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WHITE HOUSE PLACE : Eco-Village Provides Urban Blueprint

As experiments in futuristic living go, the Los Angeles Eco-Village isn’t as dramatic as the controversial Biosphere 2 terrarium, but the small demonstration project offers hopeful lessons in building cooperative, self-reliant neighborhoods.

Located east of 1st Street and Vermont Avenue, the Eco-Village demonstration project operates within a multiethnic, working-class neighborhood surrounding Bimini Place and White House Place.

Since last year, the Cooperative Resources and Services Project (CRSP), a training center and information clearinghouse in the neighborhood, has been working with volunteers and about 60 neighbors to coordinate the Eco-Village as a model for a new strategy for urban development.

An eco-village in its simplest form is a neighborhood in which residents know one another, live close to where they work, find most of what they need within walking or bicycling distance, recycle, minimize waste and sustain themselves with a limited reliance on government services.

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“What we’re doing now is something other people can do in their own neighborhoods,” said Lois Arkin, founder and director of CRSP and co-editor of “Sustainable Cities: Concepts and Strategies for Eco-City Development.”

“It begins with people doing things together and building a sense of trust,” she said. “Trust is the most important element of community work.”

Arkin, a neighborhood resident for 14 years, began organizing last year by going door to door and talking with her neighbors.

That’s how she first met Maria Vazquez, who then met another neighbor she had never known even though they have been living across the street from one another for 23 years.

Before long, neighbors began spending time together, hosting brunches, planting gardens and trees, building benches, and publishing a neighborhood newsletter.

“Now most people know each other and it feels like a family,” Vazquez said. Her children, Jimmy, 14, and Rosalyn, 10, tend a small vegetable garden and fruit trees they planted in the neighborhood.

Esfandiar Abbassi, the garden coordinator, helped define the concept of sustainability through lessons in recycling and composting.

“If you take care of the earth, it takes care of you,” said Abbassi, who studied agroecology at UC Santa Cruz and delights in turning a barren patch of urban dirt into a productive garden by using garbage to rejuvenate the soil.

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He amazed students from the White House Place Primary Center next door with his “secret worm box.” A small piece of Arkin’s back yard, once devoid of life, produced squirming earthworms not long after the students buried their food scraps as a lesson in composting.

“Kids who never ate vegetables before are eating them now,” Arkin said. “So the parents say, ‘Maybe we should have our own garden.’ We’re making our way into the hearts of the parents through their kids.”

Other Eco-Village activities include efforts to slow down traffic on the neighborhood’s two streets and a trading system that allows neighbors to exchange goods and services, often without cash.

In addition, under an agreement with the city, Eco-Villagers are recycling 40 tons of red clay brick from earthquake-damaged buildings for use in beautification projects. The bricks, once bound for city landfills, are being collected and cleaned by neighborhood youths, Arkin said.

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Children play an important role in the Eco-Village and adults take responsibility for the safety and education of all the kids in the neighborhood. Youthful curiosity generates energy for new projects and “when the energy is there, things happen,” Abbassi said.


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