SHOE LEATHER: Reported Stories

Embracing the Commons

Fifty or more city environmentalists living together
amid gardens, potlucks, bicycles, and drama


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It's 12 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon and Dave Auerbach shuffles out of his apartment to check his mail slot in the lobby of the ecovillage that he and 55 other Los Angelenos call home. His eyelids are heavy from a full night of dancing at a local club and the long ride back to Koreatown on his 24-speed road bike. With his three-inch scraggly goatee, golfer's cap and maroon button-down, Auerbach doesn't look like the typical plasma physicist. Nor does he look like the typical urban ecovillager, the kind of person you might expect to see — and do — at such places as Columbia Ecovillage in Portland or Ganas on Staten Island. Nor is this L.A. community — an apartment complex, really, just off Vermont Avenue — organized like a hippie commune of the 1960s, as Auerbach's colleagues in the physics department at UCLA tend to think.

The weekly community meetings and common meals of Los Angeles Ecovillage, the shared gardens and bike parking, the bulk buy room and "free stuff" table are remnants of a communal living movement that started in the United States before the Civil War. Before the free-love communes of the 1960s, for example, there were the socialist living experiments of the early 1900s and the popular religious communities of the 1850s. All of these have given way to today's group living experiments which try to create and demonstrate a lifestyle that supports sound environmental principles.

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Los Angeles Ecovillage

As far as anyone can tell, the urban variation on the ecovillage started in 1993, with the founding of the Los Angeles community. Nearly twenty years later it's hard to pinpoint exactly how many of these communities exist. The directory of the Global Ecovillage Network lists 111 ecovillages in the United States, of which only a handful are located in cities. But that directory doesn't list Columbia Ecovillage and still includes Ecovillage Detroit, which has been disbanded for years now. Another directory, the Fellowship for Intentional Community, counts ecovillages among 1,667 intentional communities in the United States, which include communes, cohousing developments and artist collectives.

All of these groups share resources — from space to food to household supplies — and some engage in environmental practices such as composting and growing their own food. Only ecovillages have a stated environmental purpose, however, and reach out beyond the group to spread their environmental message. They seek, as Robert Gilman, one of the movement's prominent figures, put it back in 1991, to offer a "full-featured settlement in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development..." Gilman's vague definition has since become the one ecovillagers rely on to explain what their communities are all about.

It's not uncommon for urban ecovillage dwellers to move from community to community. Auerbach has lived at the Los Angeles complex for the past three years, but before that spent six months at Ganas and then longer at one of the Berkeley Student Cooperatives. Ganas and Berkeley emphasize sharing resources over environmental living or education. Urban ecovillagers in Portland, Philadelphia, and New York all described themselves as a new kind of community that tries to model sustainable urban living for the average person. They aim to do more than share resources and know their neighbors.

When Auerbach arrived in Los Angeles to pursue his doctorate, he drew a three-mile radius around the university campus and said to himself, "I have to live within that circle so that I can bike to UCLA." What he found was nothing like Berkeley, where his co-villagers were mostly white, progressive, young college students. In Los Angeles Ecovillage, the people are all colors and types. They're doctors and playwrights and organic vegan chocolate-makers. They have dreadlocks and bobs and buzz cuts. At dinner they discuss whether pole dancing is pro- or anti-feminist, and if 'buttery' is an appropriate word to describe a vegan dish. They listen to Ron Reagan's talk show, and decorate their doors with pro-environment cartoons. Most of them, including Auerbach, love to bike.

Urban ecovillagers in Portland, Philadelphia, and New York all described themselves as a new kind of community that tries to model sustainable urban living for the average person.

Follow Auerbach on his 24-speed after the community's Sunday night dinner of brussels sprouts, squash, and vegan casserole. He slips a hand pump into his backpack, adjusts his helmet, and then hits the streets, setting out on a course he would take if he were showing Los Angeles to someone on a first visit. As much as possible, Auerbach keeps to a minimal but growing system of bike lanes, and tries to avoid hills. The sweeping, dented tin-foil facade of Frank Gehry's impressive Disney Concert Hall rises before him. After pausing for a moment to take in the architecture, he heads downtown and glides through the canyon maze of L.A.'s skyscrapers. Skid Row's tent-lined sidewalks are next. He pedals faster, mumbling that he didn't know why it was important to go that way, and stops in the "up and coming, sort of trendy part of town," before turning back toward Ecovillage. He goes into three bars along the way. One was typical L.A. because it had a mix of hipsters and old Latino men. One served fancy Belgian beers and specialized in sausages. The last was the Monte Carlo, a hole-in-the-wall two minutes from Ecovillage, where Auerbach insisted to a Korean bartender named Pam that no, he was not one of "those crazy bikers" who frequented the dive bar for whiskey shots after their infamous midnight bike rides. Although sometimes he was. It was hard not to be, when so many of your neighbors were. He left the bar and went back to the ecovillage to sip a Fat Tire beer in the courtyard.

