Photograph by Clinton Lake

Lydia Comer sits on the porch of her house, a cooperative living home on Atwater Avenue. Comer and her housemates buy food in bulk and share nightly communal meals.

Lydia Comer sits perched on a railing outside of her house watching the traffic on Atwater Avenue rush by. A big, wispy, brown dog sprawls contentedly in the side yard, while a calico cat leans against the screen of the open window. A few of Comer's 15 housemates stand in the doorway, and the conversation meanders between different kinds of for-profit, cooperative structures and who's making dinner tonight.

"I knew I wanted to be here before I got here," she said. "I was the first person to sign on for this house."

Comer lives at 630 E. Atwater Ave. in one of the two cooperative, or co-op, houses in town rented by Bloomington Cooperative Living (BCL). BCL is a local non-profit organization that tries to "foster an economically, ecologically, and socially sustainable society by promoting the value of cooperation and diversity," according to its Web site.

BCL's Web site defines a cooperative as "an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through jointly owned and democratically-controlled enterprise."

Comer has a deep-seated passion for the co-op mission. She graduated from IU in December with an individualized major in non-profit retail apparel management. "I was looking at non-profit and cooperative structures for apparel manufacturing and retailing," she said.

Her interest in the idea goes back further than college. "My mother had a close relationship with a hippie farm, The Farm, in Summertown, Tenn.," she said with a laugh. "It used to be a commune, and I have always been really curious about that kind of thing and intentional communities in general."

Comer, 22, sits on a couch in the house's common room, with a purple and black skirt fanned out over her knees. She has blond hair pulled back into a knit cap, and black, thick-rimmed glasses.

She points to a curious contraption on a shelf, a makeshift white casing from which a large camera-style lens protrudes. It is a homemade projector, she said. Her housemate "made it out of computer parts and a series of lenses."

Do it yourself, or DIY, projects are a theme at this house. The bike rack that sits out front is actually an old futon frame, said Seth Frey, another housemate. "Everyone in this house knows something, it's amazing," he added. Frey, who has lived in co-ops in Berkeley and Boston, built the sauna that sits in front of the house out of found Plexiglas.

Comer, who was born in Nashville, Tenn., said all the house members share expenses and save money by buying food and supplies in bulk. They cook and clean communally. They also promote a sense of community with weekly group dinners and gatherings.

"We believe in attempting to live more sustainably," she said. "Part of that is inherent in getting a lot of people together in one house to share."

But for Comer, the co-op is about more than a compost pile and discount rates on sundries. "Interesting interactions just pop up around here," she said. "We may randomly have a bunch of people playing music, or dancing, or all watch a movie together in here. We even go out together."

Nothing exemplifies the blend of community and healthy, sustainable practices as much as the dinners that house members prepare each night. "Since we buy in bulk, we pay for food, whether we eat or not," Comer said. "Not only does it bring us together, it is also an incentive to not eat out."

Comer's appreciation for the co-op ideal extends beyond housing and shopping. She has a fashion design certificate and is interested in uses the cooperative model could have for the clothing industry.

She and her housemate Frey discuss co-ops.

"I came to think that for-profit cooperative structures are the best things for textile workers' rights," she said.

"There are a lot of them in Berkeley; you should take a field trip," he said.

"For-profit cooperative manufacturing of textiles?" she said.

"I know there's a lot of co-op pizza places and bakeries," he answered.

"Yeah, that's still of interest to me, even if it's not textiles," she said. "... But I'd really like to start a sock factory."

Comer says she will try to find a co-op wherever she lives in the future. "It's nice that now, when I do leave Bloomington, I'll be able to say I met all these people," she said. "I would love to live in co-ops forever."

Clinton Lake can be reached at clake@indiana.edu.