Eco-Village: An Outpost in Urban Core


Roman Devivo lifts a rosy bunch of radishes to his face and inhales deeply. He pauses, considering whether instinct commands him to eat. No, he decides, and gently tucks the vegetables back into his basket.

The radishes were grown in as natural an environment as may be possible in the middle of a big city, but occasionally even nature disappoints.

Across the table, piled high with vegetarian platters from the weekly potluck dinner, a few of his neighbors mull over the latest dust-up over their communal garden. It's supposed to be free of polluting pesticides, but the group is fretting about one headstrong gardener.

"She uses slug bait," Joe Linton, a bespectacled artist, says incredulously. "I know, I know. It's bad. I think she would do so much better if she had a smaller plot."

Such is life in the Los Angeles Eco-Village, an outpost of organic lettuce and solar panels plunked down in the middle of the urban core.

The community is tiny, just two blocks lined with 1920s-era apartment buildings east of Vermont Avenue on the northern fringe of Koreatown. Most of the 500 people who live on Bimini and White House places have no particular environmental agenda.

But sprinkled among them are about 30 self-proclaimed Eco-Villagers, sending a green current rippling through this largely working-class, immigrant neighborhood. Thanks to them, the streets are lined with apple, plum and grapefruit trees. Vegetables sprout from courtyards. Bicycles have replaced some of the cars.

It's an evolving utopia, where neighbors still squabble and raw radishes aren't always appetizing enough to eat.

"Eco-Village," said Lois Arkin, a 65-year-old woman who helped found the community a decade ago, "is a state of mind."

The mind-set is sharply at odds with much of the rest of this teeming neighborhood of auto shops, drive-through restaurants and graffiti that stain even tree trunks.

Devivo and his girlfriend, Antje Spors, moved in a year and a half ago. They are authors of a book about "instinctive nutrition," which urges people to choose raw foods based on what their senses tell them their bodies need.

"We used to live in an anonymous apartment building in Hollywood," said Spors. "If somebody would say hi to you in the elevator, you were really lucky."

In Eco-Village, everyone says hi. Roam the halls of the group's main abode, a two-story apartment building painted sunflower yellow, and you will find sculptors and psychologists, bike messengers and teachers. The head of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition lives here. So does the assistant manager of the Hollywood farmers market. It's an ethnically diverse group that includes people from Nigeria, Germany, China and El Salvador.

Arkin, who has lived in the neighborhood for 22 years, was the first Eco-Villager. In the late 1980s, she and a group of like-minded friends wanted to start a community that reflected their beliefs. They had their eyes on an 11-acre site in Montecito Heights, a former landfill where they could build their village from scratch.

But then Vermont Avenue erupted. Two buildings near 1st Street burned to the ground as mobs surged through the neighborhood during the 1992 riots. Arkin decided she had to stay.

"We were asking the question: What should our priorities be in urban L.A.?" she recalled. "Should we be building sexy new developments on precious open space, or should we be reinventing our existing neighborhoods to be healthier and more sustainable? It was unanimous to say, 'Hey, let's heal the neighborhood.'"

Naomi Orr, an elderly African American, was already living on Bimini when Arkin and others in the largely white eco-crowd started passing out environmental newsletters, planting trees and throwing block parties. Little by little, she said, neighbors who had never exchanged a hello began greeting each other by name.

It took years before other environmentalists began to move in to join Arkin's urban experiment. Even now, some are more self-sufficient than others. Not all Eco-Villagers have forsaken their cars, and only a couple of them have made the switch to solar power.

But if anyone doubts the vision, consider this. An Eco-Village nonprofit group now owns two Bimini Place apartment buildings, bought without the help of a bank, using $1 million worth of handshake loans from dozens of supporters.

Now Orr lives alongside ponytailed guys who wheel mountain bikes down the hall. She considers herself "a part-time Eco-Villager."

"I love it here," she said. "A lot of people say, 'Why don't you move into a senior building?' Well, I'm very content here, and I actually feel very safe."

Orr is gamely trying to fit in. But some habits, she admitted, die hard.

"They do ask you to save the vegetables for compost, but I'm not good at that, because I sometimes forget," Orr said apologetically. "See, I'm not a vegetarian. I'm almost 74 years old, and I'm just not good at evolving."

Many Eco-Village units rent for about $400 a month, a bargain in a city painfully short of affordable housing. Similar apartments in the area cost upward of $600 monthly.

One of the most impressive apartments belongs to T.H. Culhane, a tech-loving UCLA grad student determined to live in a self-contained "biosphere." In practice, this means a tangle of wires and tubes slithering across the floor, the walls, the tub and the toilet.

Rooftop solar panels provide his electricity. Dirty water from the shower is recycled to irrigate the garden. Culhane even built a composting toilet--basically a seat rigged over a five-gallon bucket. Instead of flushing away waste, he drops in a handful of grass and leaves, periodically emptying the bucket into a compost bin wedged next to the bathroom door.

"It's in here? That's incredibly compact," marveled John Stern, an aerospace engineer visiting Culhane's apartment. "This is excellent odor control. It's really working."

"This is a biosphere," Culhane reminded him. "I'm in my own bubble here."

As he explained the workings of a compost system that uses earthworms, pill bugs and air siphoned in with aquarium pumps, Fabien Bronner, Devivo's 10-year-old son, clomped around the apartment wearing Culhane's anti-gravity boots. Then he strummed a few chords on the solar-powered electric guitar.

A fifth-grader with a bristling crew cut who speaks four languages, Fabien said he loves living in Eco-Village. In other neighborhoods, he said, "there's garbage all over the place and car pollution."

"Eco-Village is cleaner. There are more trees here. It's more interesting, the way people live," he said. "It feels like a homeland."

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