"In the last five years there's been a major change in the way people view bicycles," Auerbach said. "You'll still get screamed at on the road sometimes, but there's just so many more people riding these days. I certainly don't think we're responsible for that, but I think (Ecovillage) maybe catalyzed some of that change." One of the organizations the ecovillage spawned is the Los Angeles Bicycle Kitchen, a place that is "a part of what's responsible for changing bikes in L.A.," Auerbach said. The only remnant of the Kitchen's ecovillage origins is a bike water-bottle holder nailed to the wall of an apartment the ecovillage now uses as a bike room. It has the words "beer holder" scrawled above it with a Sharpie.

As a concept, the ecovillage first emerged in Germany in the 1970s, formalized with the establishment of the global network in 1994. Its earliest vestiges in the United States also start in the early 1970s with the founding of two communes that recently began calling themselves ecovillages: Twin Oaks in rural Virginia and The Farm in the back woods of Tennessee.

Much of the literature on ecovillages has been written not by experts on community living, but by those who have created and live in ecovillages themselves. But this is changing. Karen Litfen, a professor who teaches food justice at the University of Washington, has spent the past ten months staying for two weeks each at fifteen different ecovillages and has visited several more. In Litfen's view, the most important thing ecovillages offer is not their use of solar panels to live off the grid or what they might grow in a ten-by-eight vegetable patch, but their social aspect, the way they unite environmentalists.

"There's a shift happening in politics in general," Litfen said, "and you see it in the ecovillage movement as well." This shift embodies a shying away from the traditional protest. At its core, the new environmentalism is about individuals doing all that they can to live out their values — from buying green and buying local, to reducing car use, to growing their own food. Ecovillages, Litfen says, allow environmental activists to live a lifestyle that mirrors their beliefs. She said that ecovillages also become a "source of support for activists who would otherwise feel isolated."

The question we should be asking, Litfen pointed out, is not whether ecovillages are self-sufficient, but if they are a viable model for the way we'll live in cities in the future. "If we can adopt some of the lessons we learn from ecovillages," she said, "We would be going pretty far toward sustainability."

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If the ecovillage movement were a high school, then Portland's Columbia Ecovillage would be its student council president, valedictorian, and homecoming queen. Its 60 residents must volunteer eight hours a month to the community, but tend to do closer to 15, not including all of the meetings they have to plan the meetings. There are 15 different committees, and most villagers are on at least three. Besides growing a considerable portion of their own food, the villagers have sealed the lead paint on the woodwork in the common house and are working with developers to plan a new dining hall. It's not clear when they sleep.

Columbia Ecovillage from maggie craig on Vimeo.

Ecovillages, and urban ecovillages in particular, take years to plan and create. Green Village Philadelphia has been in the planning stage for the past seven years, and is still searching for a location and raising money to purchase a property. Columbia Ecovillage took less than two years to create, thanks to its founders, Pam and Joe Lietch. The Lietches used to direct the Portland Permaculture Institute, where, out of an old farmhouse, they taught students how to live, farm, and build in a way that replicates patterns found in nature. "Think of a forest," Joe said to explain the permaculture concept. A forest needs no "inputs," it has all the nutrients necessary to sustain itself and to process its own waste. When the apartment complex next to the farm house went on the market, the Leitches cashed in their life savings and bought it. Over the next two years, they remodeled its units to make them more energy efficient and and paid themselves as developers.

The Lietches demur from taking credit for what they've accomplished. Joe insists that he's a community member just like everyone else; there is no one person or group that runs the place. Another thing he won't acknowledge is the sacrifice he made to create Columbia. His Permaculture Institute is no more, and he says that he doubts it will ever start up again. "The community is more important," he said. Joe walked back to the farm, where he was needed to help move a chicken trailer.

"The real find was the people," Joe said, referring to his neighbors. To get to the farm he walks past a donated green house and a shed stocked with picks and shovels. Containers of oiled dirt, to clean the tools, were pushed up against the shed's wall. Everything is organized and in its proper place. Joe continues, saying that the "key was our vision and values," a statement of thirteen points that range from living in a way that emulates nature to engaging with the surrounding neighborhood.

