Born in 1993, in the same 90004 zip code where I was born and raised, the Los Angeles Eco Village (LAEV) has embodied what cooperative living can be when a collective of people commit to ideals of community and sustainable urban space. Last week the LAEV celebrated its 20 year anniversary with a fundraiser event, marking their enduring pledge to sustainable living. LAEV is nestled within a two block stretch of Bimini Place and White House Place, off of First Street, just east of Vermont Avenue. The space includes cooperative affordable housing, native landscape, on-site food growth, micro social enterprises, a community land trust, pedestrian-friendly streetscape, bike-friendly amenities, and a host of democratic community-building activities. To visit is to not only feel the history of community transformation, but also be inspired about what a more livable L.A. can exemplify.
The special honoree for the 20th anniversary was the former LAUSD Boardmember, City Councilmember, and State Assemblymember for the area, Jackie Goldberg, who fought side by side with LAEV to make the physical and social space for the village that we see today. Goldberg, who is the embodiment of progressive politics for this city, expressed that she admired how LAEV members "not only talk about what to do, but live it and demonstrate it." This statement cannot be understated, as LAEV is not some short-term demonstration project, such as the curbside projects we see during Park(ing) Day; LAEV has been an everyday living and breathing community for the last 20 years. It has fought hard against mainstream urban initiatives to dehumanize our streets and communities through the privileging of automobile culture, and gentrification that has made the again-popular inner-city neighborhoods unaffordable for the working and middle classes.
As much as LAEV is celebrated as a physical space that demonstrates sustainability, the anniversary event highlighted the social space created through strong relationships and bonds. Jill Sourial, former resident of LAEV for five years, and community land trust founder, describes it as an engaging space where the "energy and creativity are not only transforming physical spaces like the garden or the street, but also social spaces in ways that demonstrate the very real challenges and benefits of living in community and making decisions together."
It is this consciousness, of not only dealing with the benefits of democratic decision-making, but also confronting the challenges of living cooperatively, that make LAEV trailblazers in social sustainability. As LAEV friend Julia Russell states, it is a place that can be understood as "persistent, nurturing, and evolutionary." These words indicate the collective understanding that change does not happen overnight, but takes time, understanding, empathy, and a willingness to adapt to people at different worldviews.
The willingness is evident in Lois Arkin, of the Cooperative Resources and Services Project (CRSP), who helped found LAEV in 1993 in the very neighborhood she had been living in for the previous 13 years. We were all affected by the 1992 L.A. civil unrest and the burning that engulfed our neighborhoods. Lois and CRSP did not run away from their neighborhood like many had in the face of urban disharmony; instead, in true LAEV fashion, she, CRSP, and the host of LAEV members that have lived and live there today took on the challenge to demonstrate sustainability in a part of the city that could benefit from empathetic and cultural innovation. This kind of commitment to action are essential indicators of engaging spaces in Los Angeles. To hear more about the history of LAEV and its visions for the future, I sat down with Lois for an interview.
What is the short history and vision of L.A. Eco Village?
LAEV was started in 1993 after about 10 years of envisioning and planning. By the late 1980s we had settled on an 11 acre vacant city-owned site, a non-toxic landfill in northeast L.A., about seven miles from our current location. We envisioned the initial site to be a new construction, state-of-the-art eco-development that might have taken decades to develop, millions of dollars, and not be without a great deal of pushback from the existing neighborhood in Montecito Heights, which we had already begun to experience. Nonetheless, with a great volunteer committee, including several visionary architects, our focus and public advocacy for that site resulted in the LAEV concept being included in the City's Housing Element in the late 1980s, along with an award for Advocacy Planning from L.A.'s Chapter of the American Planning Association.
Then, it was 1992 in L.A., and much of our city went up in flames as a result of the Rodney King verdict. So while others were out that weekend cleaning up or getting ready to leave town, our 20 person planning committee began to engage in a six month dialog around the question: "What should our priorities be in inner-city L.A.? Should we be developing a sexy new $25 million development that will take decades to do, or should we do the LAEV as a retrofit of an old built-out neighborhood that was deeply affected by the riots, where all the infrastructure is in place, and where we might demonstrate that a very diverse community can get along?
At that time I had lived on the corner of Bimini and White House Place for 13 years. Since there were several fires in my immediate neighborhood during the uprisings, it made sense to decide to do the retrofit in this neighborhood, where at least one person in the planning group had a well-established presence, unlike our plan for Northeast L.A. This was an important lesson which we have shared over and over again with folks who want to start any type of intentional community: get to know and develop congenial relations with the neighbors who already live where you are planning to develop or move in.
So, it was an enthusiastic "yes!" from our planning committee to begin the LAEV right in "Lois' neighborhood," where the group had been regularly meeting in my home-office. We worked with our existing neighbors, as well as those who would move intentionally to the neighborhood, to be part of the demonstration aspects of the project.
On January 1, 1993, we launched. Two or three volunteers hung out with me in the neighborhood each week, walking up and down the street, meeting neighbors, introducing neighbors to one another, planting fruit trees and little gardens with the neighborhood kids. We also introduced something I later referred to as "positive gossip," sharing all the good things we learned about our neighbors, so that other neighbors would be enthusiastic about meeting one another.
In its broadest sense, the LAEV vision was to reinvent how we live in the city by demonstrating the processes of living more ecologically and more cooperatively, thereby creating a higher quality of life at a much lower environmental impact. As we became increasingly aware of how to integrate the social, economic, and ecological processes and systems of the neighborhood, we grew more and more adept at walking our talk without judgment and without self-righteousness.
