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Davis, California

Monday, April 15, 2024

Davis’ beloved Turtle House Co-op through the eyes of its newest hatchlings

Finding community within Davis housing co-ops


By YASMEEN O’BRIEN — features@theaggie.org


On a morning stroll past 217 2nd St. in Davis, CA, your eyes wander before you can catch them. The bold shamelessly crane their necks while the timid sneak glimpses through calculated side-eye. As the white picket fence enclosing the front yard unexpectedly conjures an image of the 1950’s American Dream, your gaze curiously travels onward, enticed by the colors and beauty of the big blue house.

Along the edges of unkempt grass, the yard is lined with bicycles, flower beds, trash cans, art pieces, tables and chairs. Soft ukulele strumming drifts past the fence and echoes through the trees. A metal turtle hangs from the roof like the mermaid of a ship’s bow while an armless statue presides over the front gate, wearing an elf hat and a T-shirt showing a lion with dreadlocks.

Among these happenings, a small barefooted group diverse in age, ethnicity and gender stares back at you smiling and waving from their spot on the porch steps, soaking in the early sun.

This group belongs to the Turtle House Co-op: currently home to 18 residents, 15 of which are UC Davis students. Housing co-ops — or democratically controlled corporations that are established to provide affordable housing for its members — are popular in Davis, with Turtle House and the Davis Tri Co-ops being notable examples.

Turtle House frequently hosts events open to the public such as live music shows, clothing swaps and open mic nights. Although a tight-knit community, they strive to welcome all with open arms.

“We share a lot of things. I get a lot of free clothes and free opportunities,” one resident, also known as a Turtle, said. “This is so much fun, this is exactly where I want to be.”

One evening, the aptly named Sierra Goodfriend wrapped me in a hug and enthusiastically welcomed me into the bedroom she shares with Katie Hostetler. Their door opens to the front porch where items littered across a large metal table invite images of late-night conversations, jam sessions and even play readings. An impossibly thick and slightly water-damaged copy of “William Shakespeare: The Complete Works” opened and book-marked to “Henry V” is responsible for the last image.

Goodfriend shared that while she feels close to her fellow Turtles, 14 of the 18 residents are newcomers so they are still in the process of getting to know each other deeply. Both Goodfriend and Hostetler have lived at the house for five months and praise the community of warm, artistic and open-minded people they have come to know as their family.

Draped in warmly glowing string lights, Turtle House at night resembles a person dressed up for a special occasion. Art and flowers adorn its exterior walls and yard. Hammocks sway like locks of hair over plants bursting with life.

One thing’s for sure: this house has a mysterious past, or at least a widely unknown one. And the large number of newcomers can’t help with this lack of knowledge. They’ve all heard whispers of origin stories, but no one is certain — although I heard a resident named Joe knows all.

“Apparently it used to be a boarding school for boys like a hundred years ago,” Hostetler said. “Maybe that’s wrong, I don’t know.” Goodfriend giggled, “Could be.”

Another relatively new Turtle, Ryan Foster, offered more information: “I think it was originally named ‘Music Note House’ and then someone had a turtle and they renamed it Turtle House. Not sure about that at all though.”

These sentiments unknowingly echo one of Turtle House’s most important ideals: life is about connecting and experiencing in the present moment. It’s about the beauty and fluidity of change.

This is an important factor when it comes to being accepted to live at Turtle House because the process essentially measures if you hold similar values to the other Turtles. It involves a written application followed by an invitation to dinner where the main focus is to see how comfortable both the applicant and the current residents feel in the space, according to Goodfriend.

Both Goodfriend and Hostetler expressed their admiration for each Turtle’s differences and how they make the house stronger together. Goodfriend added that it brings them closer together as everyone offers something irreplaceable to the group. People are celebrated for who they are and are always welcome at Turtle House, no matter how different they appear.

“Are you the person interviewing people?” Foster chirped excitedly as he hurried up the steps to the table I’m sitting at. He had just arrived home from an outing with his friend and fellow Turtle House resident, Maya Hendrix. Before I could even respond, they were sitting across from me, beaming.

Hendrix was clad in a headscarf and raccoon fur hat — complete with the tail — atop her shaved head. Her long, orange skirt had floated her onto the deck as I was greeted with a soulful and infectious smile. Ornamented in layered silver necklaces, jeweled bracelets, long hanging earrings and rings on every finger, each step she took jingled and chimed. Her right hand displayed an Apple Watch. An unapologetic modern hippie.

Foster wore blue jeans, a simple long-sleeve and a bomber jacket.

Under the string lights, Hendrix told me that Turtle House is a place where all ideas feel welcome. She conveyed that at the core of any housing co-op is democracy. Appropriately, house meetings are held in the basement at least once a month where people are encouraged to voice their concerns and share ideas on improvement and future projects.

Interested in the power dynamics of the house, Foster shared that the two people who have lived there the longest are the official communicators with the landlord, as per the lease agreement.

“They hold extra sway and are the rule-followers,” said Foster. A grin started to form on his face, “And then there are the more rebellious and rambunctious — some old people, some new people — and they say f*** the rules.”

Hendrix chuckled, “We don’t say that. We just want this place to be a good time.”

Written by: Yasmeen O’Brien — features@theaggie.org