Caitlin DeSilvey | Introduction to Drop City

As delivered on Saturday 22 February, 2020

By way of introducing the film we’re about to watch, it makes sense to start with a place, or places. But first, I should say I chose this film partly because of its connection to my own life, and also because it seems to connect with this strange moment that we’re in. If you’re here I guess you’ll know that the film tells the story of a group of young people who formed a community in rural Colorado in the early 1960s, where they constructed a series of geodesic dome shelters out of scrap materials. Something about their story resonates with where I come from, in ways I’ll try to explain.  

I was born in Manhattan in 1971, and a few years later my parents did the back to the land thing, moving us to a farm in Vermont. They both had professional careers so were on the edges of what was going on, but there was a background sense in my life of these alternative worlds, people living in communities in the hills, inhabiting the world in a way that was quite different from the way that my parents were living. When I went to university I brought along the family copy of Whole Earth Catalog that I used to look at as a kid. I abandoned or gave away the Catalog years ago, but have replaced it with the Whole Earth Epilog—here it is with its Earthrise cover. Around the same time I bought a copy of Shelter. I wanted to understand how to assemble the world differently—is that fair to say? It’s an amazing compendium of ways of building, published in 1973 by Lloyd Kahn, who intersects with the story we’re going to hear. There is a whole section on Drop City in Shelter, but by 1973 it was already a ghost town. It is worth recognising that we’re going to learn something tonight about experimentation, exuberance and decline, and something about risk.

I went to university on the East Coast and then moved out to Montana to work on an organic farm. By 1994 I was living at a place call the ‘Missoula Urban Demonstration’ project—MUD. It had been set up in the 1980s as a centre for ‘self-reliant living’ in Missoula, Montana, on the wrong side of the tracks. We occupied some ramshackle houses and we taught people about worm bins and how to fix their bicycles and how to compost and run community gardens. There was a sense of experimentation at that place, but also a sense of the poetry of making do with very little. My bedroom in one of the old railway cottages had a contraption on the wall that had once been a compressor fan; it was hooked up to some panels in the yard run through with pipes that were supposed to gather solar-heated water. When I plugged in the fan a flurry of dry leaves blew out into room and then the thing blew a fuse—this was just one of many failed experiments on the site, attempts to cobble things together to solve problems, and sometimes creating more problems in the process. 

While I was at MUD I became very interested in the way that what we were doing was shadowed by some of the previous traditions in that landscape, and one of the places that I ended up spending a lot of time was a homestead where they had assembled a lot of the structures out of found materials—like old boxcar panels from the railway and random wooden crates that had been turned into shelves. My favourite thing up there was a fence made out of old car chassis, salvaged and lined up on the hillside, and then strung together with barbed wire. It expressed a sense of this post-Fordist rural architecture—where you had to squeeze through a car chassis to walk up into the foothills. 

One of the things that happened when I lived in Missoula was that I met a lot of wonderful people who had decamped west as young people and stayed. One couple was Drop City founders Jo and Gene Bernofsky. When I met them Jo was a teacher and Gene was delivering mail and making films—both irreverent, free spirits. Jo was involved with a couple of projects I was involved in and we became quite close. She would sometimes talk about Drop City with a kind of perplexity, sort of, ‘did we really do that?’ Something of that perplexity comes through in the film we’re seeing tonight, made almost 50 years on. You have people reflecting on their younger selves from quite ordinary-seeming afterlives. There is a sense in which the film allows us to enter into their own bemusement about what happened in those years. I asked Gene what he would say if he was here tonight with us and he offered some words: 

‘If I were in Cornwall to introduce the film I’d ask your viewers to consider the US entry into the Vietnam War in 1965, and especially the mandatory military draft of young men, 18 to 25, into that pointless war of utter destruction. Consider, as a young person just beginning an independent life, being forced by your government to sacrifice your life for the exploitative whim of President Johnson, his military complex and capitalistic war profiteers. I had an idealistic and naive idea that there was a happier life potential… I believe the first half of Joan’s film captures much of that.’The second half of the film is more problematic for both Gene and Jo, for reasons that will probably become clear. I hope it doesn’t spoil your viewing to say there isn’t a happy ending to this story, or to say that some of the endings are not happy.  

Gene offers us an insight into the strange moment of the early 1960s, and the film suggests something of how the Droppers responded by inventing a new world that they could inhabit together. I suppose there is a resonance with our moment, which will reverberate for each of us in a different way. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to trace a line from Drop City here to Cornwall, to Paul Chaney’s ‘encampments’, or to the many people living precariously in Cornish fields, making something out of nothing, that sense of wanting to be closer to the bone. I’ll leave you to watch the film now, but just to close, I think the back cover of the Whole Earth Epilog suggests something of what we might take away from tonight. An image of an empty road, a freight train, a barbed wire fence and some dry foothills, accompanied by the instruction: ‘Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish’.