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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Urban Eco-village

Air Date: Week of

In the center of Los Angeles, where natural ecology is a thing forsaken, one neighborhood discourages cars, grows its food, and even tries to get off the grid. Alan Weisman reports.


CURWOOD: When you hear the word "eco-village," images of lush green countryside dotted with organic gardens may come to mind. Or you may picture geodesic domes, their roofs glistening with solar panels. Well, among the 60 or so sustainable settlements in the United States that belong to the global eco-village network, there are some like that. But the place where reporter Alan Weisman takes us today isn't one of them. Instead of a pastoral paradise, we're headed to a poor, urban neighborhood in Los Angeles.


WEISMAN: This is Vermont Avenue in Central Los Angeles, one of those 30-mile long gashes of relentless commerciality that criss-cross the city. There's a Subway shop, an Auto Zone, an English Korean karaoke bar, El Café Don Quixote, whose menus also come in English and Korean, and a babble of storefronts where money can be sent to Guatemala or received from the Philippines. There are Chinese groceries, computer outlets and, of course, McDonald's.

MAN 1: You can mount it to the back, to the bottom….

MAN 2: To the bottom of where?

MAN 1: To the boiler.

WEISMAN: A block away, four men atop an aging 40-unit apartment building install a homegrown solar water heater made from 60 feet of copper tubing coiled inside a black box.

MAN 1: Is water coming out?

MAN 2: It’s coming out of the pump…

MAN 1: It should be going through the coils…

MAN 2: Is it warm?...Woooo!

WEISMAN: The building is home to a community that grandly calls itself “Los Angeles Eco-village.” It's a pretty bold claim. On this decaying residential street called Bimini Place, you might not notice anything special. Yet each week people from as far away as Japan visit this 1920s structure whose once peeling Spanish-style facade now sports a bright coat of environmentally friendly water-based yellow paint.

ARKIN: So, welcome everyone. Welcome to Eco-village. I know you’ve had a little bit of a flight and then I gave them troublesome bus directions…

WEISMAN: Our tour guide is Eco-village founder, Lois Arkin, a former LA probation officer. Arkin is a trim, vigorous woman in her early 60s who’s lived across the street for years. Back in the 1980s, she worked on city plans for a sustainable neighborhood in the hills above Pasadena. But it never got past the endless meetings stage.

ARKIN: Well, we're going to have a solar ecological urban village with a community land trust, limited equity housing cooperatives. Of course, no one ever knew what we were talking about...

WEISMAN: Then, in 1992, LA exploded in flames, following the acquittal of four white policemen who had been videotaped clubbing a black man named Rodney King.

ARKIN: Our committee began to have a conversation about what are we doing developing this new, sexy, solar urban village when neighborhoods like this are just so sick, and so dysfunctional. And so, we began to think about how we're going to retrofit our existing neighborhoods to make them healthy.

WEISMAN: But her concept of sustainable living, Arkin learned, meant little to people of different ethnic groups so frightened they wouldn't look at each other. So she started small. She asked people to introduce themselves when they saw a neighbor they didn't know and ask their name.

ARKIN: Just in the period of six months, you have like 25 people calling out to 25 or 50 more by name and waving and saying, "hi," and particularly the children...

WEISMAN: Next, she tore out her front lawn and got local school kids to help her plant vegetables. Soon, to their parents' amazement, children starting bringing home fresh produce.

ARKIN: And so the parents would start eating these fresh vegetables, or see their kids eating the vegetables. "Oh, my kids never ate vegetables before. Maybe we should have a little garden, too." And so, we started having these little micro-gardens all over the neighborhood...

WEISMAN: With her neighbors and other Los Angelinos intrigued by the idea of an eco-village, Lois Arkin formed a non-profit coop and bought this building with low interest loans. They lowered rents for people already living here and began to renovate.

New residents had to agree to really be neighbors and to produce minimal waste and pollution. Since they lived within ten minutes of 26 bus lines and two subway stops, they were offered rent breaks for doing the unthinkable in LA – living without a car.

ARKIN: So, Mara, would you like to join us?

MARA: Yes, I’m coming to join you right now.

ARKIN: Oh great. This is Mara, everyone.

MARA: Hello. How are you? Nice to meet you.

ARKIN: And her daughter, Egshell (phoentic). And she lives in Eco-village now, about five months.

WEISMAN: Outside, Lois explains that Eco-village now owns a second apartment building and rents several nearby homes. You wouldn't call this an urban oasis. But there's a succession of tiny front yard gardens and fruit trees – persimmons, plums, guava, apples, lemons, peaches, figs – that add up to a lot of food growing here.


MEN TALKING: This is cabbage…that’s broccoli.

WEISMAN: Joe Linton directs a key Eco-village campaign, redesigning neighborhood streets to slow traffic. They’ve won a $600,000 grant from the city to build micro-parks that flare out from curbs, narrowing roads and eliminating some parking. The idea is to persuade cars to drive and park elsewhere. Their project has become a pilot for all Los Angeles.

LINTON: The plan is to do 20 to 30 of these streets over the next 30 years. And so the thought is that these neighborhoods should really have an orientation toward pedestrians and not toward the cars.


WEISMAN: Over on busy Vermont Avenue, they've got the city to invest in ornamental bike racks and cork trees. And they promised storekeepers three new pedestrian shoppers for every parking space they get rid of. They've had no takers yet. But they've convinced L.A. to close one of their streets to vehicles.

ARKIN: The other thing I want to point out on this block is that we believe that there is a creek, Sacatela Creek, from some of the research we've done that runs down this block, White House Place. And we have a plan to bring Sacatela Creek above ground and make it an integrated ecosystem once again, again as a gift to the school.

