Village of Light
(page 2 of 4)
When the group first looked at the property, the only things on it were a dirt road and the remnants of a Girl Scout summer camp. “We found one of their wooden tent platforms on the lot where we built our house,” says Oppenheimer, adding with a satisfied smile, “It was good wood, too—oak. I used it to build our furniture, which we still have.”
Though he’d graduated from both Harvard and MIT with degrees in city planning, Roger Willcox was truly schooled at Village Creek. It was, one might say, his internship.
“Shortly after World War II, absolutely independently, 10 or so other cooperative communities sprang up around the country along the same lines as ours; they were all modeled on or suggested by the Urban Land Institute,” recalls Willcox. “I visited most of them. Of course, long before then the idea was already in place in New York, where I grew up. I spent part of my childhood at Bleecker Gardens in West Greenwich Village, a co-op. After planning Village Creek, I went professional.”
In 1950, a group hired Willcox to plan a neighborhood in Greenbelt, Md., itself a legendary planned community. Begun in 1937 as part of a “green” town effort by New Deal visionary Rexford Tugwell, Greenbelt was one of three cooperative communities created from scratch by the federal government, the construction of which provided jobs, stimulated the local economy and eased a housing shortage in the Washington, D.C., area. The Greenbelt neighborhood Willcox planned was Lakeside, completed in 1953.
“The Quakers started a community on their own similar to this, called Penn South, and there were others in the hills of Berkeley, Calif., and Skyview Acres in Rockland County, N.Y.,” says Willcox.
One of the more idiosyncratic of these communities was in nearby Westchester County. Called Usonia Homes, it was the brainchild of Frank Lloyd Wright. Like Village Creek, the land for this planned community in Pleasantville was purchased collectively by a group of couples from New York City. Wright, who harbored a utopian streak, probably agreed to plan their community because it gave him the chance to put his ideals into practice on a blank 100-acre canvas. He decided where each house should be placed, and who should design them (he designed three of the houses himself). He also planned the circular neighborhood layout and, a signature of his genius, placed the houses organically within the contours and natural features of the land. Sixty percent of Usonia Homes was forest and meadow, and its houses are nearly invisible from main roads.
Despite Wright’s special touches, one Usonia Home resident ended up moving to Village Creek. “And he lived here happily ever after,” says Willcox with a laugh. “Most of the people driving this effort to build cooperative communities were war vets. They all followed the same basic concept. All were integrated and each homeowner was given one vote in all decisions.”
Willcox went on to become one of the nation’s leading proponents of cooperative housing and the open-occupancy philosophy. He was founder and longtime president of the National Association of Housing Cooperatives and responsible for about 20,000 units of such housing in New York City alone.
His successful career speaks for itself—you can look it up, as they say—but it was the experience at Village Creek that provided Willcox with the necessary toughness to prevail in all the uphill struggles he faced along the way.
As to Village Creek, its travails began before even a road had been carved through the woods or a single house built.
“The crazy behavior started early,” Willcox recalls. “Within the first 30 days that we owned the property, we already had 30 families signed up to build homes here. Around that time, we held a party on the beach. At some point, a police car arrived with two Catholic priests in the backseat. They didn’t say anything, but the cop who was driving told us they were from Manresa institute located on the island just off the coast. The priests or monsignors, or whatever they were, wanted to know a bit about our group.”