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In 2000, Harvard sociology professor Robert D. Putnam tracked the erosion of American social networks and civic involvement in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Through his research on Americans' declining participation in things like bowling leagues, church groups, voting, and even dinner parties, Putnam concluded that 20th-century Americans were an alarmingly isolated bunch.
Three years after publication of Putnam's seminal book, not much has changed. Most people don't know their neighbors' names (much less the names of the people they work out next to at the gym) and are still -- socially speaking -- bowling alone. This deeply troubles 22-year-old Mike Benham of Hayes Valley. A Georgia native who moved to the Bay Area five years ago, Benham has devoted his life to rebuilding the human networks he feels society has lost. And in the last several months, Benham has unleashed a torrent of what he calls "community-building" projects.
There's his Anarchist Knitting Circle, which meets in his apartment on Thursday nights -- not to plot the overthrow of governments, but to actually knit. There's the online book-lending library he created. Most recently, he helped coordinate a May Day celebration in Dolores Park in which attendees were invited to share skills with each other. One participant taught people how to repair bikes; another demonstrated how to make and use stilts.
"I'm really into having demonstrations that actually demonstrate something," says Benham, a lanky young man in beat-up skateboarding high-tops. He wears a homemade necklace of acorn caps and a long-underwear shirt under a T-shirt, and has stopped brushing his mop of brown hair in what looks like an optimistic attempt to create dreadlocks.
Benham is a dedicated anarchist who volunteers at the Haight Street anarchist bookstore, Bound Together Books. For him, the ideals of anarchy extend beyond politics into all realms of human endeavor. Like knitting, for instance.
"A lot of people in the anarchist community have a DIY or 'do it yourself' ethos," says Benham. "Knitting is DIY." (Since patterns and yarn-weight recommendations apparently are too regimented for Benham's tastes, members of the Anarchist Knitting Circle eschew written directions when making their garments.) "You can get a sweater off the street and unravel it and make your own," he notes.
As his propensity for making his own clothes indicates, Benham lives on the cheap, which is fortunate since he currently has no source of income. He dumpster-dives for food, frequenting trash bins near produce wholesalers in the Bayview because -- unlike grocery stores -- they throw food away before it's rotten.
His latest community-building project -- the online library -- came about as the result of Benham trying to further purge himself of material possessions. However, he faltered at ditching his precious book collection, which contains -- besides anarchist literature -- volumes on quantum physics, computer programming, and philosophy.
"I thought, 'Well, I could turn my apartment into a library,'" muses Benham. "But when would it be open? And how would people hear about it?" Instead, he turned to the Web.
On his site (www.communitybooks.org), Bay Area readers can post the titles in their book collections, along with a short description and/or review, and their e-mail addresses. When a browser finds a book she likes, she can e-mail the owner, agree on a length of time she'll borrow it for, and schedule a time to pick up the book at the lender's house. Benham also built an eBay-like rating system, through which lenders can warn other lenders against flakes or coffee-spillers. He recently expanded the site to include videos.
Asked if the lending library has any potential to become a dating service for bookworms, Benham laughs. "It doesn't have to be a dating service, but that's the idea," he says. "You know who has books you like, and it's good just to know those people."
Benham's seemingly insatiable quest to start clubs and social gatherings began during his only-child upbringing in Atlanta. He looked forward to moving to California so he could meet others with more liberal leanings, and applied to and was accepted at UC Santa Cruz. He tried but failed to get into advanced computer courses he felt he was qualified for since he'd worked as a programmer at software companies while in high school. Frustrated, he dropped out of college after only one quarter.
It was 1999, and the dot-com storm swept up the talented Benham despite his lack of a four-year degree. He was hired by a San Francisco software company as a programmer. Like many young computer geeks, Benham developed an interest in security and hacking. Before he could buy a drink at a bar, he became a hotshot Internet security expert, whom journalists called for quotes.
But Benham was bored. Like many people, he didn't find his job satisfying and fantasized about moving to a deserted island. But unlike many people, Benham actually did attempt to move to a deserted island.
He wrote on his Web site at the time that "the fight for social and economic change in the United States was impossible to win" and therefore he "decided to start a new country on an uninhabited island in the Caribbean."