Published: Wednesday, July 30, 2003
A magical world
Cooperative house an island in a chaotic world
by Grace Rauh
At dusk the twang of a country song filters through the screens
of an Oxford Avenue home. The sun lowers in the Saturday night
sky and friends arriving to the house kick off their shoes and
groove in bare feet. The monthly dance party at Magic, a cooperative-living
house in Palo Alto, has just begun.
The overgrown foliage in Magic's front yard conceals the sprawling
property that is home to six adults, two 4-year-old twin girls
and a steady stream of Stanford interns and visitors -- who choose
to live simply in this alternative household, free from commercial
and material influences.
In a fast-paced world in which e-mails all too often replace personal
contact and workaholic kids and adults are too busy for a shared
meal, Magic -- a registered nonprofit corporation since 1979 --
sits quietly beside the speedway. Its members, the Magicians, spend
their days planting trees, preparing food, spreading their ecological
message and enjoying music, conversations and each other.
David Schrom, who co-founded Magic in 1972, is the house visionary
and started the group when he and his friends tried to open a post
office box in Palo Alto. They were told that only relatives and
organizations could share a space.
"And I said, 'We're Magic. This is going to be the Magic box,'" Schrom
What began as a community of friends who experimented with drugs,
sex and non-traditional lifestyles evolved into an organization
committed to living an ecologically sound existence. Magicians
reach this goal by taking a scientific approach, using trial and
error and past experiences, to make daily and long-term decisions
that reflect their values -- preserving the environment and humankind,
eating well, exercising regularly and just slowing down to talk
These are not dread-locked hippies or impoverished idealists.
The Magicians are remarkably well educated -- hailing from Stanford
and Yale University with engineering degrees to boot. They have
chosen to pursue a life of public service and environmentally sound
Magicians work full-time on service projects, ranging from tree
planting and teaching life-planning workshops, to math tutoring
and swim lessons. Stanford University has contracted them to plant
and maintain trees in the foothills and on campus and they are
occasionally hired to lead corporate workshops.
They have given up cars, television and cut excessive waste from
their lives. Corporate and personal expenses for the Magicians
usually total less than $25,000 per year.
Magic receives approximately $70,000 a year in cash income --
approximately half from gifts and half from fees for service --
and in-kind gifts valuing approximately $50,000. In 2002, donations
and expenses rose significantly after Magic purchased the home
beside their current Oxford Avenue headquarters. Magic owns three
houses on Oxford Avenue. The new house is currently being renovated.
On a recent Wednesday at midday, seating at Magic's dining room
table was elbow-to-elbow. A few old friends stopped by for lunch
and helped themselves to the diced tomatoes, lettuce, lemon-tahini
dressing, fruit salad and brown bread. The entire meal came from
local markets that donate food they would otherwise discard.
Days begin when the Magicians rise -- anywhere between 8 and 10
a.m. Residents talk casually about their plans for the day. Someone
must bike to JJ&F Market and Country Sun Natural Food to pick up
old produce, bread and anything put aside for the house. Others
will head out to water and plant trees. Some will work on the new
house and others on the daily household tasks -- laundry, food
preparation and cleaning.
Magic provides a refuge from the hectic day-to-day existence from
modern-day society. A neighbor stops by to drop off their day-old
copy of the newspaper. Community leaders sit with college and high
school students around Magic's table to discuss the house's future
plans. And a couple -- newcomers to Palo Alto -- join their Saturday
night party to check out the house and the community.
The sky is
dark now and the music slows down. At Schrom's call, the party
guests form a tight circle -- their arms wrapped around
each other. They sway in time with the music and when it stops,
they sway all the same.
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