Behind the locked gate at 2401 Manor Road, an unusual experiment is unfolding. Residents of this apartment complex in Austin, Texas have their own ideas about city living. A sign reads: "Visitors, do not enter if offended by the liberated lifestyle inside; includes nudity, cavorting in the pool, various other consensual frolicking, etc."
The dwelling has attracted considerable attention since its opening in March of this year. Established by a former Jehovah's Witness minister named Terry Parker, it is a pioneering effort to introduce "clothes optional"—i.e., nude—living on a large scale into otherwise normal rental units. The experiment is proving to be a resounding success, both financially and as a means of increasing awareness of libertarian ideas.
"Libertarians are always saying we can live without all these rules and regulations," says the outspoken, 32-year-old Parker. "I thought it was about time some of us did something to prove it." Last year, he persuaded the owners of a small 18-unit building to make him its manager. Six months after Parker introduced a no-clothes option, the once money-losing building was full at rents 10 percent higher than before.
The experience persuaded Parker to approach owners of the nearby, rundown 78-unit Manor Villa complex to repeat his plan. "Rather than trying to convince them to do this because it's the right thing to do or anything like that, I just told them I could double their profits," he recalls. The complex, formerly a haven for derelicts and small-time criminals, is now one of the most sought-after apartment buildings in Austin.
In a recent article, the New York Times termed Manor Villa an "urban renewal miracle." Parker sees its renovation as testimony of the ability of the private sector to breathe life back into buildings in a decaying area. The gates and guards not only assure privacy to the tenants within, but deter criminals from entering while the tenants lounge around the swimming pool in the central courtyard.
The tranquil relations inside the complex arise in large part from Parker's insistence on a live-and-let-live spirit from tenants. Although the renters range from "hippies to redneck" in outlook, and include businessmen, students, and topless dancers seeking all-round tans, they display a strong respect for each other's rights. Parker requests that tenants sign an agreement that forbids harassment and the use of force, calling it a "physical aggression treaty."
Rental agreements also give tenants the right to evict those who aggress against others, and to chastise those who invade privacy. "If somebody is bothered by a person, or if he thinks that person is not suitable, or if he thinks a person did not show proper discernment in the guests he invited, they can call a meeting," says Parker. As a result, tenants take pains to be good neighbors and few nuisances arise.
Despite the national publicity given to Parker's project, and the reputation of Texas for quashing victimless crimes, Manor Villa has had few problems with the authorities. State law permits nudity in privately owned dwellings, so long as the neighbors can't see and the premises are fenced off. Austin police even went so far as to offer security hints for the apartment units. "They used to get so many crime calls from this place that they're glad we're coming in," remarks Parker, noting that stabbings and a murder had occurred in Villa Manor. "It's one less place for them to watch."
Parker has used his new-found publicity, however, to joust with the authorities when he feels they trespass upon civil liberties. He was instrumental in founding a group called the "Sexual Offenders Club," which drew attention to a local ordinance prohibiting sexual relations between any unmarried people. "We are opposing the whole idea of government sticking their noses into conduct they have no business in," he told members of the press in March. Noting that many if not most city residents had violated the law, he added, "Our first order of business will be to obtain the Municipal Auditorium as a club house, until larger facilities can be found."
In response to a drive by a local minister to shut down massage parlors, Parker recently helped organized a vocal counterforce. The group met in February to discuss strategy, and decided to launch a petition drive primarily among Austin's large student population. Hundreds of signatures were collected for submission to the city council on a petition protesting the massage parlor ordinance, and the effort drew active participation by Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a prominent atheist and civil libertarian.
Ironically, Parker considered himself to be a man of God until relatively recently. "I know firsthand about authoritarian lifestyles," he says. For several years, Parker served as a minister for the Jehovah's Witnesses; the experience made him a self described "expert in hot air." A subsequent stint as a business executive in New York left him feeling restless—and increasingly libertarian. After suffering an almost fatal automobile accident, he resolved to make a change. The accident "just made me that much more serious about doing something before I leave the world a second time," he says.
His past two years in Austin show that Parker has already made an impact. In the future, he expects to be heard from even more. Owners of rental properties as far away as San Francisco have asked him in recent months to serve as consultant on similar "clothing optional" conversions. "If we can scale this up on bigger and bigger levels and eventually get into the level of subdivisions and small communities, and if this is repeated in a lot of different places all over the country," he says, "then people will be living in an environment where they experience liberty, not just talk about it."