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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."
In late 2002, Benham and two friends identified the closest uninhabited island to the United States -- a place called Samana Cay, in the Bahamas -- and embarked on a scouting expedition. After a hair-raising skiff ride over 10-foot swells, with a boatman they suspected was a "not very nice drug-runner," Benham and company landed on Samana Cay only to discover a desolate place blanketed with "sharp bushes" and mosquitoes.
"It was immediately apparent that the island was in no way ideal," Benham deadpanned on his Web site.
In lieu of founding his island community, Benham embarked on a three-month Kerouacian journey across the United States, armed with a tape recorder and notepad. Among other things, he hitchhiked to Los Angeles, lived in a squatter building in Gainesville, Fla., and had a run-in with the police after riding the rails through the South. Along the way, he taped interviews with people he met about their philosophy of life. When he returned to the Bay Area, he created an eloquent, touching CD about his adventure, in the style of National Public Radio's documentary show This American Life.
But the "community" he had expected to connect with around the country had eluded him. Benham felt a bit lonely.
"Even though I met wonderful people," says Benham on his CD, "my transience forces the relationships I build to be shallow on some level."
Benham is a quiet and serious person, though he doesn't take himself too seriously. He carries a scary-looking hunting knife for protection while hitchhiking, but admits he's unlikely to ever use it.
"You have to actually be able to stab someone if you have a knife, and not just brandish it," he says. "But I'm not ready to stab someone. So I'm thinking of switching to mace."
Lately Benham has thought about putting together a cookbook comprised of favorite recipes from his Hayes Valley neighbors.
Such a homey idea comes at a time when Benham is on the brink of homelessness. The money he squirreled away during his high-flying days as a computer programmer has nearly run out, leaving him facing a rent crisis. When his cash is gone, Benham says calmly, he plans to squat -- "or sleep on people's roofs."
And even if he doesn't have a kitchen, someone will. And someone else will have a warm place to gather. And everybody has at least two favorite recipes.
"Then you can take that one step further and have a potluck," says Benham.
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