Outside, the garden was over-grown but welcoming and the fire pit in the back yard always hosted a small, festive crowd. Inside, the walls are covered in graffiti, lined with art, and crammed with obscure objects and overflowing bookshelves.
Hilarity, a Victorian house off MLK Blvd in Berkeley, was a home and community center for Bay Area non-conformists and counter-culture individuals. But on Feb. 15, the windows of the North Oakland communal house were boarded up as it faced the verdict of a civil law suit that might be the end of its wild, 18 year history.
In 2004, Oakland resident Pradjete Pal filed a civil suit when he bought the house at a foreclosure auction and found it inhabited-by a group who refused to leave.
A strong dedication to keeping the house free and in the hands of the community led the Hilarity Collective to file a rare and difficult Reverse Possession case. their hope is that this case will give the Collective legal ownership of the house on the grounds that they were openly and notoriously living there for a number of years while maintaining and fixing the property.
“We feel like this is a place worth fighting for and our intentions for it are good,” said an eight-year Hilarity resident, Robert Eggplant. “Pradjete Pal is not serious about owning it, he bought it to sell, but this is a home.”
While the Oakland Civil Court decides whether the Hilarity Collective is the rightful owner of the property, the house should be- according to the law-in legal possession limbo. This would allow the Collective to maintain residency, which hey did for three years. However, residents said court pressures eventually led to a break down within the Collective and residents have been slowly moving out since October.
Just five months ago Hilarity was thriving with some of the Bay’s most colorful sub-culture and active community members. Resource center, library, radio station, squatter pad, musical jam space, art studio, bike shop and so much more; Hilarity’s open door policy made the house a community center as well as a safe haven for travelers of all kinds.
“All types of people were welcome there,” said Hannah Forsberg, a Mills College sophomore who used to go to punk shows at the house. “I met travelers from across the U.S., activists from Mexico, anarchists, artists, tons of musicians. I’m sad to see it get shut down.”
Fennet Williams, an environmentalist, anti-capitalist commune member, purchased Hilarity in the early 1990s. His vision was to create what he called an “urban green space” where the residents would exchange community work like gardening and home improvement for rent. When Williams’ vision turned to reality and the house filled with like-minded individuals, he left.
Yet Williams still remained the lawful owner, however, he neglected to pay taxes on the property and those who lived in the house were not aware of this. After a few years, Hilarity faced foreclosure because of unpaid taxes. Eggplant said he was an active participant in the household’s Collective when the first foreclosure took place.
“By that point the house was a central part of the Berkeley community,” said Eggplant. “So when the foreclosure happened and the house went up for auction, we organized and we rallied. The house went up for auction several times but we were able to hold it off.”
Years went by and Hilarity stayed afloat- no rent, no taxes, open doors and plenty of creative free space. But it was a constant push-and-pull struggle to be a lawless community in a land of laws, so when the house went up for auction for the last time in 2004- despite impressive efforts to stop it-it was sold. Four years later, Hilarity is only just closing its doors.
As of Feb. 15, all the residents had left, but the remaining artifacts of one of the Bay Area’s most unique sub-cultured haven still wait to be hauled away while the final verdict is decided in Oakland Civil Court.
“That is the nature of this house,” said Eggplant. “Hilarity has come this far, I don’t think its story is over yet.”