In many ways, Saturday’s gathering of neighbors was ultra-ordinary – a friendly potluck on Arborview, brats sizzling on the grill, wine and soda in plastic cups, kids running around while their elders relaxed on lawn chairs.
But this group – all members of the Dexter-Miller Community Co-op – had something more revolutionary at its heart: To strengthen their neighborhood bonds in ways both practical and personal.
So far, 34 households are part of DexMil, more or less within the boundaries of Miller Road to the north, Dexter Road to the south, Maple to the west and Seventh to the east. They’ve got their own currency, directory of services and newsletter.
And that’s just the start, says Al Feldt, the co-op’s driving force.
Feldt has invested countless hours getting this effort off the ground, and envisions the co-op growing to 300 homes some day, uniting families and individuals to exchange their services and advice, partner up on large projects and build a stronger social network.
It’s not a new concept. Feldt traveled to Boston last year for a conference sponsored by Boston’s Beacon Hill Village Co-op, which focuses on serving the elderly and charges members $500 per year.
“I was inspired by what they were doing out there, but I didn’t like the way they were doing it,” Feldt says.
He wanted something that wasn’t costly, and that included all ages. He sought input from others in the neighborhood and formed an organizing committee. They got bogged down trying to figure out how they could track the time of people involved, and initially were planning to use a computer system to do it. Then Tom Weisskopf, a UM economics professor, suggested using currency – essentially, play money – as a few community groups in Ithaca, San Francisco and elsewhere are doing.
“Finally, we came up with a fairly unique and pretty slick operation,” Feldt says. “So what looked like it would be incredibly complicated became really simple. The beautiful thing is we don’t have to keep track of it. It takes care of itself.”
One DexMil equals 15 minutes. The currency includes a 1-DexMil note, in yellow, and a blue 4-DexMil note (equivalent to an hour). When you join the co-op, paying a $15 entry fee and $12 annual dues, you get 16 DexMils.
In a directory, each member lists the kinds of services they’re willing to provide: home repair, help with computers, housekeeping, home schooling, driving, lawn care and snow removal, sewing and mending, meal prep and more.
Even people who don’t offer services can participate. Marie McCrumb, for example, has lots of equipment – ladders, a refrigerator dolly, a post-hole digger and more. She’ll rent any of those items for one DexMil per hour.
The group officially launched in February, with an informational meeting at Haisley Elementary School. Everyone who attended signed up, Feldt says, and they’ve about doubled in size since then.
JoAnn Marcoux needed help delivering her new dishwasher, and used up her 16 DexMils paying two other members to do the heavy lifting. She’s replenishing her supply of currency by doing mending and sewing projects.
But, she says, “what I really like the best is the social contact. I wanted to get to know my neighbors.”
Others echoed that sentiment at Saturday’s gathering.
Betty Gerstler, wearing an “Aging: Not A Dead End” button, says the social piece is the best part of being a co-op member. She’s starting a Scrabble club, and other groups for bridge, poker, euchre and just visiting are in the works.
Bob Barretto said he and his wife, Nani Barretto, joined “to get community back.” He described the exchange of services as a side benefit. They especially wanted to cultivate their neighborhood bonds because they’re expecting a baby, and wanted to raise their child in the kind of community they remember from their childhoods.
Walking past, Al Feldt hears that comment, and chimes in, “This’ll be the first baby born into the co-op!”
But, no doubt, not the last.