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Passion for Community Revealed in Curl’s History of Co-ops

By Richard Brenneman
The Berkeley Daily Planet
Thursday August 27, 2009

Though his hair has turned white, John Curl’s passion burns undiminished by the passage of nearly seven decades.

“We can’t create a utopia,” he says. “But we can restructure the world so that competition and repression aren’t the bases on which we build our society.”

While he’s well-known as a master woodworker, Curl’s also a wordsmith, and in his latest book, For All the People, he offers his vision of the tools for building a better world.

The answers are spelled out in the subtitle: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements and Communalism in America.

Just published by Oakland’s PM Press, his work has been hailed in a jacket note by noted alternative historian Howard Zinn, who writes, “It is indeed inspiring, in the face of all the misguided praise of ‘the market,’ to be reminded by John Curl’s new book of the noble history of cooperative work in the United States.”

Curl, a 30-year member of Heartwood Cooperative Workshop—located in West Berkeley’s landmark Sawtooth Building—has devoted his life to exploring the world outside the boss–employee paradigm.

And in that world, he says, lies hope for a world now ravaged by economic crisis, exploding population and the perils of global warming.

“In the globalized corporate world, either you’re an employee or you’re marginalized, a ‘useless person,’ ” he said, and one of the consequences is perennial unemployment. “Capitalism can’t live without unemployment,” he said. “It needs enough to get people to compete ferociously for shitty jobs, but not so much that it provokes a dangerous response.”

The vision that he wasn’t cut out for the role of the salaried worker came early, during his youth in New York in the 1950s and ’60s.

“When I was young, people had started getting together to form group houses,” he said. “That’s when I first learned about cooperatives, about young people getting together. It’s a natural function of human beings, but our society leaves that just for people’s personal lives and organizes the economy around a command structure.”

For most of his life—except for brief spells as a public-sector worker and as a fledging worker in a New Mexico sweatshop—Curl has worked in the cooperative sector.

He was also a member of what was perhaps the first widely publicized commune of the 1960s, Drop City, an artists’ commune near Trinidad, Colorado.

“In 1966 I headed west. I realized there was no life for me in New York that I wanted to be part of, and I was looking for a home, for a place where there was more community. I really wanted community,” he recalled. “I had heard about this commune in Colorado, and about the communal homes in San Francisco.”

After a stop in Drop City, he headed for the City by the Bay, spending the summer in San Francisco before heading back to Colorado.

While he still treasures his time in Colorado, “the main thing I got out of Drop City was that, in working with other people in an intentional community, people don’t leave their baggage at the door.”

Though the commune ultimately suffered the schisms that wracked most of the 1,500 or more communes that started in the ’60s and early ’70s, he learned that “the intentionality of trying to create a social structure was wonderful. The one rule we had was that nobody was boss.” Evolving simultaneously with the communal movement were the first of the latter-day cooperatives.

“The first ones I heard about were co-ops for books, and then food stores. By the time I got to the Bay Area in 1971, there were quite a few worker co-op groups.”

Curl’s knowledge of woodworking drew him to one of Berkeley’s more eclectic cooperatives, the Bay Warehouse Collective, a large building on the north side of Gilman Street between Fifth and Sixth streets.

John became a member of Bay Woodshop, while other participants created a print shop, an auto shop, a photo studio, a pottery studio and a theatrical troupe. “All the money went into a central kitty, and salaries were paid out of that. Unfortunately, we didn’t make very much money,” he said.

Unable to meet the costs, the groups split up, and the warehouse closed in 1974. But the woodshop group remained intact, forming Heartwood, and the printers formed another lasting Berkeley institution, Inkworks. The car mechanics moved to Oakland.

“Quite a few of us are still around,” Curl said.

His book traces the history of the cooperative and communal movements in America, a social current that reaches back to the nation’s original inhabitants, and that accompanied the Pilgrims in the earliest years. Berkeley readers will find detailed histories of the much beloved and long lost Berkeley Co-op, of Pipe City in Oakland, and a surprising number of other ventures now mostly forgotten.

Curl sees co-ops and communes as counterinstitutions to the corporations empowered by the Industrial Revolution.

“The promise of machines and technology was the ability to create a good life for everyone. But the combination of technology and capitalism created something very different, where all the wealth created by industry is funneled into the hands of a very small elite.”

Curl said the first cooperatives were part of a wave of social movements that emerged in the nation’s earliest years, with journeymen workers who were also visionaries calling for different ways to organize communities and the workplace.

His book traces the colorful and fascinating history of American counterinstitutions, including phenomena such as Abolitionist communes, union cooperatives, and the brief period during the New Deal when the government aided the desperately unemployed who were in search of new ways to bring sustenance to their families.

Does the current economic crisis also pose a new opportunity for cooperation?

“It’s the only way to create more options for living at a time when people are unemployed and helpless or working at jobs they detest,” he said.

The same vision that inspired Curl’s exploration of the world of the cooperative and the communal is now driving his fight to preserve the West Berkeley Plan.

“Property owners have been keeping the land off the market to provoke a zoning crisis,” he said.

“During the 1980s, when we wrote the West Berkeley Plan, we had an excellent local government led by a populist mayor, Loni Hancock. The city staff had been given the direction, ‘Let’s see if a community can plan itself.’ ”

Now, he said, under Hancock’s spouse, Mayor Tom Bates, city government has sided with developers to break the consensus so carefully constructed two decades before.

One of the central concerns of the earlier plan “had been the recognition that there were very vulnerable parts of the community, with the arts and crafts especially vulnerable. But the profit motive is the only force for economic development that excludes the community. Viewed through the profit motive, you’re not an individual; you’re labor.”

As a leader of WEBAIC—West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies— Curl has been fighting to preserve the sense of community protected in the existing plan. And if history is any judge, the development community has roused a formidable foe.

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