09 September, 2007

Drop City

Bringing it all together: Drop City

In May of 1965 these strands of communal exploration and cultural paradigm shift came together in the settlement that turned the corner, that can plausibly be called the first full-blown hippie commune: Drop City, located near Trinidad, Colorado. Drop City brought together most of the themes of its predecessor communities--anarchy, pacifism, sexual freedom, drugs, open membership, art--and wrapped them in an exuberance and an architecture that trumpeted the coming of a new communal era.

Drop City's founders were influenced by a number of communal and collective traditions. One was of Mennonite stock and thus familiar with the close-knit, world-rejecting search for community conducted by the Anabaptists. Two were from leftist families in New York, raised with the collective ideals of Marxism was all about them. All three were artists and familiar with the concept of bohemian artists' collectives. The fourth person to settle at Drop City, and the one who lived there the longest of anyone, was raised by parents who had lived in the Jewish colonies of southern New Jersey.

The immediate impetus for Drop City, however, was art. Clark Richert met Gene and Jo Ann Bernofsky in 1961 in Lawrence, Kansas, where Richert and Jo Ann were studying painting and Gene was pursuing his own artistry, especially film. A year or two later Richert and Gene began creating what they called Drop Art, which began when they painted rocks and dropped them from a loft window onto the sidewalk on town's main drag, watching the reactions of passersby. From there the genre became more elaborate.

By 1965 Richert and the Bernofskys found themselves trying to escape the system altogether by pursuing a communal alternative. They wanted to find land, build houses, and live rent free while doing art. Richert and Gene Bernofsky found six acres of scrubby goat pasture outside Trinidad and bought it for $450 on May 3, 1965. There was never a question about the name; Drop City would be the communal settlement of the Drop artists. (Accounts in years to come would say that the commune's name stemmed from the fact that its members were dropouts, or from their liking to drop acid; they were simply wrong.)

The three Droppers moved in immediately. Shortly before the land purchase Richert had attended a lecture by Buckminster Fuller in Boulder and come away with visions of geodesic domes. With only the vaguest ideas of what they were doing they began to build. Without money--Drop City was always broke--they had to scrounge building materials; they planted old telephone poles for foundation piles and collected mill ends, pieces of 2x4 too short to sell, from a lumber mill scrap pile. Amazingly, two domes were soon erected, and a big third one was begun.

Before the third dome's outer covering was started in the spring of 1966, Steve Baer, an established dome-builder from Albuquerque, had begun to visit the Droppers. Baer startled junkyard owners by walking in and offering them a nickel or a dime apiece for car tops; then he and the Droppers would take big double-bladed axes and chop the tops from the cars. Attached to the facets of the domes, they produced a hamlet of crazy quilts.

The Droppers had the kind of visionary optimism that would soon characterize the entire hippie movement. Jo Ann Bernofsky says, "We knew that we wanted to do something outrageous and we knew we wanted to do it with other people, because it was more exciting to be with a group than to be just one or two or three people. . . . It was full of vitality, and it was extremely exciting and wonderful. You had the sense that anything was possible." They also had the beat-hippie disdain for money, material comfort, and work. As Gene Bernofsky puts it,

    It's important to be employed; work is important, but we
    felt that to be gainfully employed was a sucking of the soul
    and that a part of one of the purposes of the new civilization
    was to be employed, but not to be gainfully employed, so that
    each individual would be their own master and we
    idealistically believed that if we were true to that
    principle, that if we did nongainful work that the cosmic
    forces would take note of this and would supply us with the
    necessities of survival.
Living on a few donations, and, briefly, food stamps, the Droppers pursued their art vigorously. Slides taken during the first year show dozens of paintings, sculptures, pieces of decorated furniture, and assemblages, as well as the monumental artworks, the domes themselves. One innovative piece was The Being Bag, a hand- made black-and-white comic book cooperatively written and illustrated; it would be a strong contender for the title of first underground comic book. Gene Bernofsky also shot a great deal of film at Drop City. Literature was produced at the commune as well; the most prominent writer was Peter Douthit, who arrived a year after the founding. Under his Dropper name Peter Rabbit he published a book entitled Drop City, a mix of factual history, fiction, and prose poetry which, despite its limitations as a historical document, remains the most substantial work to date on the community.

There was much that was good about Drop City. Richert remembers it as the best part of his life. The Bernofskys talk of it with considerable pride. But eventually the edges began to fray, and Drop City began a long slide toward oblivion, finally closing in 1973. Before that, however, it helped inspire a whole new generation of communitarians, thanks to visits by thousands of hippies who dropped in, illustrated feature stories in both underground and mainstream publications, and the occasional presence of countercultural celebrities, Timothy Leary and perhaps Bob Dylan among them. Drop City had raised the flag of the city in the wilderness and became a defiant center of rejection of the culture of Babylon.


This is a feature on the hippy community "Drop City". It is from the BBC's Towards Tomorrow



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