C’mmune at My House

The Marengo Street Commune – a 1970s-era example of group living, New Orleans-style – included families and kids

Photograph Courtesy of Joanne Moulton

Joanne Moulton says that her spacious home at 1810 Marengo St. was once the site of an unconventional version of homemaking that was widely practiced in the 1970s. The Marengo Street Commune, she explains, was started by five adults who knew each other from the First Unitarian Church. As they discovered, if they wanted it to be a nonprofit organization, they had to fit into a recognized category. “We felt it would give us some stability in the community. You had to be something, and we chose church. We became a nonprofit and the ‘Fulfillment Life Church,’” Mouton says. “Is that ’70s or what?”The commune started on May 1, 1970, with families with children and single adults, totaling about 20 people.

Moulton’s then-husband, Lanny Goldfinch, had researched other communes around the country. The New Orleans model set its own tone. “We actually started out calling it ‘The Cooperative,’” says Moulton.

“We wanted to live cooperatively because it was easier and cheaper – everybody was always either working or in school,” she says. Marengo Street’s lifestyle was relatively mainstream. “It wasn’t a ‘roll around with mattresses on the floor’ kind of place,” she explains. “In fact, we had a maid. The other mother and I hired one person to help out with the cleaning and the childcare – and she lived here, too.”

The commune-dwellers always included children. “We started with five children, and there were never more than six. I had three, Jessica, Drew and Christie. The other person with three children left when she had gotten her degree, another couple with two children came in, and a couple with one child,” Moulton says.

Her daughter, Jessica Goldfinch, was 5 years old when the commune began.

Today, an artist and art teacher in Jefferson Parish, Goldfinch comments, “I guess it was really different being around so many kinds of people. Of course, when you’re a child you think that’s normal – later you realize that your experience isn’t like other peoples.’” The adults in the commune were “people who were living their lives differently: artists, musicians, theater people. Even those who weren’t creative were looking at things differently.”

Moulton adds, “We had several accomplished musicians here, one of them was writing children’s plays. When he was composing songs we’d gather around the piano. He had only one mode of playing: loud. It was a lot of fun.
“I felt that my kids were exposed to not only different personalities as they grew up, but more of the arts, and with more involvement in the whole community,” she says.

Living at the commune was life-changing in many ways, says Moulton. “Because I had people to help out with the kids and the expenses, I was able to go back to school full-time.” She ultimately became a registered nurse. Others also finished their educations. “We had at least three people who got their doctorates, and a lot of people got delayed degrees.

 “We always had a standard: every adult had their own room and most of the kids did, too. That was another secret of our success: You could always retreat to your own room.”

Day-to-day life involved shared chores, including cooking and shopping. Results could be mixed, but “we had some bodacious meals!” Moulton says. And there could be happy surprises. As Goldfinch notes, “a new woman moved in and bought us Pop Tarts. We were thrilled, and we ate them all in a day. We were more used to homemade granola.”

Celebrations were big events. Every year on May 1, the commune’s anniversary was celebrated. “We’d buy a new trash can from K&B and fill it up with sangria for the party. We had a maypole that the children did a maypole dance around,” Moulton says.

 “At the end of the first year, we bought the house next door when it came on the market. We expanded and took in more people,” Moulton says. “It wasn’t as close a group as it had been. It was a big change. Eventually we split up again. We sold one house to some of the people.” By the 1990s, Moulton had purchased the house at 1810 Marengo St.

How did it last so long? “We thought the main reason we were so successful for so long, we didn’t have any ideology or political cause.” Even today former members of the commune stay in touch and there’s a Marengo Facebook site.

Jessica Goldfinch has noticed one bonus to growing up on Marengo Street. “Working very closely with kids who are gifted in visual arts, I find that they are so relieved to find an adult who understands their passion. I always made little drawings and things – but I was around adults who understood me.

“It’s definitely a creative setting,” she says.
 

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