Just as key is Joe's vision. Before being asked to help move the chicken trailer, he stood in the parking lot with his wife and several neighbors, near a pavilion that was stocked with mountain bikes and colorful children's helmets. A golfer's hat covers Joe's grey hair, and he wares a plaid shirt, jeans, and tan work boots. Children bike around on tricycles and play tag. Barbara Ford, the ecovillage's outreach point person, suggests that they start planning a celebration, since the community's first anniversary was coming up. Joe agrees, but then changes the subject to talk about how he wants to "eventually get rid of the parking lot and turn it into ponds." He motions with his hand across the row of parked cars. "You can dig it out so that it all slopes toward the center," where there would be wildlife, he said. There could even be a river that runs around the village that would eliminate the need for the huge rainwater catchment containers. "There's 350,000 gallons on these roofs," he said. His eyes run over the metal eaves. "That's enough for a decent pond."

"And then we can have talapia and trout for our food," Ford agrees with a chuckle and a shrug.

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The Permaculture Institute had an acre-plus farm that now provides produce for Columbia's 60 members. They grow three different kinds of raspberries, thornless blackberries, grapes, olives, have a "food forest" with fruit and nut trees and keep two beehives. They also raise chickens. That's not to mention the lavender and rosemary of the "kitchen garden" in front of the common house. Or the preservation room in its basement, where garlic hangs from the ceiling and the villagers store squash from the fall harvest and mason jars full of hard apple cider. A wicker basket next to the cider allows villagers to pay on the honor system. The money goes to funding the farm.

Ecovillagers at Columbia make it seem as if anything is possible, and it's just a matter of time until dreams come to fruition. Still, current disagreements over the building of a common dining hall — how much it should cost, how ecological it should be, what it should look like — are indicative of the struggles of living in an intentional community.

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Members at Columbia Ecovillage use these cards to practice consensus decision making at their weekly meetings. Consensus is a process that ensures everyone agrees on a decision being made. There is no "majority rules."

Conflict is the one thing that ecovillages fear most. Talk to any ecovillager and they'll tell you that, just like in the real world, people in ecovillages do not always get along. When things get especially bad, West Coast communities like the ones in L.A. and Portland call in Tree Bressen, a consensus and facilitation trainer. "If you share stuff, that is automatically more ecological," Bressen said over the telephone from Eugene, Oregon. "The more closely you live with people, the more that happens. You have less personal stuff; fewer dishwashers per capita, less cars per capita."

Bressen discovered community living when she took a semester off from college "to find herself." She was nineteen. "I found Twin Oaks and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is exactly the thing I want,'" she said. "It was a life based on cooperation and trust rather than a life based on competition."

Bressen went back to college, started biking, started shopping at a co-op, became vegetarian, came out as bisexual, and changed her name from Ivy to Tree. Her semester of searching had fundamentally changed who she was, and her stay at Twin Oaks had influenced her more than anything else. After she graduated Bressen moved into Acorn, one of Twin Oaks' offshoot communities, and found her calling as a facilitator, which she describes as an "expression of love for humanity and love for the world."

Back on the farm in Portland, a steady stream of steam floats up from a heap of old food, yard scraps, and horse manure that separates the grape vines from the chicken coop. Cultivating compost is something of an art, and Marilee Dea does it with pleasure. A nurse practitioner by day, Dea spends much of her time out behind the apartment complex, weeding, pruning, and planting. She wears her gardening gloves almost as often as her smile and has no shame in admitting that she will sometimes chat with the ecovillage's 30 chickens. Expecting kitchen scraps, they run up to her in a synchronized rush when she approaches the metal fence around the outside of their coop. "I'd been yearning to garden in a community," Dea says while pulling a bright blue tarp off of one of the compost mounds, so that she could turn the rotting vegetation. "So this is a natural fit for me."

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Marilee Dea is one of Columbia's many ardent gardeners.

The members of Columbia Ecovillage do try to live in a way that will inspire environmentally conscious living, but not necessarily in an easily replicable model. Without Dea and the Leitches and many others volunteering their time to work the farm, the food would never get grown. Without the work team encapsulating the lead paint in the common house practically for free, it would never get done. Without the members who are working with developers to draw up plans for a new dining hall, it would never get built. Yes, Columbia Ecovillage grows much of its own food, and its members live through a time-consuming democratic decision-making process that reduces neighborly conflict. And they capture and reuse rainwater. But none of this could happen if it weren't for the disposable time and income that so many of the members have and freely offer. Unlike Los Angeles Ecovillage, Columbia was built with what's called a "developer model." Pam and Joe Leitch bought up the apartment complex and sold off units at a quarter of a million dollars a pop. This has led to a population that's nearly identical in age and socio-economic status. Though sensitive to the downside of gentrification, Columbia Ecovillage is hardly diverse. Its population is white, upper-middle class Portlanders and their sometimes multicultural adopted children.

