In 2013, three young people opened the doors of their Valparaíso, Chile home to their entire community. It started as a coworking experience, but ended up being a great deal more: a self-sustaining space based on generous cross-collaboration.

Saturday. Lunchtime. In Valparaíso, the port city of Chile’s Region V, approximately 72 miles from the capital city of Santiago, the noise of the downtown area fades away as you walk up one of its many steep streets. Calle Ecuador, a busy thoroughfare, leads to one of the 42 hills that give the port area its nickname: the Pantheon. At the top of the hill, amid complete tranquility and protected by bushes and a large staircase, we find Áncora 517. There is no buzzer or sign but the doors are open, and once you enter it is clear that the project that Valparaíso natives Martina Knittel, 30, and Alejandro Da Silva, 29, have developed with their friend Enzo Claro –who has now moved on – defies convention.

It is 3 p.m. and 20 people – youngsters and seniors, neighbors and friends – have come together to share a series of Mexican dishes. They will pay for them later by providing the services or donation that each chooses to offer. This is one of the “pay-what-you-will” homemade meals that Áncora offers seven days a week. The house also hosts many other activities that are open to the community such as workshops on recycling, feminism and responsible nutrition; English and Spanish language exchanges; theater and dance performances. Setting up a game room is currently being discussed.

A SHARED LIFE

What started in 2013 as the first coworking site in Valparaíso, with three friends who wanted to share a house, became something deeper that involved a much greater commitment. Áncora is currently a space in which work and creative expression come together as well as a shared living space based on cross-collaboration. How does it operate? For example, if an artist wants to hold a free exhibit, he can choose to support the residents by donating fruit, beans or vegetables, or by making a monetary contribution of his choice. The same is true of community members who want a place in which to develop their work on an individual basis. The only exception is workshops or events for which fees are charged. In those cases, external organizers receive 70 percent of the proceeds and Áncora keeps the other 30 percent.

Community members leave messages, ranging from invitations to Wi-Fi passwords to drawings, on two rectangular chalkboards. Photo (CC BY-SA): Daniela Silva Astorga

“We started this project with the idea of doing our freelance work in a shared space. However, we organically began to add other elements, such as meals and waste management. The project ended up being more connected to a community lifestyle. The people who use this space are aware that they need to take care of it and that it works,” explains Da Silva, who studied audiovisual communication. Knittel adds, “In a conventional coworking environment, everything is about entrepreneurship and acceleration. Here it is the opposite. We want to slow down and return to our roots.” The name that they chose for the project is perfect: áncora means ‘refuge’ as well as ‘anchor.’

A VIRTUOUS CIRCLE

With the exception of one contribution from the National Institute for Youth (Injuv) of Chile to build a worm bin, Knittel and Da Silva have not applied for or received funds from government or private entities. So how do they finance the initiative? The rent is divided between the two of them and the person who is currently occupying the house’s third bedroom. They pay for utilities and Internet with the funds raised through their activities. “Some months are harder than others. When we don’t have enough income, we make up the difference using our own funds,” says Knittel, a freelance designer. Her partner emphatically adds, “It is ridiculous to give importance to monetary issues. Over the past three years, we have seen this grow from an absolutely uncertain project to one that is working and has been validated. It is a virtuous circle based on the interaction of people with similar interests that strengthens our professional work. It doesn’t matter if there isn’t enough money in a given month.”

THE REFUGE

A few weeks ago, a group of senior citizens came to Áncora to ask if it would be feasible for them to live together as a collective, following Knittel and Da Silva’s model. “In Chile, pensions are very low. The average rarely exceeds 248 US Dollars per month. They wanted to start to share housing, mainly to help friends who are struggling financially,” Knittel explains, providing an example of the collaborative spirit that sustains her work: building a family, sharing knowledge, protecting each other, enriching each other spiritually and becoming self-sustaining.

Áncora’s founders have no expectations regarding its growth. And they never have. They even think that others can lead the space when they will have moved on – or that perhaps no one will do so. This is because everything at the house at Calle Ecuador 517 works organically. “I like to describe it as a day care for children of all ages,” Knittel explains while cooking with a group of friends who have organized the Saturday pay-what-you-will luncheon. Meanwhile, intimate conversations like those heard within a real family unfold around the table and in the living room.