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Russ McKinney’s life has always been filled with art. He can draw, he can play the guitar, he can create beautiful images of his garden out of copper and paint.
Years ago, he and his wife happened across a place where they fit in perfectly: the Village of Arden, a “single tax” arts community in Delaware located about 30 minutes south of Center City Philadelphia. It was a place awash with natural beauty and filled with people who highly valued the arts as a part of everyday life.
As McKinney liked to say, lots of people in the ’60s tried to found their own communes. But he didn’t have to — because he found one “fully formed.”
“We stumbled on it because it was on the way to Canada,” McKinney told Movers & Makers for an episode of the WHYY-TV show. “And we thought we were going to have to keep going, and it just turned out to be the perfect place for us. Founding principle was to integrate art in everyday life, and … we’re artists. That’s what we’ve done.”
Arden isn’t your typical small town. Rich in green space, the village is brimming with artists and creatives of all sorts — painters, musicians, collectors, sculptors, actors. Community events, programming, and spaces are mostly run by volunteers, and no one owns the land they live on. And it was once home to a certain occupant of the White House. (Hint: It’s not Willow — she’s from western Pennsylvania.)
McKinney and his wife are two of just a few hundred people who have put down roots in Arden. As of 2020, the village’s 0.3 square miles are home to 430 people, or 181 households, according to the census.
“We’ve heard it all,” said Lisa Themal Mullinax, a resident who grew up in Arden and now edits a community publication called “The Arden Page.” “We’ve heard Arden is made up of hippies, of communists, of nudists, and there might be some precedent for a lot of those things, but we’re not as crazy as it seems.”
Living in a ‘single tax colony’
Arden was founded in 1900 by two Philadelphians: the sculptor Frank Stephens and the architect Will Price.
The two men formed Arden around a few different schools of thought, one of which was economic. They sought in part to implement the theory created by Henry George, a Philadelphia-born political economist and journalist who advocated for governments to raise revenue by taxing only land itself — not the property on it. This “single tax” model, George believed, would reward people who actually use land productively, rather than people who buy and sell unused land solely as a way to turn a profit.
In Arden, it works like this: a trust owns all residential land, and residents pay no direct property taxes. Instead, residents receive a 99-year lease for the land, which allows them to use it essentially as if they owned it. The rent they pay for the land goes to the trust, and it funds the village, the county, and local schools. Communal land is owned by the municipality.
The model is a rare one. In the United States, Fairhope, Alabama, was the first place to try out the concept, and Arden followed several years later. Today, Fairhope and Arden — along with its smaller neighbors, Ardencroft and Ardentown — are the only single-tax communities in the U.S.
But the underlying ideology of Georgism and the Single Tax System isn’t the main draw for most of the residents, said Arden resident Mike Curtis, whose grandparents once lived in Fairhope and were drawn to the similar single tax model in Arden.
“It’s 99 percent the art, the ambience, as well as the aesthetics,” Curtis said. “We got a lot of trees and plenty of shade, and I can’t name but one person who came here specifically because of the single tax.”
A hub for the arts
The arts are a foundational part of the community in Arden, as well, with the founders having been influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement.
It’s a community that welcomes artists of all kinds, from Lon Sullivan, a resident who started doing poured painting after he left the military, to Phil Fisher, a resident who spends his days making sculptures out of scrap steel.
The performing arts are also a big piece of Arden’s culture, with several active performance groups, like the Arden Concert Gild, the Shakespeare Gild, and Ardensingers, a group that mainly performs Gilbert and Sullivan works.
The village even shares a name with the Forest of Arden, the setting of the William Shakespeare comedy “As You Like It.”
Home to history (and, briefly, the current president)
The Ardens Historic District — which includes Arden, Ardentown, and Ardencroft (“the Ardens”) — has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2003.
The Arden Craft Shop Museum, opened in 2004, preserves the Ardens’ history, as it relates to both the artsy culture and the single-tax setup.
While much of Arden’s history is notable or interesting on its own, the village has also housed some influential figures in American history.
Upton Sinclair, author of 1906 muckraking classic “The Jungle,” called Arden home for a time. He built a house there, which still stands today. Residents call it “The Jungalow.”
The village was also home to Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor for a time, according to Craft Shop Museum’s blog. A political candidate in the 1900s and 1910s and a longtime labor organizer and activist, Bloor was one of the original members of the Communist Labor Party.
And according to several accounts, President Joe Biden lived there for part of his childhood.
The village gets a brief mention in a passage of “What It Takes,” an influential work on presidential politics by Richard Ben Cramer that followed candidates on the 1988 presidential campaign trail — Biden included. Cramer doesn’t give a clear picture of exactly how long Biden lived in Arden, but he places the family there between living in the Delaware towns of Claymont and Mayfield.
“After a year [Joseph Biden Sr.] moved Jean and the kids to a real house in Arden, a rental place, but better…” Cramer writes, recounting the Biden family’s many moves throughout the president’s childhood.
Biden appears to have visited recently, when he attended a 2009 memorial service for Robert Cunningham — a speechwriter for Biden during his Senate days. According to village meeting minutes, the then-vice president “talked about the time he spent living in the Village of Arden as a kid.”
For more on Arden, its history, and the artists who live there today, you can tune into the season premiere of Movers & Makers on WHYY-TV12 on Thursday, Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m.