throng of relative strangers. It is a relaxed environment and people confidently wear comfortable clothes asthey eat and socialize. Even outside of communal meals people regularly use the well-appointed kitchen to cook for or prepare snacks. The relationship with dining and food in the co-op is far closer to that of a family home than a university canteen.
These are important concerns, but the main reason that people seem to choose co-op life is that is kind and accepting community full of wonderful people. Radical thinkers, activists, people never quite felt at home in university housing, and all manner of people have found a home in the co-op.
Whether you’re happy in your house or interested in co-op life, it’s nice to know that this sometimes impersonal campus has such a delightful pocket communal living and inclusive values.
Cid Thillairajah ‘21 (cthillairajah@ college.harvard.edu) writes news for the Indy.