Diversity was one of the things that attracted Auerbach to L.A. Ecovillage, even though at the Berkley co-op it was easier to relax and feel at home because so many of the residents came from circumstances more like his own. He said, "That's definitely not the case here because of the huge range of backgrounds. There are a lot of people here who it's taken me a long time to connect with and understand. For some people it's a language barrier, for some people it's a cultural barrier. For some people I just think they're crazy."

L.A. Ecovillage is set up much like a college dorm, but with private parlors and bathrooms. Some members have kids, but most don't. Out of 56 residents, 35 are "intentional neighbors," who have opted to be a part of the ecovillage. The rest are "long-term neighbors" — residents who lived in the building before the ecovillagers moved into the apartment complex, and who live there still without being compelled to participate in ecovillage activities. The apartment doors are decorated with things like a sign that reads "Freegan. We will eat your crap but we won't buy your crap," a Green Peace sticker, and a Presidential Physical Fitness Award for Zev Imani from her middle school.

There are two buildings. The first one is shaped like a two-storied "U" with a garden, sitting area, trees, and chickens in its trough. Each arm of the U holds 375 to 600 square-foot studio apartments that go for $500 to $550 a month, a good $100 cheaper than the average apartment nearby. The ecovillage's second property is a line of attached duplexes with a garage, parking lot, and a fence made out of old bike parts occupying the space behind it. Colorful murals, painted by a resident artist named Frederico, graffiti the walls of the garage and the alley between the two buildings. Another fence, this one chain link, encloses compost plots that allow ecovillagers to take their plates out to the back yard after dinner and scrape their food scraps straight into the ground, knowing that someone will come out at the end of the night to turn it. The fence separates the ecovillage from a strip mall with a donut shop, laundromat, and Domino's Pizza. The mall faces Vermont Avenue, a four-laner that's the busiest street in Los Angeles. All of this is in the middle of a neighborhood that's nicer than Skid Row, but dumpy enough to be incongruous with the posh Melrose Avenue, only five blocks away.

Despite whatever cultural differences may exist, ecovillagers are there for each other. When Julio Santizo was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2005, after he'd been living at the L.A. ecovillage for a year, community members drove him to his doctor appointments and visited him when he was hospitalized. Ana, the medical student who brought a Community Supported Agriculture program to the community, helped Santizo with his bandages.

I found Twin Oaks and I thought, "Oh my gosh, this is exactly the thing I want." It was a life based on cooperation and trust rather than a life based on competition.

"It makes a big difference, living here for me," Santizo said in his soft voice and gentle Guatemalan accent. He was talking about more than just having people who would look out for him when he got sick. Santizo was drawn to ecovillage living not because of the opportunity to garden — he did enough of that during his childhood in Guatemala — but for the opportunity, he said, "to be a community leader. I like to be with people, I like to work with people." L.A. Ecovillage, with its weekly meetings and intermittent events, offers Santizo a channel for civic engagement. He also said that he didn't need to go anywhere for entertainment, that sometimes ecovillagers will watch TV or to go the movies together. But this doesn't happen often.

The ecovillage's upstairs common room has peach walls in need of a new paint job. The white armchair in the corner is fraying along the edges and dotted with smudgy splotches of grey where it used to be cream. The only sound in the room is the ticking of the clock, and the occasional car guzzling by on Bimini Place, the street just in front. The traffic is slower than it might have been, since the ecovillage had the street narrowed to allow for a friendlier pedestrian crossing. It's 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night and either everyone has already gone out or they have something to do in their apartments. L.A. Ecovillage is not a place of constant neighborliness in the way other ecovillagers describe the movement's more rural locations. Nor is it a place of cold anonymity. Community life here is scheduled: the potluck on Sunday, the community meeting on Monday, and organized events outside of that. Spontaneous interactions happen, but are more of a wave and smile while passing in the lobby. In L.A. Ecovillage, people live their own lives. They're in a city, after all.

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The courtyard at L.A. Ecovillage serves as a gathering place for members. It’s also used to grow fruit trees and other produce.

