What This Utopian Artist Community Can Teach Us 50 Years After Its Downfall
Drop City, an artist community that set a new standard for design and environmentally sustainable living, was conceived through an exercise in artistic mischief — or rather, some undergrads started painting some rocks and throwing them out of windows onto passersby.
Clark Richert and Gene and Jo Ann Bernofsky were those students, at the University of Kansas at Lawrence in 1962, who coined this as “drop art,” and quickly scaled up this idea into a living work of art that became Drop City. These were the original “droppers” who set out to start a new society without much of a defined philosophical foundation besides simply, something different than the wasteful one in which they were living. In practice, Drop City emerged in May of 1965 on a $450 piece of land outside of Trinidad, Colo. This soon became a community that set a new standard for a counterculture exploring innovative architectural design, environmentally sound practices, and economic efficiency.
On Saturday evening, I ventured out to the Rockaways to EXPO 1: New York’s MoMA PS1 VW Dome 2. The temporary dome space is meant to engage the Rockaway community in discussions about the environment, renewal, and recovery by hosting community events, art exhibits, and performances, through June 30.
The night’s agenda included a free screening of Joan Grossman’s documentary Drop City, and a lecture by Clark Richert. Richert reminded me of my favorite (only) calculus teacher in college — dry in his delivery, yet unquestionably impassioned by his work, grabbing your full attention as he went into his zone. His fascination with Buckminster Fuller’s recently popularized geodesic dome concept in design became the inspiration for the DIY structures that defined the experimental and playful vibe of Drop City.
The film succeeded to inspire the dreaming environmentalist in every person in the audience. Images of the beautifully crafted multi colored dome homes were complemented with stories of breakthrough ideas to reuse junk, often given to them at a very low price, or for free if they collected it themselves. Bottle caps, chicken wire, and car tops were used as building materials, and car window frames and rear view mirrors brilliantly ended up as parts of natural air conditioning vents and solar powered energy units. The “droppers” thrived daily in their minimalism, collectively scrapping for materials, and sharing food, clothes, shelter, and the land itself by removing individual names from the land title.
"We didn’t have a strong sense of ownership," described one dropper, "[sharing] was not in a dogmatic way, it was just the culture of Drop City."
Still, like many utopian societies, the core of Drop City eventually fell apart, due to internal struggles over how to financially sustain itself. In line with the culture of collective resources, Drop City had a bank account that, according to Richert, “anyone in the world could put money into, and anyone could withdraw money from it.”
Although the community of artists and writers was able to bring in funds by writing articles, giving visiting lectures, and selling art pieces, this proved insufficient to sustain them all. Disagreement over benefiting from the momentum they had generated to attract more visitors and events created divisions between those who were willing to accept the excessive drug use that outsiders brought in, and those who did not. According to one resident “I could no longer stay in a place where it was everything I wanted to escape from.”
Drop City had other issues that the film only glossed over. Dropper Jill Curl observed that the community adhered to traditional gender divisions despite their otherwise non-traditional lives. Women still stayed home with the kids and were expected to cook for the group. They also faced backlash from locals who, out of concern for the well-being of the children in Drop City, were appalled by their decision to live in poverty when they did not have to.
“You have no right to be poor,” they were told. One young woman who settled in Drop City eventually committed suicide, in part due to the stress she underwent struggling to survive, along with the failure to gain acceptance from her family.
In reality, the idea of choosing to live a life of near extreme poverty for a higher cause is a luxury only available to the upper and middle class. Any slum in India or favela in Brazil is the living example of what happens when people do not have the access to tools or decision-making power to emerge from poverty whenever they decide they have had enough. They also rummage through junk for materials to build shelter and have come up with examples of reuse and functional design, out of need.
With this in mind however, Drop City, and other similar movements around the world, have the responsibility of making us aware of the solutions that wealthy wasteful countries must consider to equalize the use of resources, domestically and abroad. They have the task of pushing us towards a happy medium, and showing us that humans really don’t actually need that much stuff to live happily.
Considering Drop City happened almost 50 years ago, the film was a reminder that we still have a long way to go in terms of achieving access to environmentally sustainable lives for everyone. Our generation was raised in the excess of the 90s, and now grapples with reconciling environmental realities with our daily lifestyles, and growing inequalities. We have met the demand for visionaries and idealists, but we still have to equalize the path so that anyone who has a solution will be able to realize it.
Drop City’s golden era ended by 1968, but not without having impacted countless others to explore similar alternative daily habitats, aesthetics, and lifestyles. When asked “why did Drop City fail?”, Clark Richert admits that this question really bothers him.
“Drop City didn’t fail — it was one of the best experiences of my life,” he says.
Let's see if our generation's creative mischief can get us to a scaled up minimalist and egalitarian society, like the one they envisioned for Drop City back in 1965.