Syracuse University Magazine

Finding Community at SU and Beyond

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By Jeffrey Mabee

Growing up in suburban New Jersey with a large extended family, I began at an early age to like the idea of living in a close community. I wished my cousins, who lived a mile away, could be in my backyard. As I think of it now, I’d say my mother’s Russian Orthodox church community was my model. Her parents came to this country from Austria-Hungary just before WW I. They started a church that became the center of a large community where, indeed, cousins did live in each other’s backyards. I spent many happy days in that community and fondly recall playing ball, celebrating holidays and birthdays, splashing around in the nearby brook, and lots of cases of puppy love. I also remember many talks with our handyman/landscaper, whom I’d regale with visions of my utopian world. His greeting to me was often, “So how is your utopia going?” 

Today, I find myself at home in the Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage in midcoast Maine. It’s a sustainable community where a house can be “so energy efficient that you can heat it with a hairdryer,” as a video on the community’s web site reports, and our community members are “committed to living lightly on the Earth and in harmony with nature.” The idea of participating in an intentional community compelled me to give up my beautiful waterfront home. I could not have defined it before, but cohousing is what I’ve been seeking for as long as I can remember. 

Syracuse gave me a  sense of community as well. My first visit, in fall 1967, when I was a junior in high school, was exciting in many ways. I attended a Sam & Dave dance concert that was definitely an eye opener and still makes me smile. And, believe it or not, I loved the idea of living in a dorm community, such as it was, with 450 other freshman males in Watson Hall. I did love Watson—having the close neighbors around my door, making friends with students down the hall, or visiting on another floor, which greatly extended my community. I liked it so much I signed up for another year and then was an RA there for two more years upon returning to SU after a two-year hiatus following my father’s early death.

While at SU I found friends who were also interested in community. Some began a cooperative household in nearby Fayetteville. I loved the cooperative meals, the regular jam sessions, the gardens, the shared transportation. When I got wind of the Men’s Coop on Marshall Street, I put my name on the list and lived there for two short months my junior year, but left school when my father died. Meanwhile, some of my friends were starting a kind of cooperative TV station in the basement of Watson. We even managed to have a few “happenings” there, and it was one of the highlights of my time at SU, shooting and mixing live content for the station.

So now, these many years later, I still seek community, so much so that I’ve been willing to work as many as 20 hours per week, creating our cohousing and ecovillage community here in Belfast, where I have lived for the past 32 years. We plan to have 36 families and have sold all but four homes in spite of the worst real estate market in memory. The homes are designed to passivhaus standards—a high German standard regarding energy use and energy capture—and are realizing 90 percent energy savings. Choose the solar options, and it’s a net-zero home. But really, the eco-home is just a bonus. What my wife and I are buying into is a way of life, a life of close community, a life of shared values and common interests in growing food, having a small carbon footprint, sharing resources, and working together for the common good. It’s a dream come true for me, and it’s taken much more work than I ever thought my utopia would require. So far the work has been well worth it!

Jeffrey Mabee ’74 is a graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology. He traveled and lived in Mexico, Hawaii, and Alaska, and worked as a fisherman, cabinetmaker, and nurseryman before obtaining a master’s degree in counseling and setting up a private practice with his wife, Judith Grace, that they have run for the past 25 years. They are also co-founders of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Belfast.