And city dwellers they remain. Ten years before green became trendy, in the days when environmentalists were still dismissed as tree-hugging hippies, Lois Arkin was coming up with a plan. She created a nonprofit called the Cooperative Resources and Services Project and raised nearly a million dollars through an Ecological Revolving Loan Fund to buy the apartment complex across the street from her home that now houses the ecovillage. It was the early 1980s, pre-"Inconvenient Truth," pre-scientific consensus on the disasters of climate change; pre-green washing. Arkin was already organizing community gardening projects with some of her neighbors and fighting to close a mass incinerator in downtown L.A. Every week she would invite people over to her house to discuss how to change the world. When she came back from an ecovillage conference in Europe, she convinced her crew of environmentalists to move out to the country and start an ecovillage of their own. The year was 1993. As they made plans to move, Los Angeles erupted in race riots and a building behind the apartment complex burned down. Arkin and her friends decided to stay in Koreatown with the intention of reinvigorating the neighborhood as it crumbled before their eyes.

Green Philadelphians have a similarly urban-centered mission. The city is in the midst of a cultural renaissance, says Lindsay Gilmour, who has lived there for 22 years since she moved to the United States from New Zealand. Gilmour is a regular on Philly's green food circuit, having been involved with the White Dog Cafe, the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, and Fair Food Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market. Though she takes many positions on the boards of non-profits, she spends most of her time managing a small catering company that she owns. The company uses locally grown produce and features what she calls "healing food."

Gilmour is also the associate founder of Green Village Philadelphia, an urban ecovillage that is perhaps the most promising of all, if a model for sustainability is the measure of success. For the moment, though, it is still only a model. For seven years Gilmour and other green business owners in the city have been working on the Green Village non-profit. It began as a plan for a green business shopping mall and has since evolved into a vision for a fully-integrated urban ecovillage. The plan calls for businesses, non-profits, art space, and residential areas. Historically, the intentional communities with the longest life span are those tied to businesses or money-making ventures.

This is true of Auroville in southern India, where residents run cottage industries that sell their products all around the world; Findhorn in Scotland, where they offer courses in things like the healing arts and sustainable design; and Mondragon in Spain, which is comprised of worker cooperatives that manufacture everything from refrigerators to perfume. Urban ecovillages may be able to bypass the need for business. Being city dwellers, they have greater access to work at jobs outside the ecovillage and thus can help sustain the enterprise by paying rent. Still, a going business would help any ecovillage afford more outreach projects. Ganas on Staten Island, for example, runs a cafe and shops that carry used furniture and used clothing. Columbia in Portland is relying on its members to support financially each new project it undertakes, but is considering setting up a farm stand along with other proposed ventures. L.A. Ecovillage gets grants to fund its education initiatives, and the events that Green Village Philadelphia has already done were financed through their non-profit.

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Because it started out as a center for businesses, Green Village has this integral element of a successful community built into its blue print. But Gilmour says that the actual purpose of the organization is finding a need it can serve in a Philadelphia neighborhood. "Philadelphia is an amazing city with amazing infrastructure already," Gilmour said, but then added that "There must be a way to make cities more livable and more beautiful."

Much like Arkin of L.A. Ecovillage, Gilmour had always pictured creating an intentional community in a rural area, but then realized "No, I want to do this in the city, we want to do this in the city. It's more sustainable, in some ways more exciting. I want to live in a multi-cultural community."

To ensure this diversity, the board of Green Village has chosen East Kensington as their desired neighborhood in which to develop the ecovillage. With its old factories and abandoned, weedy lots, its speckling of art spaces, and a new LEED-certified school, the Gerard Avenue Corridor is a neighborhood in transition. Gilmour pointed out that in this area there were no grocery stores and scarce access to fresh, healthy food. The ecovillage, as Gilmour put it, "could be a bridge between the less affluent and more affluent communities, and provide services and goods for the one and jobs for the other."

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Ganas' three small enterprises, all within walking distance of the Staten Island Ferry, add vibrancy to a neighborhood made up of crowded-together houses and Chinese take out restaurants. Also, anyone staying at the ecovillage can work at one of these shops for a reduction in rent. Basic needs such as food and toiletries are included in Ganas' $660-to-$760 a month rent, which the income from the businesses helps to keep low.

The community dinner at Ganas was nothing like the community dinners in Los Angeles or Portland. It was held in one of the houses that share a central courtyard and are joined by a wooden walkway that knits the buildings together. A salad bar was put out on one table, main courses on another, and dessert on another. Everything was labeled: eggplant parm, vegan chilli, pickles.

Ganas uses its Friday night community dinners as an information night for visitors, and welcomes anyone who has an interest in its community. Except for reporters. The community was featured in the New York Times for a shooting incident in 2006, in which a former member was accused of attacking a current member. The former member was acquitted but the negative publicity has made ecovillagers at Ganas wary of media attention.