WEISMAN: This was more than just a wetland. This shabby neighborhood was once a famous spa known as Bimini Hot Springs. The apartment buildings were hotels for guests who came to take the waters alongside Hollywood starlets. But the baths were segregated.

After World War II, the LA civil rights movement ignited right here. But after the courts integrated the baths, most whites stayed away. The Hot Springs went into decline and finally closed. Today, the capped spring lies buried beneath an auto repair shop. Some day, Lois vows, they'll resurrect it.

ARKIN: Bimini means sacred site of healing. And so, what a wonderful thing it would be to, of course, have baths restored and accessible, financially, to people of all income levels and of all ethnic groups.


CULHANE: Welcome to the Los Angeles Eco-village solar demonstration unit where electricity is a commodity that we produce ourselves and produce for all of the modern high-technological things that people normally associate with a consumptive lifestyle, but here we use in a pro-sumer kind of way. And I’ll just turn off the electric guitar for a second…

WEISMAN: When Iraqi-American T.H. Culhane moved here, the first thing he asked was if they could cut him off the power grid. He then started putting solar panels on the roof to run his guitar and lights.

CULHANE: And then, when I got four more solar panels last month, which meant I made the decision a couple of weeks ago to get the microwave and the refrigerator freezer. And now, I have a completely, I think, normal, modern lifestyle.

WEISMAN: There's even solar-powered air conditioning.


WEISMAN: His TV runs off a generator hooked to a stationary bike so he doesn't become a couch potato. But Culhane wasn't satisfied with merely severing ties with the electric company. Not only did he build an odorless composting toilet inside his apartment, but...

CULHANE: Now, when I take a shower, as soon as the shower water goes on [SOUND OF WATER], I turn the pump on [SOUND OF PUMP], and the bathtub doesn't fill because it's pumping into the bushes right out in the front yard.

WEISMAN: T.H. Culhane is a Ph.D. candidate in Urban Planning at UCLA. He used to live in Beverly Hills. Now, he takes his bicycle on a city bus to commute to class.

CULHANE: When I found it was possible to move in here, I put myself on the waiting list and proved to them that I walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

WEISMAN: He majors in sustainable development for poor countries like Guatemala, where he's been working. But there's also plenty to sustain close to home.


WEISMAN: This is 59th and Compton, South Central L.A., a part of the city known for gangs, drive-by shootings, and just plain danger. T.H. Culhane once taught high school down here. And he stayed in touch with his former students.

CULHANE: How’s it going? Give me a hug, Al.

WEISMAN: In his home sound studio, Alvaro Silva and his friend Ramon Navarro have been mixing a rap song by Alvaro's brother, Bernardo.


SILVA: You're in Solar South Central. And, this is my studio that's being run with solar power. And, everything from the bathroom, here and here, all these rooms, solar power all the outlets here.

CULHANE: How are we doing? Is the battery holding out?

SILVA: Well, I just got to change the batteries. Well, money – money is a problem right now.

[MUSIC IN BACKGROUND: “I’m making a dramatic change in my life…”]

WEISMAN: Money is always a problem in South Central. But Alvaro and Ramon go up to Eco-village frequently. And they think renewable energy is the answer.

SILVA: Here is a Aztec calendar. That's to give me a reminder that we're the people of the sun. We come from the sun, and we worship the sun. So, that's an example that our ancestors were able to use the sun.

NAVARRO: We wanted to use a better way without, you know, polluting the air. You know, we live in the city. And the city is always, you know, full of pollution and everything. So, you know, we’re like – why we don't build something where we won't destroy the atmosphere, and we can use it as much as we want without burning fuel.

WEISMAN: Alvaro's family has put in mango trees, a compost bin and an earthworm farm. But their latest project sits in the driveway – a 1988 Ford Escort Pony, its original motor gone.

SILVA: Low-rider cars are the same thing as electrical cars. But instead of an electrical motor, they have electric shocks, and makes it pump, makes it jump up and down. It's the same process you use for electrical motor.

WEISMAN: And they've been waiting for T.H. to come down for the first test of the new engine.


CULHANE: Wooh! All right! Gentlemen, we have an electric car.


ARKIN: Good morning.

MALE: Good morning. What’s happening?

ARKIN: Well, we’re having a little brunch in the street trying to demonstrate that we can slow our traffic down on our street and invite our neighbors to come join us who often times don’t have time to get out of their cars.

MALE: That’s probably not a good idea.

ARKIN: Thank you.

WEISMAN: It's a bright Sunday morning at Eco-village. A long table, complete with tablecloth, has been set in the middle of the intersection of Bimini and White House Place. About a dozen Eco-villagers, and several guests, are partaking in fruit, oatmeal, coffee, and a big batch of scrambled eggs. Several cars must pick their way carefully around them.

MALE DRIVER: Hey, how are you?

WOMAN: Hey, want a banana?

MALE DRIVER: Thank you, thank you.

WEISMAN: Some drivers actually do stop and join them. It's their Korean neighbor Mr. San who has the auto repair shop.

ARKIN: This city, more than any other city on the planet, is responsible for the state of the planet. So we have shaped the values, the unsustainable values, of people worldwide. So, we have a particular responsibility to change that here, to really reshape what it is that they write music about, scripts about…

WEISMAN: So, as breakfast ends, they sing.


MAN SINGING: Imagine there’s no cars, it’s easy if you try, nothing to honk or curse at…

WEISMAN: From Eco-village in Los Angeles, I'm Alan Weisman.

SINGING: Above us, clear blue skies. Imagine all the people walking down the streets. Imagine no more freeways…




Los Angeles Eco-village


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