Nickel City Cooperative: a very simple site visit

This weekend five co-opers from Toronto made the short (distance) trip down to Buffalo, NY, to visit the Nickel City Housing Co-op. I have lived in the Co-ops in Toronto for more than ten years, and visited other co-ops across Canada and the US, but I’ve never actually set foot in Toronto’s closest American neighbours. Our goals for the visit were to get to know some folks at Nickel City, see their buildings and learn about how their co-op works, experience the Buffalo alternative community, and think about ways that a stronger relationship between Ontario (well, mostly Toronto) area student co-ops and Nickel City can mutually benefit from a stronger relation. We’re just so close – it makes sense to try!

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Due to a late board meeting on Friday, we elected to leave Saturday morning. This worked out surprisingly well, although in real life travel takes longer than expected and an (aimed for) 8am departure time got us to Nickel City at the crack of noon. We were greeted by Heather, and we got an extensive tour of Ol Wondermoth – Nickel City’s largest, and first house. It’s an amazing mansion, with 3 large common rooms on the first floor, 13 bedrooms, and currently I think 15 people living there. They have a kitchen with some industrial amenities, they have common dinners on most days, extensive common food, and a sophisticated house labour system.

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Nickel City is one of those great NASCO Properties stories – the house was purchased at tax auction by some of its founders by maxing out their credit cards. They then found out that the building required more than a hundred thousand dollars in renovations, just to make it habitable. Luckily, NASCO Properties was able to acquire the property, keeping it financially feasible, and ever since it has been a functioning co-op. Apparently some of the founding members still live in the neighbourhood, I’m going to have to get in touch with them at some point, it really would be worth interviewing them.

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After breaking for lunch and coffee, we were walked over to Nickel City’s other house, Plankton. Plankton is slightly smaller, I think 9 rooms and 10 current residents. The house vibe reminds me a lot of my co-op, Toad Lane. They also run nightly dinners, and have a slightly smaller house common food budget because they focus more on economizing their food costs. I was a little disappointed to see the state of the rear siding on the house, it’s really in fairly bad shape. I don’t like to see co-ops like this, I like to see them shining and cared for, like the Ann Arbor ICC co-ops. Hopefully they can find a way to get the work done soon before the siding itself degrades to the point of needing to be replaced.

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I really did like the vibe of Plankton. They have a weekly DnD game, they seem super politically woke, as much as Wondermoth was wonderful, I think if I was moving to Buffalo, I’d be applying to Plankton.

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At around six on Saturday there was a house dinner at Wondermoth that we were invited to, a really nice stir fry with tofu was prepared. One interesting thing about dinners at Wondermoth is that the kitchen is downstairs, but the dining room is on the main floor. This means food has to be carried up the stairs and to the dining room, and plates need to be carried up and down to be used, then washed and put away (same for serving dishes). I bet if I lived there I’d find this frustrating, but it was nice that the chaos of the kitchen was kept separate from the eating space, and there had to be clear intentionality about bringing in and taking out the food and related equipment – it made for a clear beginning, and ending, of the eating time.

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Later that evening we were invited to attend a community DIY/Alternative Burlesque event called “Wet Dreamland”, which involved some pretty kinky rope suspensions, and Burlesque performances involving sauces and solid foods (i.e. “cake wrestling”). The cool thing about the event was it felt like a really body positive, and non-judgemental space. I realize some of that feeling might come from being an outsider, but I checked with community members and they agreed that this is a really welcoming, unpretentious event.

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On Sunday we got to experience Ol Wondermoth turned into a music venue. While we were there a festival called “infringement’ was going on, sort of a DIY arts scene thing. They just had bands perform on the porch, and people hung out on the lawn. That’s actually one of the great things about ol Wondermoth, is their lawn – there’s no driveway! We ended up hanging out quite a bit with Plankton people on the lawn of Wondermoth, and talking in detail about their membership process. It sounds really involved – you have to attend a meeting and two potlucks (or, it might be two potlucks and a meeting), and then be interviewed, and then the house votes. The process is done sequentially – the order in which people complete the requirements of attending the number of potlucks and meetings is the order in which they’re interviewed and voted in. This process is pretty heavy in terms of requirements on potential members, but because they can attend the meetings/potlucks at either house, and because each house has a meeting and a potluck most every week, it’s actually possible to complete all of the requirements in a single week. There will never be an end to the discussion about how involved a membership process should be, and how to balance inclusivity and ensuring that you get committed co-op members. However, one interesting thing about their process is the way they integrate the Co-op commitment to Open Membership with a need to ensure people will be a good fit in the community, which is through a strong emphasis on self selection, and setting expectations and responsibilities of membership high and being transparent about it.

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I really liked all the co-opers I met in Nickel City over the past two days. It’s really amazing the people you meet in co-ops, they’re just so often full of open, interesting, dynamic, committed humans. I hope that I can organize another trip to bring Toronto co-opers down there in the fall, and I hope that Nickel City folk are able to come visit us in Toronto as well.

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