Where They Hide the Green in Los Angeles

By Sophie Gosper

Angeleno’s seldom wake up to a day where they can see the mountains, let alone spend an evening staring at the stars. In a city of nearly 10 million people, the smog settles thickly over a world of traffic jams and bustling streets. But amid the pollution, tucked behind Vermont Avenue in the heart of Koreatown, lies the Los Angeles eco-village, a haven for those who wish to live an eco-friendly, self-sustaining lifestyle in one of the dirtiest cities in America.

The two double-story buildings hide behind thickets of edible brush, wrought-iron fences and scattered patches of mulch-garden inhabited by miniature Buddha statues. Upon the entrance is a sign that reads “Cookie party, upstairs. All welcome!” and beyond that an old, white, crusty-looking building with a foyer featuring an array of worn furniture. Forty of the residents within these adjoining buildings are devoted to the eco-village way of life. That is, by their definition, they are trying to set up a lifestyle that is both sustainable and harmlessly integrates human life with nature.

Furthermore, the eco-villagers reach out and try to educate the larger community on the importance of social dependence, rather than industrial. They welcome volunteers, local families, school children and the generally curious through bonding events, potlucks and social projects.

In essence, their main focus is the concept of an organic social network stemming from a vibrant, co-dependent community for people with similar beliefs and outlooks.

Lois Arkin, founder of the Los Angeles eco-village, first entertained the idea of an intentional community in 1980 when she established the Cooperative Resources and Services Project, a non-profit organization that provides educational resources for small cooperatives. But it wasn’t until the 1992 Los Angeles Riots that Arkin decided to put its resources to work in her own neighborhood in a way that could benefit the city at large.

Amid the riots, Arkin cycled home from work through chaos and smoke to find Vermont Avenue engulfed in flames and smoke.

“People took it in turns taking watch on the roof, it was a frightening time,” Lara Morrison, the manager of the Los Angeles eco-village said.

Arkin witnessed the importance of community support and cooperative living, and plans for Los Angeles’ first eco-village demonstration project started to take shape.
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In 1992, CRSP bought two buildings on Bimini Place, both scheduled to be vacated, through the Ecological Revolving Loan Fund. They extended the lease of the current residents and began renovating the building so that it adhered to their ecological template.

However, it’s not just about eco-friendly materials, although the flooring is made from recycled tires and cork tiles; it’s about a working as a unit. Members of the community complete all renovations themselves.

“This does mean that things take a bit longer than usual,” Morrison said, laughing. “But the results from a hands-on, cooperative approach are well worth the while.”

Arguably the most impressive renovation within the eco-village can be found inside apartment number 107, where Jimmy Lizama and Josephine Sarria live with the newest member of their family, baby Joaquin. The couple decided early on they wanted to have an at-home water birth, and Lizama set about removing their old ceramic bathtub and building a new, larger cement one that could accommodate the birth. Furthermore, in the spirit of being eco-conscious, Lizama designed the drainage system so the water from the tub would wash directly into the community garden.

“So the first batch of water to ever go into this garden [from the tub] was the birth bathwater, which is kind of a beautiful symbolic connection to our immediate earth here,” Lizama said.

The garden, or more accurately a courtyard jungle that resides in the center of the complex, has become the crux of the community’s sustainable lifestyle, representing both the importance of neighborly cooperation and self-sustainability. Apart from the sites original vegetation, everything planted at the eco-village is edible to promote a car-free society by eliminating their need for grocers to deliver vegetables to stores, in attempt to indirectly lower exhaust levels.

“It may not be a lot, but it’s something,” Morrison said.

The villagers grow and harvest plums, bananas, Tahitian squash, acorn squash, pomegranate, apples, yams, grapes and lemongrass to name a few. They also have a chicken coup, which Morrison takes personal responsibility over, and are devoted compost-makers evident from the piles of rotten food and dead leaves scattered around the mulch garden. All residents have the opportunity to help out with the gardening, though it is not required. It is just one of the many things offered to the community, along with Sunday night potlucks, weekly meetings, retreats and bee-keeping on the roof.

Josh May, a 28-year-old UCLA graduate student, is relatively new to the community after living in the village for a little over a year.

“I’ve tried gardening – my successes have been pretty off and on,” he said. “But I’d say overall I’m a pretty active participant.” May said on a personal level the most important thing about living in the village is the sense of a “neighborhood and community”.

But not all of the residents in the buildings consider themselves a part of the eco-village community, in particular people who lived there from before the building was taken over by the CRSP.

“It’s definitely a heavily left-wing crowd,” Georg Carver, a resident from before the co-op. “I don’t go for that potluck stuff too much because it’s vegetarian and I’m not.”

The Bike Kitchen, located next to the Los Angeles Community College, is a non-profit education organization promoting the use of bikes and bringing together cycling enthusiasts. In short, it’s a funky shed full of fun tools and donated bike parts where you can fix up your wheels for free.

But what many people don’t know is the Bike Kitchen originated at the Los Angeles eco-village, in the actual community kitchen. The room is now packed to the rafters with all the bits and pieces a cyclist could need, not to mention storage space for residents to lock up their bike.

Although there are people in the buildings who own cars, off-street parking is intentionally not provided. Furthermore, road safety has become a preoccupation for Arkin and her eco-villagers, especially because of neighborhood schools. In an effort to keep the larger community secure, eco-villagers banded together with other locals in the area and repaved the sidewalks with permeable materials, decorated the roads, painted over graffiti on the pavement and built a safety gate entirely out of used bike parts.

Morrison, who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, looks out over the garden and walks across her recycled-mosaic patio, which she made using tiles she collected at a yard sale.

“Knowing what I know, living like this is the only way I will remain sane,” she says. “I’m now in a position where I can do something.”

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