“I’m always happy here”: Living the good life at the Haymarket House

We almost missed the street. Ridgewood Court is hidden beside a parking lot, obstructed by the ugly condos in the middle of 55th Street. As soon as you begin trudging along this side street, however, it seems one of the loveliest streets in Hyde Park.

In this picturesque urban corner sits Haymarket House, the first of the three houses currently constituting the Qumbya co-op system. It was bought by a number of UofC student activists in 1992, transformed into a co-op, and named after the Haymarket Riot. Since then, Haymarket has seen around a hundred people move in and out, while a number of renovations have been made to the house itself.

One of the residents let us in and up the stairs, across a narrow hallway passing some rooms, only to stop by the round orange common room and then back down another set of stairs. It took a few more turns and steep stairs before we finally reached the kitchen. The dining room is in the basement, allowing them to have more room for both cooking and eating. There was a small sofa in one corner next to two fridges, one of which was transparent and full of products, including my favorite brand of soy milk. On the adjacent wall was an open shelf full of spices and posters. In the center sat a large wood table, surrounded by tall stools that were just screaming to be sat on.

The dining room was connected to the kitchen, with a small yellow paper lantern hanging over a large dinner table made from three others pushed together. A piano also graced the corner. Dinner was pasta with sauce, a deliciously tart fruit salad, and garlic bread; we all gathered around the dinner table and delved into the food. The others–more residents who had gathered–didn’t even blink an eye when we sat down, completely welcoming our presence, all munching away. With a mouthful of food, I attempted to asked Eli Thorkelson, who was sitting next to me, about the history of the co-op system. Eli, frowning, remarked, “I’m not sure… none of the people living here now were here when it was first changed into a co-op.” He asked Corrigan Nadon-Nichols across the room, who shrugged back. Apparently the longest residing person there so far has lived there for only about four years. Often people stay from a few days to a few years. “I wouldn’t recommend people to raise a family here,” said Eli, smiling.

Like Eli, an anthropology graduate student at University of Chicago, many students from the nearby college are first attracted to the idea of living in a co-op because dormitory life wasn’t sufficient for them. But I was surprised to hear that not everyone in the co-op was associated with the university; in fact, of the ten people there, only three of them were associated with the school. For others, said Megan Anderson, “It was an instant way to live with like-minded people and have a community.”

“I didn’t know anything about co-ops, but now I’m a huge proponent of it. In a co-op, you can’t stay in a bad mood for long. You could be in your room, all pissed off, and you would hear one of the guys laughing his ass off down the hallway and can’t help but laugh with him too,” said Megan April. She had come in earlier from the back carrying a children’s voice recorder, complete with bright colors and a blue plastic microphone, adding, “I can definitely tell it’s true. I’m always happy here.” In fact, earlier in the week, a man from Texas, who has been living in other co-ops for awhile, came to Haymarket. Considering April’s remarks, it was only fitting that he was also researching the effects of cooperative housing on mental and physical well-being.

As part of a cooperative housing’s mentality, everyone takes responsibility for maintaining the house, living expenses, and everyday chores and activities. “If you do or don’t do something, it’s a huge impact on someone,” said Megan during dinner. Surprisingly, “you end up saving a lot of money and time,” Corrigan told me, “even if the living expense price is $169 a month.”

After dinner, April took us on a quick tour of the house, leading us up the winding staircase. It seemed that it had been redesigned a few times, and possibly even had an add-on, creating a rather convoluted structure that made me feel like an adventurous explorer. This effect was enhanced when I discovered rooms and stairways one after another in the most random nooks and crannies of the building. Right before we left, we insisted on paying them for dinner, but April just laughed. “Don’t worry about it. People come by and eat with us all the time. We only charge the people who stay here for a few days a whopping three dollars a day.”