Penington Friends House was established by Quakers in New York City who wanted to offer visiting Friends a safe home-like environment, but in the 1980s it transitioned to a communal living model, accommodating people of various faiths—while holding firm to its founders’ Quaker values.
Todd Drake and his wife became co-directors of Penington just before the COVID-19 pandemic. In this interview, he recalls how the trust and respect that had been established among residents helped see them all through those difficult early months.
“At a time when young people are having a harder time purchasing houses and older people are ending up alone in their later years because family moves on,” Todd says, “this is a viable way of living and it is a more simple way of living.”
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New York is famous for attracting people who are going to work hard and be successful no matter what, and the Quaker process requires a different type of energy and that’s one that steps back and lets that space in the middle, the communal space, be filled as needed with ideas from everyone, right– or the feelings, the spirit of everyone. And if things work well at the Penington, it’s because we maintain that space.
Communal Living at Penington Friends House
My name is Todd Drake and I live at Penington Friends House in New York City, and I attend Brooklyn Meeting.
Penington Friends House is this wonderful space that was created by Quaker women. This all came about because of their concern for wanting young Quaker men and women coming to the city to have a safe home environment, and they created a boarding house. Now originally it was a white tablecloth, kind of Downton Abbey upstairs-maid, downstairs-maid kind of place; not very egalitarian. But in the 80s it became a collaborative house. So that’s the model that we’re still operating on.
The Importance of Community During Covid
Three years ago my wife and I became the Directors of Operations there and we’ve worked real hard to, in that time, develop the community. There was already a community there, of course, but we felt like as teachers coming from teaching backgrounds there were other things we could do and so we’ve tried to help create a kind of special spirit there. And so our goal was to come in and do that and immediately we were hit by the pandemic, and I was very worried that this communal way of living– like, we all sit at a table together and eat dinners shoulder to shoulder; we share the same kitchen, the same bathrooms, the same common areas (imagine a family of 26 people living in a big house). We felt very vulnerable to the pandemic, but because we had laid that initial groundwork of building trust and respect with each other and because it was there when we came in, we were able to, as a community, come together with Quaker process, and what initially seemed like a deficit turned out to be a real asset to surviving a crisis.
Quaker Values at Penington House
We’re about 25% Quaker, 75% not. We have some people who are very devoutly Christian, others who are atheist. We have Jewish residents, we have Islamic faith residents. And so we’re not overtly religious, right. We don’t really proselytize within the house but we do live, and seek to live and communicate, the SPICES of Quakerism. So simplicity, creating a sense of peace in the house so people really feel it’s a safe space where they can themselves and not be worried about aggression, microaggression, or other social issues that make you feel uncomfortable. We try to approach our decision-making with integrity and transparency, we try to be a good steward of each other in the house. We had a resident who had cataract surgery and needed eye drops put in her eyes five times a day for two months, and so we created a graph and everyone in the house circulated through and gave her her eye drops. I mean that’s a testament to stewardship, right. We got her through that and she didn’t have to leave the residency.
Quaker Living as Communal Resiliency
And I think that’s the thing I’m most excited about, having been at the Penington for three years now, is that this Quaker way of living, using Quaker values and Quaker process, is really resilient and I think at a time when young people are having a harder time purchasing houses and older people are ending up alone in their later years because family moves on, this is a viable way of living and it is a more simple way of living. It, of course, builds community, it’s more egalitarian. So I think there’s a lot of possibility in this way of living and it’s one reason I want to tell our story.
- Can you think of a time when your community turned something that “initially seemed like a deficit…[into] a real asset?”
- Does communal living appeal to you? Why or why not?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.