The drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Portland Oregon, up Highway 5, passes through a splendid natural landscape and a diminished human one. There are islands of local particularity, yes. But along the highway one encounters an endless succession of Best Westerns, Taco Bells — you know the list. You drive six hundred miles and stay in the same place. After all those billions spent to defeat the Soviet Union, we have embraced its numbing uniformity, only with a higher entertainment quotient and a better paint job.
Then there’s Portland, which is trying to resist this commercial Sovietization and the social pathologies that go with it, Downtown the city has created Pioneer Square, which set a new standard for urban commons, and a host of kindred spaces. In the neighborhoods, meanwhile, there is the City Repair project, which is resurrecting a commons consciousness block by block. “Turning spaces into places,” is how the people there put it.
City Repair is not about fixing structures. It is about the life that flows through and between structures when they are intelligently designed. Mark Lakeman, one of the founders, calls it permaculture in an urban setting. “We empower local, urban communities (neighborhoods) to creatively interrupt the city Grid in order to transform streets into active, social commons,” he wrote with Lydia Doleman, his partner.
The typical urban grid was designed for the ease of marketing individual lots – that is, for turning space into real estate. It is a geometric dictator that makes little provision for the contours of the landscape or the needs of human interaction. In Portland, however, someone had the foresight to modify the grid in ways conducive to neighborhood. Streets dead-end for a block or two, thus deterring through traffic. Small traffic circles at many intersections deter traffic further.
City Repair takes that thinking to the proverbial next level. It starts with intersections, which today are dominated by automobiles, and reclaims them for human intercourse. Neighbors get together and build cob structures, paint bright murals on the pavement, and generally conjure life out of what now are social dead zones.
Lakeman took me on a tour of several City Repair sites last week. (There are about fifty now and growing.) One featured a Poetry Plaza, with a cob bench, a solar-powered lighthouse, and a box into which people can deposit their own poems and read those of others. Elsewhere there were cob benches, tea houses, kiosks, bulletin boards with solar lighting, even a memorial to a young bicyclist who was hit by a truck that ran a stop sign at the corner. (See photo below.)
The latter was on a private yard. When people get into the spirit of community place-making the boundaries between the private and the common – the me and the we — begin to soften. Residents have commented on how the structures, and especially the process of creating them, have been lubricants to community. People are meeting neighbors they never talked with in ten years of living across the street. Strangers have become neighbors; and not surprisingly, some neighborhoods have seen a measurable drop in crime.
We need etiquettes of introduction in order to talk with strangers, and settings in which approach is okay. City Repair is providing those; and it is extending the concept to a larger scale. It helped to create Dignity Village, for example, which is a community of formerly homeless people. People there have built straw bale houses, a kitchen, solar/gas showers, and a garden. Lakeman says it costs three dollars a day for someone to live there, as opposed to sixty a day at a typical shelter.
Deal with people as capable rather than defective, and as community builders instead of as isolated integers, and sometimes they will surprise you.
City Repair also helped establish the Rebuilding Center, which is a kind of Home Depot for salvaged building materials, fixtures and the like. (It is built largely of such materials itself.) The Center employs some fifty people, all of whom live within a ten minutes’ walk from the store, in a neighborhood where people need these jobs. There are cob benches outside for meetings or just hanging out.
This kind of social permaculture is as infectious as its opposite can be. Once people start doing it the idea just spreads. In the Sunnyside neighborhood, which is City Repair’s most active, the local elementary school decided that it wanted to get into the act and become an environmental model. Kids there learn about ecology at each grade, and practice it through the plantings on the school grounds. Other schools have gotten involved as well.
There is a belief in America that everything depends upon personal virtue. Virtuous people will create communities, regardless of the physical setting. Megamalls, sprawling suburbs, the isolation booths calls cars – virtue will prevail over all. Virtue certainly can help. But community is not hydroponic. It does not grow in the gaseous air of speechifying about community, or in the virtue of isolated individuals.
Community needs settings in which to take root and flourish; it needs commons structures, just as market behavior needs market structures. Some settings are more hospitable than others. Even healthy plants cannot grow in concrete. City Repair is creating a new model for breaking up the concrete.
If you are in the area and would like to take a look, an ideal time would be the annual Village Building Convergence, when neighbors undertake repair projects all over town. The VBC this year will be May 19-28. For more information check out www.cityrepair.org and itsVBC page, or call 503-235-8946.