Idealism Put To the Test At Commune

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Until the shooting of one of its founders this week by a stalker, not many New Yorkers knew anything about a commune operating on Staten Island since 1979. Ganas was founded originally by a group of six and grew to its current membership of more than 90 individuals ranging in age between 25 and 70. One of the original founders, Jeff Gross, was shot Monday night, allegedly by a former member, Rebekah Johnson, who had been kicked out of the commune years ago. He is in critical but stable condition, and other members of the group fear that they will also become targets of a woman Mr. Gross had once described to police as “crazy but not dangerously so.” He was wrong.

But before this incident, the only thing most Islanders knew about the Ganas commune was that they ran the Everything Goes retail stores on the North Shore. These are unique used merchandise stores run by members of the group, who live in 10 houses owned by Ganas in the New Brighton section of Staten Island.

The commune connection was not readily known to the general public until many years after the businesses started. I had no idea that the thrift shop I had been shopping in for months was run by such a group – not that it would have made any difference, but it would explain why any minor sales transaction required so much paper work. Each purchase, no matter how minute, took several minutes to complete as the sales person noted each item’s consignment number by hand in duplicate.

The thrift shop at 120 Bay St. sold used books, gifts, and just about everything under the sun. Eventually, a vintage clothing boutique opened on 140 Bay St., as did an Art Gallery on 123 Victory Blvd. Ganas also has a large used furniture store on 17 Brook St. that would periodically give away extra furniture to make room for new arrivals. The stores are valuable for struggling families, providing good, slightly used merchandise at bargain prices. Nearly every room in my house contained, at one time or another, a piece of Everything Goes furniture.

Now with this shooting, there will be much speculation about the inside world known as Ganas. Is it a community akin to an Israeli kibbutz, or is it closer to those of the 1960s? Is it a cult or just a nonprofit run by New Agers? From my own personal experience with its retail end, none of the above seems to describe it. The sales personnel are all personable, helpful and come in all ages and ethnic groups. Newspaper photographs of Jeff Gross seem familiar and I do recall seeing him before. It could have been at the Brook Street store or it might have been at the Staten Island Waterfront Festival, which he started in 2002 to kick off the revitalization of St. George.

Reports say that Ms. Johnson was kicked out of the commune in 1989.She was invited back in 1996 and was again asked to leave. She sued Ganas, Jeff Gross, and several other members. In her suit, she alleged sexual harassment, humiliation, and assault, but she dropped it two years later. The rumor mongering has already begun, and I’ve heard remarks speculating that sinister events at the commune may have led to the shooting. I find that very hard to believe.

The Ganasians, as they are known, are quiet, nonviolent people who have simply made an unusual lifestyle choice. From the various ads I’ve seen posted by the group onwww.craigslist.org, Ganas offers individuals housing and a stipend in exchange for working at one of the retail stores. Some residents in the Ganas homes have outside jobs and pay for their room and board. According to the group’s Web site,www.ganas.org, there are only a few rules:

1) Non-violence to people or things; 2) No free rides (everybody is required to work productively or pay their expenses); 3) No illegality (including illegal drugs); 4) A new rule requires that people bring their complaints about the community or people in it to the group, where the problems can be discussed and resolved with the people involved.

People breaking one of these rules will be asked to leave.

That all seems very reasonable, but inviting the entire world into your home is also a bit idealistic. Reality has a nasty habit of intruding on idealism because not all human beings are kindly, nonviolent, or sane. Sadly, members of the once peaceful community are now nervously looking over their shoulder for the former resident, who at this writing is still at large, armed and dangerous.

acolon@nysun.com


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