Unlike other urban ecovillages, Ganas makes no attempt to set itself up as a model for sustainable living. Its cafe, Anything Goes, is a popular Staten Island hang-out. A radio station featuring Staten Island artists plays through the speakers. Instead of disposable stirrers, the cafe uses spoons. Weekly events take place on the cafe's little stage, and used books stock its shelves. Fliers for sustainability and social justice-oriented events are stacked in the front of the shop. Nowhere is there a mention of Ganas, or the fact that the cafe is owned by an ecovillage. Other than the Friday night visitor dinners, which are listed on Ganas' website, the community keeps to itself. Meetings intended to resolve conflicts are held every morning except on the weekends. Ganas calls itself an ecovillage, and in many ways it is, but is more focused on members living in harmony with each other than on environmental sustainability.

In the courtyard of Los Angeles Ecovillage, Joe Linton, the ecovillage's official tour guide, stands beside a slightly overgrown garden patch and explains the ecovillage to five college sophomores who have driven in from Chino. Linton, whose environmental passions lie in bicycling and L.A. River advocacy, cuts the labels off of his clothes and sews patches where the Nike swoops used to be. His 50's-era glasses and buzz cut give him a Buckminster Fuller look. The sophomores were considering starting an ecovillage of their own, but then realized how difficult it would be to do so. Linton insists to the group that ecovillage living isn't "rocket science," and that simple actions like composting and engaging with your neighbors are more important than solar panels and high-tech gadgets.

Linton leaves the courtyard and stops in front of the black iron fence that guards the ecovillage's front entrance. It opens with a code. A group of middleschoolers — mostly Hispanic — don't give the building a glance as they walk by, some holding a parent's hand, some alone. Thick rose bushes spill over the fence and shade the sidewalk, which was replaced with a gravelly material that soaks up rainwater.

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Ganas' Every Thing Goes Cafe.

The street in front of the ecovillage is painted sea green, cornflower blue, and lavender. At the pattern's center is a bright green newt, with lines of color swirling around it. Linton tells the Chino group about how he and other ecovillagers rolled out logs to close down the street so that they could paint it, without bothering to get a permit from the city.

"But we did knock on all the doors," Linton said, "we did do fliers in three languages, we talked to all our Korean and Spanish-speaking neighbors and said, 'We're gonna have a street party, come on down and paint with us.'"

When he's not trimming the artichokes outside of his duplex, or contributing to L.A. Ecovillage's blog, or giving tours, Linton works as campaigns director at C.I.C.L.E, an L.A.-based non-profit that promotes sustainable transportation in the city. Linton is just one of many ecovillagers involved in L.A.'s environmental movement, and its bike culture in particular.

Sitting in the ecovillage lobby, Auerbach explained how the Los Angeles community focuses on environmental education and consciousness-raising on the one hand and political activism and outreach on the other. "That's sort of the dual purpose of trying to make this city saner and less fossil fuel dependent," he said. To that end, the members host reading groups, offer tours of the apartment complex and house a weekly Community Shared Agriculture, or CSA project. The CSA is designed to bring food directly from a farm into the ecovillage's lobby for distribution every Sunday.

L.A. Ecovillage isn't only a haven for environmentalists such as Auerbach and Linton; it also works as a magnet for environmental advocates who don't live at the village but are looking for a community of people who share their ideals and values. Take Jessica Hoffman, for instance, who lives three blocks from the Bicycle Kitchen and is the editor of a new feminist magazine that she and her friends started. Make/ Shift Magazine is not your run-of-the-mill, home-printed leaflet. It was nominated for the Utne Independent Press Award for Best New Publication when it launched in 2007, and is only available through subscription. Hoffmann calls it her "labor of love." One of her labors that's not so much for love as it is for cheap, fresh food is volunteering with the ecovillage's CSA.

Members of the CSA volunteer once every five weeks to help sort the weekly vegetable shipments. Boxes full of brussel sprouts, multicolored tomatoes, broccoli, and other produce came in the share that Sunday. Hoffman separated them into 30 crates along with two other volunteers, with whom she chatted as she broke apart stalks of celery so that there would be enough for each share. Hoffman had heard about the CSA through the anarchist book club that the ecovillage sometimes hosts. Although she hasn't really considered taking up residence, she does appreciate the chance to meet others who are interested in anarchism, feminism, and environmentalism.

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Organizing the CSA in L.A. Ecovillage's lobby.

