If anyone were to tell me four months ago, that I would be hanging out regularly with a fraternity, I would have been pretty confused. I didn't go to a college with a strong fraternity culture, but that didn't prevent me from hearing about the ways an exclusively male organization could amplify male norms and expectations to a point of harm.
Yet, as someone who writes, lives and thinks about communal living, I see fraternities as communities, and with any community there is a reciprocal relationship between group culture and the individuals that create that culture. So even though I hold generalizations about fraternities as a whole, each fraternity (i.e. community) is in my opinion, culturally represented by the people who are living in it.
Late in the summer I was walking around Berkeley, hopelessly unaware I was on fraternity row. I saw a dark wooden gate ajar, and thinking it was public property waltzed into a beautiful courtyard under an ancient red oak tree. Surrounding the courtyard were dark beams that held up wooden joinery of a marvelous design. Reminiscent of Japanese style woodworking and inspiring images of a seafaring ship.
A young man, Ernest, whose name like all names in this story I have changed, noticed me and remarked that this was a private backyard. But my curiosity usually overtakes any sort of modesty I have about exploring a place that interests me and I loitered around ignoring Ernest's hints for privacy. It was just so shocking to me that a house that evoked the quiet grandeur of a woodland sprite's inn could exist in Berkeley.
Another young man, Gabe appeared in the courtyard to talk about bulk food. Which as a co-op enthusiast, quickly hooked me in. With a little bit of self-promotion, I was able to insert myself as a worthy visitor and a researcher to this strange home, which I learned through conversation, was a fraternity but not quite...
The 14 residents of the house more often than not, use the name of the family who commissioned the building of the house in the early 1900s to refer to the house. Forester house they called it when telling me where to meet them, or when talking about the group as a whole. However, the fraternity name held significant weight as the house participated in classic fraternity rituals like rushing and secret society business that was only hinted at to me.
The first night I came over I walked into a kitchen alive with pans blazing on a restaurant style stove, music pumping, spirits high. It'd been a while since Monday night dinners had been in practice with the pandemic and the Foresters were feeling excited to be face to face with new and dear faces.
Starling danced into the kitchen, swirling from one task to the next, in a manner that now seems iconic to their hostess with the mostess like style. Introducing himself to me, he shared that Forester was unlike any other fraternity on the block. They rejected the parts of fraternity culture that upheld norms like exclusiveness and non-consensual behavior. This sentiment was later echoed to me by Moss who told me Forester was the first place that they had ever felt welcomed as someone who was questioning their gender identity.
Food started to pile up on the table, a meal that Rowan introduced as a slice of life, inspired by his memories of Olive Garden. As hungry hands dove into the pasta, salad and garlic bread, Adi stood up gathering the attention of those who lined the long wooden table. Poised and firm she led the group in an icebreaker, what was your third most embarrassing moment, not your first or second but third?
Memories that were perhaps not the right pairing with dinner ran through the room with laughter and I felt this sense that I was peering into a fascinating world created in part by this house. A house which for 40 years was a single-family home and for nearly 80 years has facilitated different iterations of fraternity cohorts per year. A house which, could be seen as another fraternity on frat row but really just seems like a place where young people can practice self-governance, communal living and all the good messiness that comes with being in relationships with each other.
Dinner began winding down and several Foresters announced the end to Monday night dinner and began shepherding their guests away from the second segment to Mondays at Forester house, Monday night meetings. I wistfully watched as the group gathered in the living room, closing the glass doors on non-members.
It would be a month before I would attend the beginning of another meeting and to learn more about the house's struggle with their alumni board and the ways in which tradition and generational shifts clash and long for each other.
"You've got to get Sylvan to give you a house tour." This was the insistence of many Foresters, who felt that as guardians of Forester House's history, Sylvan had a knack for remembering the minutia of house information down to the last brick.
We planned to meet on a weekday afternoon so I could experience the light filtering through the stained-glass windows of California black oak branches. We started the tour at the front of the house where a small bronze placard reading Forester's fraternity name looked out onto a busy street of students making their way to or from class, or if on a weekend, the playground for the work hard play even harder type.
Sylvan and Moss, my guides for the afternoon, taught me that the wood on the outside of the house were locally sourced whilst the inside housed more "exotic" woods from around the world and that each window was different, part of a purposefully asymmetrical design theme. Their painted nails pointed to the cloud lifts, the faux pegs, the presence of nature themes within each room.
I felt their reverence for this place when Sylvan described the peace they felt when walking into the foyer, the golden light surrounding them. And within that reverence I also felt their hesitancy. If I could put my finger on it, it was a tension between a profound respect for the home and the opportunity to live here mixed with an understanding that for most of this house's history, people like Sylvan and Moss were purposely excluded.
Both Sylvan and Moss identify as people of color and financially speaking, could never imagine living in a place like Forester without the affordable rent made possible by the fraternity organization. And perhaps as homage to the house's outdated past, my tour was dotted with facts about the orientalism imbued throughout the home as well as all the ways the servant's dwelling spaces and entrances were purposefully hidden from sight. The servant's rooms where most of the Foresters live are beautiful but modest and make up more than half of the house. An astounding testament to the type of wealth that created the Forester house. But what I find interesting is that that past, those servant’s quarters, has allowed for the home to house up to 40 people and as of now 14 people who live together communally.
Which up until very recently has been limited only to men. But living in Forester today are three women: Adi, Lou and Marley. A transition that can only be remarked as a turning point in the history of Forester house.