The utopian impulse that shaped so much of American life in the 18th and 19th centuries subsided to a large extent in the first half of the 20th. It emerged again in the late 1960s and early 1970s as young people—and some not so young—tried to reimagine how life might be lived in the wake of the tumults of that era.

As was the case in previous centuries, this new effloresence of utopianism was largely a rural phenomenon. Small groups of people established alternative communities on old farmsteads in New England, especially in Massachusetts and Vermont, in California, and in a host of places in between. In those communes, they experimented with back-to-the-land communitarianism and with self-sufficient, organic agriculture, and they explored the relationship between the natural and the spiritual in ways that reached back at least as far as Henry David Thoreau. Except for the experiment that called itself the Movement for a New Society.

Beginning in 1970 a group of roughly 25 to 30 Quakers, peace activists, and civil rights veterans including Richard K. Taylor and Bill Moyer, both of whom had worked with Martin Luther King Jr., began meeting in Philadelphia to discuss what might come next both for the movement and for themselves. The Movement for a New Society was the result of those meetings and it was launched in 1971.

As George Lakey, one of the founders of the MNS, explains it, the movement grew out of a sense that despite a rhetoric of progressive social change, most of the activity associated with the 1960s was still mired in ‘‘old thinking,’’ especially when it came to the dynamics of gender, class, and race. Likewise, the energy of the 1960s consumed people at a great rate, burning them out and often leaving them damaged in the process. A primary goal for the MNS, then, was to create a community that would organize itself and live collectively, and that would provide a context in which participants could be sustained and nurtured in their political work. As George put it, with an equal mix of pride and exasperation: ‘‘Steve, it was hard, it was hard.’’

And the people who came together to begin the MNS made a self-conscious and deliberate choice that their experiment would be urban. As George acknowledges, those who went ‘‘back to the land’’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s were in some sense retreating. Most of the really difficult social issues facing the nation, from race relations to economic inequality to declining public education, are urban problems. Many of the New Left utopians, however, had made the City their enemy, along with the Establishment and the System. In this, they were little different from the hundreds of thousands of white city dwellers around the nation who left the city for their own version of bucolic paradise in the suburbs, except that they did so for slightly different reasons and went ever farther away. Indeed, as the decade of the 1960s came to a close, roughly 200,000 white Philadelphians had moved out to the surrounding suburbs to escape crime and violence, falling real estate values, and new black neighbors they could not abide. Almost 300 years after William Penn began his revolutionary urban utopia, those who committed to the MNS committed to stay in the city.

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 06/28/06

"Heaven is a Mixed Neighborhood"
By Steven Conn

Photography by Jacques-Jean Tiziou

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In Clark Park, residents stroll, dance, and visit Charles Dickens (above). Left: Friday Night Jazz at the Firehouse, on Baltimore Avenue and (below) Mariposa Food Coop.