After the sorting was finished, Hoffmann went to the bulk buy room to look for items to buy. Plastic containers full of black-eyed peas, whole wheat flour, and ginger snap granola stocked the shelves of the room that used to hold the bicycle kitchen. Old margarine containers and mason jars collected from the ecovillagers lined one of the shelves, in case anyone forgot to bring their own tupperware.

Volunteering to run the bulk buy room that day was Andonia Lugo, a graduate student in anthropology at UCLA. She had intended to focus her studies on Mexican rock music before she began living the ecovillage, but is now writing her dissertation on L.A.'s low-income cyclists.

Lugo completed her first year at the ecovillage in March, but has been involved in the membership process since June 2008. "It felt like I was trying to date thirty people at once," she said of the process, during which potential members don't live at the ecovillage, but do attend community meetings and dinners. When the time comes, everyone at the community meeting has to agree to let a member move in. All ecovillages have a screening process to ensure that members they admit share their values.

Lara Morrison, the ecovillage's building manager, coordinates guests to the village and helps to keep things running, especially when Arkin is gone. She's a native of Seattle who likes to garden and frequent the Hollywood farmers' market. Her cat kept jumping out of the hole that her neighbor, Dale Mayhem, had just cut into her wall so that he could install a new heater.

Mayhem told Morrison to deal with the cat, because it wasn't his damn animal. She plugged the hole with the big sheet of cardboard from the new heater's box.

"Everyone's got something to say but they won't say it, not if they see you," Mayhem said as he squatted in front of the wall and watched the plaster dry. "Pajama warriors" he called them; community members who would sit on their computers and complain about things via e-mailing over the listserv.

"There're lists of things to be done," he continued. But nothing gets accomplished because no one can agree on what they want to do. He mentioned the demonstration solar project that they'd been talking about for years, but never happened. More recently, there was a disagreement over how to use the community's garage. The space temporarily went to one member's coffee roasting business. "Everyone just gives up after a while," Mayhem said with a shrug. "They're like, 'Fuck it.'"

Even though Mayhem's sentiments about the ecovillage can often sound bitter, he's one of the longest-standing and most active members. He's the ecovillage's Mr. Fixit and has a store of knowledge on Peak Oil, but isn't always entirely neighborly.

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Santizo was sitting in the ecovillage lobby when Mayhem was walking through, coming from one of the wings and heading toward the courtyard.

"Dale for president!" Santizo joked when he saw him.

Mayhem kept walking, not saying anything or responding to Santizo.

"He's an asshole, white trash, dick," Santizo grumbled. "When I walk into an all white community, they don't look at me, they don't talk to me. He's kind of like that."

It was Monday night - meeting night - and Auerbach had just come up to the common room after playing with a yo-yo he'd found. After a mumble of general consensus, Auerbach had been conscripted to give the meeting call. He pocketed the yo-yo and leaned out the doorway. Down the hallways and throughout the wings he yelled, "Meeting time! If you want to have fun come to 201!"

A few more people filed into the room. Mayhem sauntered in with the health section of that day's paper and leaned against a wall in the back. He read it throughout the agenda review and introductions. When the time came for prospective members to introduce themselves, he looked up.

"You Buddhist or Episcopalian or any other thing we should know about?" He asked one of them. No, she said, sitting up straight and glancing back at him. She said she was spiritual. Later in the meeting he looked up from the paper again when the discussion went to facilities problems; water from upstairs bathrooms was leaking into the apartments below them.

"You know what most people do?" Mayhem said. "They sue each other and they all have homeowners insurance. That's the way it works in real life, man."

There was a pause in the room until Auerbach piped up, "So I'm actually fairly concerned about this." Santizo's twentysomething nephew, who also lives at ecovillage, diffused the suddenly tense room with a quickly cracked joke and everyone decided to pass the issue along to the governance committee.

The L.A. Ecovillagers recognize that they don't always agree on things easily and call on Bressen to help when things get tense.

"She came to help us get our shit together," Mayhem said of Bressen.

Did it help?

"Fuck no. It was complete chaos."

He and Morrison were walking down the dim hallway to their individual rooms, past the college dorm doors and stack of used paper that was in a container nailed to the wall, available for re-use.

"Dale!" Morrison sang at him, either because of his negativity or his cursing. The cursing had to be something that she was used to, though; Mayhem thought it was ridiculous to be "PC."

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Four years ago, Sabrina Burke received an inheritance from her grandfather, and decided that it was time to live in an intentional community. She visited different places but knew that she wanted to stay in the area where she grew up. "There's a vibrancy and a whole different community when you're doing it in a community you love," she said. "I mean, I'm a Portlander."

