Great Communities Come From Accidents

One idea we’re fascinated with at Roam Coliving is about how the right people in the right places at the right times can make entire movements or industries unfold.

What happens when you end up living somewhere you didn’t expect? Here are stories of four places and the people who had an enduring impact on them.

Miguel and Rosa Covarrubias, Bali, Indonesia

Today, Bali, Indonesia, where our flagship location is based, is known as a global hotspot for tourism and yoga. But the island has actually been a point of cultural and global fascination for more than a century, thanks in part to two painters named Walter Spies and Miguel Covarrubias who arrived in the early 20th century and kicked off a “Bali Craze” in the 1930s in New York City.

A photo of Miguel and Rosa Covarrubias
Miguel and Rosa Covarrubias, the Mexican couple who helped put Bali on the international map, when they authored and photographed a book about the island’s culture in 1937.

Covarrubias was a Mexico City-born painter who came to New York City as a 19-year-old and rose up in the city’s artistic circles to become known for his illustrations on the covers of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair magazines from the heights of the Roaring 1920s to the depths of The Great Depression in the 1930s.

He fell in love with a Los Angeles-born dancer and choreographer named Rosa Rolanda. For their honeymoon in 1930, they went on a trip around the world and landed on the island of Bali where they ended up staying for more than nine months.

The couple befriended German primitivist painter Spies and traveled by car throughout countless villages on the island, where they documented rituals around births and deaths and many other Balinese cultural practices.

Unlike the art scene in New York City, where paintings were bought and sold as commodities in dealer-led markets, Bali’s artistic culture was collective and anonymous. Covarrubias wrote:

“The artist is in Bali essentially a craftsman and at the same time an amateur, casual and anonymous, who uses his talent knowing that no one will care to record his name for posterity.”

With a Guggenheim fellowship, the pair would return to the island and produce a book about its history and culture. Covarrubias’ wife, Rosa, trained by famed American photographer Edward Weston, would produce some of the visual work for the book.

Covarrubias painted a cover illustration about Bali for a 1936 edition of Vanity Fair, and then released the book “The Island of Bali” the following year. It fed into a 1930s Bali Craze in the United States; Cole Porter even dropped a reference to “a dance in Bali” in his song, “You’re The Top.”

A photo of Covarrubias' 'Bali beauty' painting on the cover of Vanity Fair's February 1936 edition
Covarrubias’ “Bali Beauty” painting on the cover of Vanity Fair’s February 1936 edition. It was one of the magazine’s last issues before it went out of business during the Great Depression. The title would later re-emerge in the 1980s.

The couple later returned to Mexico City where Miguel would become an art historian and Rosa would become an artistic director for a dance theater.

Spies, their friend, would not enjoy so lucky a fate. He drowned in the Indian Ocean after the Japanese attacked a ship transporting him from Indonesia to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, during World War II.

Julia Tuttle, Miami, United States

Julia Tuttle, colloquially known as “The Mother of Miami,” is the only recognized female founder of a major American city, where our second location is based.

Tuttle ended up in Florida as a widow after her husband unexpectedly died while the pair were living in Cleveland, Ohio.

A photo of Julia Tuttle

At around 40 years of age, Tuttle left Ohio and joined a small number of homesteaders along Biscayne Bay in Southern Florida by buying several hundred acres of land. At the time, the settlements were so small that there was just Tuttle on one side of the Miami river and shopkeeper William Brickell, who also came from Cleveland, on the other side of the river.

Although hardly anyone lived in Southern Florida at the time, Tuttle had a quixotic ambition:

“It may seem strange to you but it is the dream of my life to see this wilderness turned into a prosperous country and where this tangled mass of vine, brush, trees and rocks now are to see homes with modern improvements surrounded by beautiful grassy lawns, flowers, shrubs and shade trees.”

Tuttle wrote industrialist Henry Flagler, a longtime business associate of J. Pierpont Morgan’s, to try and convince him to build a railroad down to the Miami river area. However, he balked. His preference to build only as far south as West Palm Beach.

A terrible frost in the winters of the 1890s would kill off most of Florida’s orange crop that season and change Flagler’s mind. One of Flagler’s railroad engineers and vice presidents, James Ingraham, had met with the relentless Tuttle and brought orange blossoms from the south to prove to Flagler than Miami was below the frost line.

He sat silently for a moment. “How soon can you arrange for me to go to Miami?” he asked Ingraham. Tuttle, Brickell and others offered Flagler tens of thousands of acres of land to entice him to build his railroad further south.

By 1896 — just five years after Tuttle bought land in the area — five hundred voters in Miami decided to incorporate the city. Today, Miami has a population of 430,000 people.

Berry Gordy Jr., Detroit, United States

Through Henry Ford’s discipline and ingenuity, Detroit had ushered in American revolutions in manufacturing and transportation in the early 20th century.

But it was a young African-American man named Berry Gordy Jr., who would apply the insights and scale of the industrial model to the production of music, changing American culture in the process. Gordy’s family had moved to Detroit as part of the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the South in pursuit of manufacturing jobs and economic opportunity in the Northern industrial cities.

A photo of Berry Gordy Jr.
Berry Gordy Jr.

Gordy, who had worked on quality control for Lincoln-Mercury, had an insight from his time working on the manufacturing line:

“Every day I watched how a bare metal frame, rolling down the line would come off the other end, a spanking brand new car. I thought, ‘What a great idea!’ Maybe I could do the same thing with music. Create a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door, an unknown, go through a process, and come out another door, a star.”

Gordy incorporated a business called Motown Records, named after his hometown of Detroit, The Motor City. He recruited friends and local talent. Aretha Franklin sang at New Bethel Baptist Church, a 20-minute walk away from the studio that Gordy set up with an $800 loan from friends and family. Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross grew up as neighbors two miles to the north. A few years after he started the business, a teenage prodigy from a 100 miles away in Saginaw, Michigan gave a demo performance to Gordy. It was Stevie Wonder.

He was a savvy businessman. He knew not to put African-American faces on the covers of records, lest it would dissuade white consumers from buying them. It was the late 1950s and early 1960s in America; the country was still largely racially segregated and it would still be a few years before the Civil Rights Movement gained its full force. Gordy wanted white American consumers to buy records on the quality of the music and sound, and not judge them by their covers.

Using the quality control techniques he learned from the automotive industry, Gordy instituted weekly Friday morning meetings where Motown employees would vote and debate every recording. Anything less than a top vote and the song would not get released.

Gordy’s business would go on to produce close to 200 No. 1 hit songs through artists from Marvin Gaye to Michael Jackson. At its height, Motown was the most successful black-owned business in the United States of America. It paved the way for generations of black entrepreneurs and opened the door to national racial reconciliation through the power of music.

Fred Terman, Silicon Valley, United States

If Fred Terman had never caught a debilitating respiratory illness in his 20s, Silicon Valley may have never existed as we know it today.

A photo of Fred Terman

Terman was the son of a Stanford University professor and psychologist, Lewis Terman, who popularized the I.Q. test. As a graduate student, Terman would study under Vannevar Bush, whose prescient 1945 Atlantic essay “As We May Think”, foreshadowed the information revolution and development of the web.

At the time, the East Coast was the center of the American electronics industry. Bell Laboratories was based in suburban New Jersey and IBM lay about 140 miles Northwest of New York City. There was no indication that the West Coast would ever supersede the East Coast as a major technology center.

After completing his Ph.D. at MIT, Terman was offered a faculty position at the school.

But he unexpectedly caught tuberculosis while visiting family and ended up spending almost all of 1924 in bed. With that turn of fate, Terman instead became a professor of ‘Radio Engineering’ at Stanford University instead of staying on the East Coast with MIT because of the Northern Californian weather was better for his health.

It is hard to understate how critical this twist of events was for the development of Silicon Valley. At the time, Stanford was a financially struggling regional university. It was “a minor league, country-club school.” It had zero Nobel Prize and National Medal of Science winners.

Terman’s mentor Bush pushed him to re-consider the university as an applied research and development center instead of an ivory tower. The connection to Bush, who went on to help create the National Science Foundation, would prove financially invaluable as Terman used his government connections to secure military research grants throughout the Cold War. Under Terman’s leadership, government grants and contracts to Stanford went from $3 million in 1951 to over $50 million in 1964. Those military grants became the financial underpinnings of a new industry, before technology companies would later shift towards building consumer-facing products.

Terman began mentoring many of his young engineering students. Two of the earliest were Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, who Terman convinced to work together in 1938.

To solve Stanford’s financial problems, Terman worked on a idea to make use of the university’s enormous amounts of land. While the original 19th century grant of 880 acres forbade the sale of any land, Terman came up with an idea to lease the land through a new technology-centric industrial park.

Created in 1951, the Stanford Industrial Park was the first of its kind; it became the model for commercial office parks for decades to come. Companies like Varian Associates, Hewlett-Packard, Eastman Kodak, General Electric, and Lockheed Corporation moved in. Those companies in turn gave rise the future generations of technology entrepreneurs, who carry on through this day.

Toward the end of his life, Terman reflected on the changes that had unfolded over his decades on the West Coast:

“When we set out to create a community of technical scholars in Silicon Valley, there wasn’t much here and the rest of the world looked awfully big. Now a lot of the rest of the world is here.”

Make this life a wonderful adventure.

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