The fact that we have survived 20 years, as a thriving and diverse community with a well established culture of sustainable living, have significantly influenced public policy, and have a worldwide reputation for being among the most prominent urban ecovillages -- that all seemed to add up as good reasons to celebrate, something we had never done publicly before.
What makes LAEV an engaging space to you?
We have achieved several of our initial goals, so that is very gratifying. For example, we now have a 35 member intentional community, most of whom live in two adjacent apartment buildings and are organized as the nonprofit Urban Soil/Tierra Urbana limited equity housing cooperative. The land underneath the buildings is owned by our nonprofit Beverly-Vermont Community Land Trust. These two organizations ensure that the property is permanently affordable and can never return to the speculative real estate market. The Land Trust is in the process of developing a quarter acre multi-school learning garden in association with the LAUSD, where we will have the opportunity to work with kids from the eight public schools within walking distance of us, and ultimately with some of the adjacent neighborhoods where the kids live.
We achieved all these land and building acquisitions without the use of conventional banking. We created our own Ecological Community Revolving Loan Fund, which borrowed close to $2 million from our friends and others, and most of it has already been paid back.
Most of us are active members of the Arroyo Seco Network of TimeBanks, a complimentary currency that is growing throughout the world. Very few of us own cars, and those cars that are owned by our members are shared, when needed. We are an active biking community, including several of our members in their 70s (I'm 76). Bicycle activism has been on-going for several years. The Bicycle Kitchen, the Los Angeles Country Bicycle Coalition, and CicLAvia got their initial start from LAEV members. So we are very proud of the role that LAEV has played in the expansion of bicycle culture in L.A.
Our members are active in a variety of other social justice and environmental organizations, and we frequently host meetings, retreats and gatherings for other groups. Several of us are active in our Rampart Village Neighborhood Council and have been strong advocates for more sustainable practices in our City. We hold regular public events on a variety of topics about urban sustainability with visiting experts from throughout the world. Public tours for kids, college students and groups and individuals happen several times each month. Our art and music workshops for neighborhood kids are a big hit.
Next year we intend to transform a portion of our main street into a People Street where we will hold a variety of public events. People Streets are being encouraged by the City to re-purpose "wasted asphalt" into public plazas.
From living and helping lead LAEV, what have you learned about ecology, space, and community in the last 20 years?
We have drawn so much expertise to our membership, we are all learning from one another all of the time. I co-wrote and co-edited one of the first ever books on urban sustainability, "Sustainable Cities: Concepts and Strategies for Eco-City Development" (Eco-Home Media, 1992), so I thought I had learned quite a bit. But after we became property owners and actually began to research building materials on the basis of the most local, the most recycled content, the least toxic, and the least polluting, wow! It was changing all of the time. And one had to really learn where and how to keep up, and how to recognize "green washing" by businesses that just wanted to appear green to get you to buy their products.
On the social end of things, it is critical to have all-around congenial relations with people you plan to own a multi-million dollar business with, whether for profit or non-profit, and with whom you want to change the world. So it took us much longer than it would have a conventional community development organization to develop our Co-op and Land Trust, the backbone of our economic systems, because we had a lot of work to do to build sufficient relationships and trust and the culture of social sustainability. And of course, initially, there was no paid staff; we were all volunteers learning to live together to change our city and the world!
Again, I co-wrote and co-edited one of the few books in the country on collaborative living, "Cooperative Housing Compendium: Resources for Collaborative Living" (UC Davis, 1993), and it was a breeze compared to the many years of effort and paid process consultants it took to get the LAEV community's inter-personal relations to a healthy level. And that is work that is on-going. We have been trained in consensus, meeting facilitation, and have a very active conflict resolution team, most of who have been certified in conflict mediation.
What do you think is the future of LAEV in the next 20 years?
- Car-free and asphalt-free two block neighborhood, and, hopefully, extending to several lanes of Vermont Avenue, First and Third Streets.
- To grow 50% of the food consumed on our two blocks, utilizing former parking lots, streets, rooftops, building sides, growing walls, window boxes, etc.
- To return all organic wastes to the earth, create all of our own new soil, including use of safe humaure from all of our composting toilets.
- No water be wasted, with rainwater catchment, cisterns, rainwater gardens; use greywater and have a neighborhood-based beautiful biological living machine, which renders harmless any other used water, grey or black.
- 100% renewable energy, including wind, solar, geothermal human, animal; we will have reduced energy needs by 70% or more because of changed living patterns.
- All neighbors on our two blocks will identify as living in the LAEV neighborhood, be connected via one or more of our local community organizations, and be actively involved.
- Neighborhood-wide conflict resolution center will be pro-actively involved in any neighborhood disputes, and on-going training and education on communication processes such as non-violent communications.
- Regular neighborhood-wide and public gatherings, parties, celebrations, fairs, festivals.
- Place-based educational "home schooling" systems in the neighborhood for K-12 and beyond. Lifelong learning is part of the culture of the neighborhood.
- Health and healing will be oriented toward wellness and prevention, natural, holistic, related to the whole social, economic, and ecological fabric of the community, basic safe sex, family planning, and spacing will be a given.
- The whole neighborhood will work at increasing biodiversity toward creating healthy and balanced ecosystems.
- Everyone in the neighborhood banks with a people-owned credit union and local Time Bank or other local currency of the day.
We continue to demonstrate a different way of living in our city and share what we have learned with Neighborhood Councils, condo and tenant organizations, HOAs, and public agencies throughout the area and the world.