She wears chunky black glasses that tilt up at the ends, and a green fleece ski cap with a big white daisy at the top of it. She has a black shirt under her red vest and describes herself as "kind of an adult punk." Burke and her friends used to sit on the deck of the farmhouse that the Leitches later would turn into the Permaculture Institute and muse about how awesome it would be if the apartment complex across the way could house an intentional community. Now, almost a decade later, that complex is her home. "I've always been interested in how to live on the land in a common way because I don't personally believe in private property," Burke explained.

Burke was sitting in the kitchen of Dea and her husband Mac McKinlay, just upstairs from her own apartment. Dea made tea for everyone and filled a plate with McKinlay's homemade bread. Burke is a community organizer and sees Columbia as a place that fosters interdependent relationships, though its early efforts at encouraging financial diversity failed. But that doesn't mean that everyone's the same. Burke said, "For all of the seeming homogeneity we have as far as class and race and economics and all of that, we are a microcosm of an incredibly diverse amount of values and feelings and approaches to communication."

"I think you saw that last night with the question of 'what do you want from a dining hall?'" Dea agreed. The community members will have to come to an agreement; each one of them would be footing an equal share of a hefty bill. It's just a question of how long it will take for everyone to come to an agreement. McKinlay explained that his neighbors at Columbia put so much time and effort into making their ecovillage successful because, "They don't want to live in a house by themselves. They want to live in a community."

Dea remembered the time when all at once they were all moving out of their old houses and coming to live together at Columbia. The ecovillagers organized a garage sale for all of things they wouldn't be needing any more. "We didn't even really have a big house," Dea said. "It wasn't like we had a gigantic mansion. It was more like we had shit. We had everything. Our basement was full, our attic was full, our tool shed was full, our garage was full, and we probably had 3,000 square feet of full."

"I'm still going through your full," Burke laughed. One of the things McKinlay brought to the garage sale was a pair of his green polyester bell bottom wedding pants. "They totally fit me too," she said. "I look hot in those wedding pants."

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The future of urban ecovillages may be in Philadelphia. The Fox Business School at Temple created a business plan for Green Village Philadelphia this past December, and their non-profit has recently hired a new director. Would they look to L.A. Ecovillage as a model?

Click to enlarge
Lindsay Gilmour stops by a potential space for Green Village Philadelphia.

"They're a little too hippie for us," Gilmour said. She was on her mountain bike in East Kensington, cruising around on a tour of potential ecovillage locations. All of them were either large, million dollar factories or abandoned lots that would have to be developed. She thinks that the process of creating an ecovillage takes so long because it takes so much for people to work together. And, as Bressen said, the support systems that ecovillages would need to get founded just aren't in place. It's difficult for them to get loans, and zoning laws don't work in their favor.

One Sunday, Gilmour was picking up fresh greens from the Fair Food Farmstand, an outlet for local produce at Reading Terminal Market. "This is my social life," she explained, after chatting on her iPhone with another Green Village board member, whose birthday party she'd be attending that night.

She left the market and went to her bike. Gilmour bungeed her canvas bag of vegetables onto its back rack and fastened under her chin a purple helmet with a camper's head light on the front of it.

Gilmour had always pictured creating an intentional community in a rural area, but then realized "No, I want to do this in the city, we want to do this in the city. It's more sustainable, in some ways more exciting..."

She rode through a neighborhood of uniform red brick houses; the new housing projects. A bit further along were abandoned warehouses and empty plots overgrown with small trees and weeds. Gilmour pointed out ten locations that they were considering for the ecovillage. "I'm not a developer," she said as she biked under the overpass that cradled the L train. "I don't know how to make this vision into a reality." Green Village can't settle on a location or continue networking until they do find a developer. That's their next step. And it's expensive.

Whatever site Green Village chooses will have apartments as its residential component, but Gilmour won't be living in one of them. "Sometimes it's good to be separate from the thing you create," she said, and added that she'd lived in communities before but they weren't a good fit for her. Gilmour is looking at recreating entire neighborhoods, and says she would be just as involved with the ecovillage if she lived in a private home nearby.

At the end of the tour she stopped at a neighborhood bar for hot toddies and talked about the ecovillage, Philadelphia, inequality, and food. She reflected on her time as an angry youth. "I used to hold the weight of the world on my shoulders. But now…" she shrugged. She was tired, overextended, questioning why she was pouring so much energy into Green Village. But she'll continue to do it until the ecovillage is real, even if she herself doesn't quite know why, and then will move on to whatever world-changing endeavor comes next.

Maggie can be contacted at

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NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute