Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Art of Building (3 class set)

Took classes a few weeks ago that I have yet to reflect on called math for building, structural design and codes/costs/contracts. Though the class wasn't the most exciting, I sure did learn...that I will always need to understand more about structures, load capacity, etc. and that the more I think I know about them, the more I will realize that no one truly knows how a structure will work...even the best of the best cannot predict what a structure will do 100% of the time.

Math for builders: There were some regular ol' public school teachers in the class, which totally allowed me to see the class in a different way. Instead of seeing it only as a tool that I can use, I was also able to see using building to inspire learning. Again and again I return to hands-on education. I am a visual and hands-on kind of learner, and the more I talk with people, the more I realize that that is the way that most people are. Listening to someone go "blah blah blah sine cosine tangent" at you for an hour is way less effective than having a school project where building the roof for a shed becomes a less in trig. All of the sudden BAM! the student that can't care less about trig is suddenly a whiz. She can do it because it is suddenly more relevant than finding the angles of a triangle drawn on a piece of paper. Things I found helpful and math-related: how to build risers for stairs and how to use a framing square (though not included in the class, it is something I think should be included in the math section)

Structural Design: Taking this class at Yestermorrow, you'd think there'd be some section of this course that relates to alternative and natural building. How do you calculate loads for strawbale buildings? What can a tire wall support? Despite that this was not the case, I still learned a lot about how buildings are built, how to figure out how much support is needed, etc. Going over my house as an example...I finally understand why it is not falling down when it seems like that is exactly what it should do given that there are major beams that have been entirely cut through. Yay for old style construction, old timbers, and old timers who overbuilt their structures! Interesting fact: Warren,VT has a higher snow load than Buffalo does.

Codes, Costs and Contracts: This is where I think I often run out of patience. The most critical steps in building are writing up a contract, giving estimates, and winning bids. It wasn't anything new, but the main message was to take time to do it right, but don't obsess over it. A bid is a bid...you'll win some, you'll lose some. Know how much time to spend on an estimate versus a full materials write up. Don't let potential customers take advantage of the work you do and your intellectual property. etc. etc. etc.

All in all, an okay class. Definitely helpful, and I think one which will become increasingly relevant as I leave Yestermorrow...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Something to brighten the day

Here at Yester-campus there's a lot of cleaning to be done in between classes. So this week I have been vaccuming carpets, painting baseboards, etc. While cleaning the overhead lamps and dead spiders/bugs galore were raining down from above, I noticed this particular arrangement of the dead bugs in the lamp to the left. A smiley face! When life gives you lemons...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Cuckoo for coconut oil?

Went to NYC this weekend and gave away some of my creations that I’ve made thus far…my cutting board and the very first spoons I’ve ever carved. In making these, I have become increasingly interested in how wooden objects are made, how woods vary, and how to maintain the wood in the proper manner. Who knew there was SO much to learn about wood? Though I knew it was the case, I am still surprised that there is life beyond a 2x4, ha!

Lately, I am into learning about different treatments for wood, especially for wood that will be used in eating, such as cutting boards and spoons. I have learned that once again, it is simply a matter of common sense; if I would not eat the oil, I should not put it on the wood I will be eating off of. Seems self-explanatory, no? Then again, susceptibility to rancidity must be taken into account. For example, I should not treat wood with olive oil since it is much more susceptible to rancidity than say walnut oil or almond oil. …but walnut oil is not extremely common, is it? I opted for coconut oil…I read it is a good way to treat wood due to its low rancidity…we’ll see how it works out. Secondly, something I did not even realize, which may be an extremely important topic to consider if giving wood gifts as a present, is allergies. If someone is allergic to walnuts, don’t treat the wood with walnut oil. Same with coconut. Makes sense, but if you are not allergic to any foods, it is not something that would immediately come to mind in choosing finishes.

So I am getting a good lesson in finishing wood, but what I really need to practice more is joinery…will hopefully practice and return with a post later in the week. The other thing I want to reflect on and discuss in a blog post is non-profit and for-profit structures, which has been a major discussion throughout my whole travels. I am wanting to evaluate the viability of something like Yestermorrow operating in a for-profit structure. I have much to say regarding this idea, and so perhaps there will have to be two posts this week! By the way, I will post much of the home repair stuff I am learning on the BuffaloBasics blogsite as well, just to continue to increase access to a wide variety of audiences...it will be the same post, but there may be additional information on upcoming workshops at my house in Buffalo. Taught by me, taught by Brendan and Pat, taught by Maura...a very loose free school structure!

Class 2: DIY Hot Water, the PAIN mound.

Last weekend I took a class called DIY Hot Water Systems. The class was based on the idea of the Pain Mound, a concept championed by scientist Jean Pain, of France. A Pain mound, according to the instructor, uses the heat generated from the process of decomposition to heat water lines fed to your house, in turn decreasing the need for additional water heating appliances that consume fossil fuels.

How does it work? The simplest explanation is that water lines are buried within a tightly packed mound of decaying organic products, the water in them heats up as they travel through the mound, and they re-enter the house at a much higher initial temperature, thereby reducing costs for water heating.

Is it realistic? For Vermont, perhaps. A rural setting is preferred given that the space required for such a massive Pain mound would be the size of many city backyards. Also, in a rural setting there are no neighbors to complain about an unsightly mound whereas in the city, you can be sure to expect some inquiries from neighbors, not to mention inspectors.

Cost-benefit? At this point, the cost outweighs the benefit in my opinion. Though I have no evidence for it, it would seem that the cost of wood mulch, plumbing fixtures and piping and the labor involved in building the pile would be greater than the money saved on simply heating water using fossil fuels. If, however, the benefit of not being reliant on fossil fuels is more important than any costs associated with being off the grid, then perhaps it is worth it for you. For me? Not so much.

If you are interested in learning more about this concept, how it was built, the specifics of costs associated, the BTUs generated from the pile…I’d be more than happy to share documents…get in touch with me by leaving comments or by emailing me…

Sunday, October 17, 2010

WfW, not WWF silly!

I took my first class here at Yestermorrow this past week, and wouldn't ya know it was called Woodworking for Women (WfW)! A topic near and dear to my heart...women in "nontraditional work."

...hang on, who decides what is non-traditional anyways?? sheesh!

The instructor for the class was Lizabeth, a woman carpenter whose father was also a pediatrician! Funny coincidence! I spent the whole week making a shaker-style end table, learning about routers, mortisers, dado cuts, different kinds of finishes...it was a really good introduction to the woodshop, and now I feel totally at home creating furniture and other wood products.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Arrival at Yestermorrow

I was home for a brief week and now I'm off again. To Vermont this time! The next 6 months of posting will be the documentation of the second half of my current journey: the yester(half)year.

Vermont is rural as rural can be. There is NO cell phone service, so I leave my phone in my bedroom, which caused me to spend the first 3 days searching for my cell to check the time. Even my phone's alarm clock fails to work out here. By the fifth day I have come to terms with it; I no longer have any sense of hours in the day and only judge times by my nose...I can smell meal times from the smells of the kitchen.

The Yesterfamily is an odd bunch. Only time will tell, but in the end I will most likely continue to conclude that I hope to never start a non-profit if I can avoid doing so. There are many inefficiencies that would simply not exist if this school were run as a for-profit business that remained socially responsible.

This posting will most likely become weekly at this point. By the time the day of chores and work is over, I'm too wiped to write a daily post. Coming up: what I'm learning and working on here at the Yesterplex.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Heidelberg Project

I did not interview anyone from the Heidelberg Project, but I remembered speaking with the project's founder 2 years ago at the Great Lakes Building ReUse Conference in Buffalo and thought I should check it out. What a crazy/interesting place!

In the years of its existence, it has been a rather controversial project. Why? To some, Tyree Guyton's work is just prolonging the demise of the abandoned and unsafe buildings in their neighborhood. To others, it is a tragically beautiful depiction of the abandonment of Detroit. And to others still, it is an amazingly creative space and a spot of light in an otherwise destitute area. I myself am not certain how I feel about it.

The decorated buildings and sculptures made of old building materials at first look seem to suggest a different vision of the future--of what could be. Instead, I believe it is more an artist's depiction of the creative energy of people. Not an exact vision but more of a suggestion that even in the most forgotten and abandoned of places creative energy and hope still exists. I think that it is this powerful message that I connected most with while looking at the installations on Heidelberg Street. More than the artist's canvas and the political commentary behind the wild air vents snaking out of a ruined roof and the stuffed animals tacked on the side of a house, this message hits at the core of the current rebirth of Detroit. It is just one part of the message being sent through the Detroit: City of Hope (DCOH) campaign, but it is a strong one at that...yes Detroit has problems, yes many buildings are falling apart, but we can take back our neighborhoods, we can use our creative energy (which the Heidelberg Project has been instrumental in highlighting) and come up with realistic solutions that benefit US as a community.

Speaking of, DCOH is another entity on the list that I thought I should check in on. I contacted longtime organizer (and former autoworker)Rich Feldman to speak a little about this idea of a loose organization whose main goal is to connect businesses, nonprofits, people, etc. in order to create a network of caring Detroiters, excited to work with each other to achieve a better future for Detroit. DCOH and my visit with a pretty amazing lady will be in my next post.

For now my questions are: Why are artist communities seen to be an indicator of progress? Are they actually? Can you have artists move into an area without gentrifying it in the process? How do you get neighborhood artists invested in the area and community building rather than turning an area into a space that largely functions as an artists canvas with little to no community involvement? When is that ok and when do you need to integrate creation of art pieces and community?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Soup and Support

I was supposed to be meeting my couchsurfing host Leeann at an event called Soup. If you're not familiar with couchsurfing...you should be. Anyway, I was invited to this event via facebook, and when I checked the event page I saw a link to another event during the day...Spruce up Spaulding. ...What is Spaulding?

This is Spaulding.

Glass bottles are broken in the planters, trash is sticking to overgrown weeds, and the building has been abused, set aflame, and subsequently forgotten. To many, Spaulding Court is an abandoned piece of junk. To the people working at Spruce Up Spaulding, the building is a treasure! You may not be able to see in the picture, but given the potential for future community interactions within this specially designed space, I tend to agree with the latter group. The building is essentially designed to smush people together, a design that I think can often be helpful in engaging people within a community since it forces increased levels of communication and tolerance for others. As I volunteered in cleaning up the planters and work on some plumbing, I pictured a future with food growing in the planters, implementation of smart retrofit techniques, etc. That's the beauty of Detroit nowadays...anything is possible. Learned how to use aquatherm, a material that surpasses pex in performance! Hoping it becomes more readily available in plumbing supply stores in the US...expands and therefore does not burst if/when water freezes in pipes, has straight runs like copper which are easier to install than the curved, bendable pex, melts together to form a tighter seal than pex, etc.

I went to Soup after volunteering at Spaulding Court, and loved the idea. Every Thursday this group gets together, makes soup, and charges $5 for dinner. The awesome part about it is that the money paid to get soup goes toward funding a community project. There are 2 people in attendance who have 3 minutes to pitch their idea and why they need start-up funding. The others in attendance vote on which group deserves to receive funding, and then the money is given to the winner! Sure, it's only a couple hundred dollars, but think of all the free publicity as well! Even if you don't win you still get the undivided attention of all the people in the room for 3 whole minutes, to speak about and sell your project.

Same Circle Syndrome

I left Minneapolis early early morning (sorry I missed saying goodbye Andrew, you were a wonderful host!) in order to catch the ferry from Manitowoc to Ludington. It cost a pretty penny, but on the last leg of my journey…anything to keep from driving more, no? So I hopped aboard the S.S.Badger, cruising ever closer to the last stop on my 3-month road trip…DETROIT.

Detroit is everything I imagined only on an infinitely larger scale. In a way, the abandoned buildings served as a reminder of home—forgotten streets and forgotten neighborhoods fading into history—but there was a pervasive shift in the wind which was in no way similar to the some wind patterns in Buffalo these days. I’m speaking of the winds of change, of course. Perhaps that is an overly negative judgment of my hometown; there are plenty of amazing people and organizations within Buffalo, but there is less of a cohesive energy...? Less of view that the entire city is behind this shift in the wind?

The first people I visited with in Detroit were from two different training and conservation corps. Instead of speaking directly about their organizations, I want to mention something that came up in the conversation which has really gotten me to reexamine my own experiences in Buffalo and the role I want to play in the future. What we discussed was something I like to call "same circles syndrome." It's awfully easy and comfortable to find yourself surrounded by the same people who are working within the community building realm. We're all on similar committees, we hold events which we all attend in support of each other, and we see each other in both professional and informal settings. If we never wanted to, we could successfully avoid interacting with our actual communities at all! ...But how does that reflect the wants and needs of the community? How can we call a neighborhood or our work successful if we base success on numbers in attendance versus on who attends or how people are becoming engaged in the org and taking ownership of their own communities?

I noticed in Detroit this divide of sorts; one which I do not care to repeat. There is a major divide between one side--the "creative minds," the "community builders," the out-of-towners coming to try their ideas on a fresh canvas--and the other side--people who have been around forever, "the community." At many events I attended it was often a group of the former, the same circle people, mostly not reflective of the demographic in Detroit. And here I find it can be very much the same...is it unavoidable? I sure hope not. I have much more to say on this topic, especially concerning Detroit...how some people seem to get it and successfully avoid the same circle syndrome, while others are consumed by it...but I think this is enough to reflect on and think about now...

Friday, September 24, 2010

Grand Aspirations

I spoke with Timothy, a leader of Grand Aspirations and Summer of Solutions, when I was in Minneapolis this past week. Grand Aspirations and Summer of Solutions seeks to capitalize on the energy of youth in order to develop and create green solutions for our uncertain future. I was interested in several things regarding this organization and the programs it runs/supports:

Big Ideas:
1. National versus local programming. Though my heart always shifts toward more localized solutions, I can see why there are national organizations. I was curious to see Timothy's opinion on this and the decision behind turning Grand Aspirations into a national org versus a Minneapolis-based organization. Timothy agreed that localization is always important, but that each local program need not create an entirely new curriculum or orientation/training for its leadership. Rather than each location around the country spending countless hours re-creating the wheel, the programs can focus more on their localized version of curriculum and local issues. It makes sense to have a larger org overseeing in this case, especially since different local chapters can network...though I still think a lot of attention has to be paid toward ensuring that the local chapter is in fact addressing local issues...

2. Educated, well-off participants versus at-risk, disadvantaged youth. This is something I personally struggle with. Being the former of the two I find myself torn. Sometimes creating programs for people who are well off are well intentioned...the idea that creative, educated minds can be a catalyst for change within a system rings loudly, but oftentimes exclusively. With programs only working with the first group it can become a very top-down approach which assumes that the disadvantaged have nothing to contribute to the conversation. On the other hand, working with only with the latter category may close off opportunities for new ideas to enter the space. By incorporating both I think there is more of a chance of diversity in knowledge, experience, etc. which could be more effective in producing realistic (rather than solely idealistic) solutions...

3. Training for job opportunities that don't exist (in the green jobs movement). This org focuses more on youth creating solutions rather than training them in any specific green job skills, which I think is an important aspect of this org. First we need to rethink how we approach problems and empower people to seek solutions. There needs to be a go-getter attitude, an entrepreneurial spirit which eventually, fingers crossed, creates the jobs through initiatives that are begun through programs like these...

Other things:
1. They have a cooperative model for investing in energy efficient upgrades. Called Cooperative Energy Futures, it started out of the Summer of Solutions, but it is essentially a revolving fund...all the returns from energy efficient upgrades goes to financing more upgrades within a community, making it affordable for a neighborhood to install otherwise expensive upgrades

2. Youth power! This can go two ways, actually. Yes, I think that supporting youth and giving them power in creating solutions is AMAZING. But are youth the only ones with the answers? Seems to me that other generations have answers as well. I'm not saying this organization should be intergenerational, because some orgs can simply support one age group, but I think this idea of intergenerational interactions is something that is very important to me in thinking about healing/creating/strengthening communities...and empowering members to be able to propose and realize solutions to issues that neighborhoods face...(be it crime, blight, climate change, whatever)

There is probably much more to say about this organization, but I need to continue on and type up other posts before I forget many of the conversations I had while in Detroit this past weekend (my stop after Minneapolis).

Throwback to Seattle

I didn't have the picture to post at the time, but while I was in Seattle I met up with my longtime friend and teacher, Ken! Of course we can never rest and just hang out when we get together, so within minutes of my arrival...I was moving boxes and furniture onto a huge semi. Ha, typical!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Experimental College of the Twin Cities

A common question on my road trip has been, "what is your background?" because people are often curious about how I became interested in community and sustainable building. I tell them, "I majored in environmental policy, though upon graduating I don't think I had a clue what it really meant..."

It seems that this is true for many people attending university; students become frustrated that what they are learning is in no way preparing them for the "real world," and develop a general jadedness toward official educational institutions. This jadedness is a main reason for forming an alternative skills building school. I was interested in interviewing a member of the Experimental College of the Twin Cities (EXCO) to understand their motivations and their processes for setting up this free school. There are two things in particular that I liked about EXCO...

1. Non hierarchical structures...like City Repair, there is no one leader in EXCO. This means there is more potential for more classes to be taught within a term, more of a pool of people to take classes, etc. I think this structure can often lead into trouble in getting time commitments from members, but if done well has an amazing ability to mobilize and motivate all members to claim collective ownership of the thing which they have created. Also to be lauded is their efforts in holding spanish-speaking only classes...I'm interested I think in a bit more history regarding that chapter of EXCO (named academia communitaria) and how they increase local participation

2. Their website is well done. In researching many organizations across the country I have come to rely almost solely on websites as my primary source for information. EXCO makes it super easy to sign up for classes online...no hassle, and its free! Question though...what about the people with little to no access to computers?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

If I were to move, Minneapolis might be the place...

Minneapolis-St.Paul...what a hidden gem! Perhaps it was the company I found myself in, but the two cities seemed extremely bikeable...? (HOORRRAAAYYYY) There is a greenway that runs through a large section of Minneapolis which people use to commute on their bicycles to work! Took a bike ride while there, on one of the last warm days of summer/fall before the cold sets in and it was a beautiful ride. On a tandem no less!

While I was in the Twin Cities I checked out Paint the Pavement, Grand Aspirations, Experimental College of the Twin Cities, and talked to some pretty awesome and inspiring people. The people I stayed with--Andrew, Rija, Hanah, Claire, Terence, Ryan (did I forget anyone??)--were incredible. Super welcoming, but more than that, they had/have enormous creative and positive energy which no doubt translates into creative and positive change in all that they do!

I mentioned Paint the Pavement in an earlier post, skeptical of the motivations for adopting intersection painting as a solution for building the St. Paul community. I'm not sure if I've resolved this issue, but it leaves a better taste in my mouth now understanding the whole story: the story is that a community member turned leader took this idea from CityRepair and ran with it, so for all intents and purposes it was a decision made internally, by the community/for the community, thus making it a more legitimate project to be adopted into this St. Paul neighborhood. I actually found that Paint the Pavement itself was not the important/interesting part of the organization; the program (LISN) that resulted in the creation of the project has drawn my attention far more as a creative solution to the lack of internal innovation of a community.

LISN, or Leadership in Support of Neighborhood, is a program that is no longer in existence, but no longer in existence because it was so successful! My basic understanding was that the program accepted interested individuals within the Hamline neighborhood, and working with Hamline University and the neighborhood group, they were trained in how to become community leaders and how to pursue ideas and create projects/businesses from them. It was a business incubator in a way, only it produced innovation on many different levels (non-profits, grassroots initiatives, businesses, etc), which resulted in an increasingly engaged and active community! Eventually the program shut down because there were too many successful projects, and there were no longer enough community members feeling as though they could not become involved in leadership/community decision making. I LOVE the idea of this...empowering community members, training them in personal & business skills, giving a stipend to complete a project...and seeing magic happen! No doubt with many ups and downs...but I definitely think there is something in this idea. Will have to speak further with the woman who ran the trainings...

Don't have time to post on the other 2 organizations I visited right now, but will post more later...

Monday, September 20, 2010

South Dakota is FOREVER.

Drove through Montana and Wyoming before stopping overnight in Rapid City, SD. I saw Mount Rushmore lit up at night (sorry no picture, my camera broke). In the morning I drove through the Badlands. After that, there is just plains as far as the eye can see in South Dakota. Expect to drive 8+ hours before seeing anything higher than a few dozen feet above the ground. It's a little toned down in comparison to Texas, but South Dakota definitely has its fair share of kitchy roadside attractions...

1. Wall Drug (Wall, SD). World famous, mostly because it has signs all over the world. Here's an example of one in Amsterdam.
2. Corn Palace (Mitchell, SD). It's exactly what it sounds like...a building made of corn. Well, the building itself is not made of corn, but the facade is, and it changes every year. This year was celebrating the corn palace through the years...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

It's not named Big Timber for nuthin'

After leaving my friends Sean and Sarah in Portland, I set out for Big Timber, MT, a podunk town in the middle of a long stretch of the I-90. Why? To reconnect with my earthship friends!

The earthship crew was (is) building a large earthship on the outskirts of Big Timber, so for 3 days I got to hang out with these awesome folks. This time I learned a lot more about the roofing...how to cover the vegas, add insulation, etc. The first two days were gorgeous and it was a definite treat to work in the sun. The third day however, it was 37 degrees in the morning and windy/rainy. UGH. The weather was terrible, but all the crew on the roof suffered together so the general attitude was pretty positive. Our reward? A mostly finished roof, a doughnut/hot chocolate break, and Monte and Doug (the owners) treating us to Chico Hot Springs at night! I still think earthships use too many materials with high embodied energy (still a lot of cement, and the insulation was polyisocyanurate...if you can't pronounce it, it probably means there is a lengthy production process...). In terms of materials used for the roof...the amount doesn't differ from other buildings, and I think for the most part it is very necessary to use so much material...especially insulation. Your roof is your everything. Nothing else matters if it it is going to be ruined by water infiltration.

I had tons of fun, and it was super hard to leave, but the show must go on, so I'm headed out through South Dakota to Minneapolis...


The more I read about community building, the more I become confused as to which direction I want to go in. What part of community building should be a 501c3 organization? What part should be a business? What part should just be a low-key community effort with no legal structures involved? There are the day to day neighborly interactions, there are community events, there are services offered…there are so many things a community needs and there are so many things a community does!

In Portland I was fortunate enough to meet up with Michael Cook, a volunteer for CityRepair and we talked a little about how and why City Repair was founded, how it works now, and some of the success and failures of their relatively non hierarchical organizational structure. This organization is an example of a 501c3 org that may do just as well without that registered legal status…

City Repair was founded by Mark Lakeman and focuses a lot around the idea of placemaking, “the creative reclamation of public space.” IT is an interesting story to follow--how the organization was started, how it flourished, and what it is doing today--but what I want to post on are several other things that came up in my discussion with Michael.

1. Non hierarchical structures. Thanks to Barnard EcoReps, I have had plenty of experience with nonhierarchical structures. Cons: No one has complete ownership, so often things just simply do not get done. A person suggests a good idea, but if they do not pursue it, the rest of the group usually will not make it a point to follow up. Pros? Everyone feels empowered. If they suggest an idea and it is accepted by the group, they can run away with it! So long as there are willing workers, anything is possible. There is more potential for endless numbers of projects to be completed all at the same time…if there is no hierarchy, there need not be a person on the top level who has to balance all of the projects, funds, etc. Finance your own project, run your own project, and the others will help (if you bug them enough).

2. Doing what works for YOUR community. While a van that offers free tea to neighbors and painting intersections may be what’s needed in Portland, something else may work better in Buffalo. I am hopefully talking with an organization called Paint the Pavement in Minneapolis…they took the idea of intersection painting and ran away with it! I’m not sure if they ever thought of this idea of doing what makes sense for your community…we shall see, but it seems that they were totally excited about intersection painting and simply decided that would be best instead of brainstorming their own solutions for placemaking within their own community. Perhaps this is a harsh judgment? Anyway, this has gotten me thinking a lot about…what is good for Buffalo? Is there a need for expanded artistic expression, a need for basic amenities, do we focus on bettering ourselves and self actualization of individuals or do we focus first on building a supportive community which then hopefully leads to supporting people in their ideas and self sufficiency?

3. Defacing of placemaking sites. I’ve learned in visiting with ArtStormLA and seeing murals in SF that graffiti isn’t necessarily as bad a thing as many people think; in fact, graffiti can be beautiful if properly directed! Michael mentioned that there has been graffiti and other shenanigans (stealing of mugs, tea, etc) at many of the City Repair sites. Isn’t graffiti a form of placemaking itself? An artistic expression perhaps of someone’s lot in life, or their involvement in one group or another, or their thoughts about a certain space? How do we work together, making both community member and graffiti artist happy? How do we come to an agreement on what is placemaking and what ruins the spirit of placemaking?

City Repair has been super successful, but I can see where at times it might be hard to lead something so informal and ambiguous. What exactly does City Repair do? A little bit of everything it seems, which in my opinion both works and does not work. It’s the same with the whole sustainability issue…there are SO many issues within it to tackle, but do you tackle them all at once or just focus on one? Do you have a broad scope which seeks to inspire further action and involvement of the community members and cannot hope to really address all problems, or do you have a smaller scope and make leaps and bounds in one particular area?

I have much more thinking to do on the idea of placemaking and what City Repair has tried, but I think I’ll save it for when I’m in Vermont. I’m traveling through cities and states too fast now to process everything…

Sister Sister

Went to a Sisters in the Building Trades meeting just outside of Seattle this past Friday, and I was blown away by the energy and enthusiasm I saw there. Having only just become involved in the building trades a year and a half ago…I felt like this meeting was a place I finally belonged! Not because I am interested in becoming a union worker necessarily. I would say that my interest in sustainable building practices and the building trades in general are more in using it as a vehicle for addressing many issues facing my community. Regardless, I will be working right alongside the female union carpenters, welders, plumbers, etc. And gladly!

In my many meetings with community organizations and sustainable businesses, I have rarely been as moved as I was at this meeting. Each woman in the room seemed to be glowing with an inner strength, a knowledge that they had proven themselves and were working alongside men, despite some people’s efforts to discourage them. Strong, badass women shouting, “welcome to the workforce of the 21st century; we’re women and we’re here to stay!”

Now, wasn’t that what they said in the 20th century? Yes, and it needs to be repeated until it is accepted as fact. Sisters in the Building Trades is trying to promote that message through several routes:
1. Working in the trades themselves. When there are not a lot of women around the jobsite, it is easy to make jokes and play on stereotypes of women. There is an assumption that they are bitchy, hard to work with, too weak, etc.
2. Being mentors for incoming sisters. I've only had men as mentors and teachers, but I can only imagine how supporting this would be. Someone to commiserate with, to ask questions regarding pregnancy policy, etc. Not to mention getting tips on how to make tasks which require brute strength easier, how to make up for height discrepancies, etc. Basically a sister to guide you through turning a "male job" into a job in which both genders can be equally successful!
3. Providing co-ed trainings in which men walk out with a more positive attitude toward women than they did coming in. A bonus effect of having the sisters do trainings...because women are teaching, the thought of capable women in the workplace is automatically more in the forefront during trainings.

Of course, like any organization, they have problems with funding, volunteerism, lack of ownership of projects by members...but they work in spite of all of it. Upon leaving this meeting, I felt like the tension of being accepted into a male-dominated profession didn’t matter as much; I felt like I had been accepted into a sisterhood of builders who had already accepted me. This makes me want to realize the same for other girls…especially some women in my neighborhood who have been taught that the incredible power of their own bodies and spirits does not exist...

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ancient Giants

After I left San Francisco, I visited my friend Erin in Petaluma for a nice lunch, and then off to the Redwoods! Got there mid day and was so entranced that I simply had to stay and explore. The fog settled in the forest throughout the night, giving it a mystical, magical feeling as I walked through the silent, ancient giants in the early morning. Of course I am terrified of getting mauled by a bear, so imagine this serene place being disturbed by a crazy chatting and whistling and singing girl...ha. It felt absurd...

Pictures of the journey:
1. The tunnel from SF towards Petaluma. Double rainbow...omg.2. The BIG TREE. Yes that's its name, and yes...it is in fact rather large.3. The marker at the top is when the redwood forest flooded back in the 60s. Wayyyyy above my car. Luckily, I've converted my car to a submarine (trust me, a great video to watch)!

Friday, September 10, 2010

San Francisco

Surprisingly, I did not meet with anyone in the SF area. I drove up the coast with my brother on Saturday and spent Sun/Mon wandering with him and his friends in the many neighborhoods of San Francisco. And oh, are there neighborhoods in San Francisco! It amazed me that we could be walking in one neighborhood and have the local bars, shops, etc. and then continue into a different area of the city and find more local bars, shops, etc. There were no large gaps of only residential or only commercial buildings…I could walk anywhere and I’d still be in a mixed use area! Of course the parks were large expanses, but they were great places with a diversity of ballparks, fields, gardens, museums, etc. It’s weird though…there is not as much of a diversity of people as there is of residential, commercial and recreational facilities. Whereas in other cities I am more cognizant of being a woman wandering alone through unfamiliar streets, I felt as I could wander and not wander into much trouble. Na├»ve? Maybe, but I also think it is because SF has pushed out most of the diversity of classes…pushing out the lower and middle classes to live in Oakland or SF suburbs.

I picked the neighborhood I would live in if I moved to San Francisco…and no, I don’t expect to move to the west, but you never know. I would live in the mission district. Mostly because of the murals. There are murals everywhere and about everything! In alleys, in parks, on the fronts of buildings, the whole section of the city is filled and buzzing with artistic talent, though not in a starving artist, bohemia-style. Rather than certain murals standing out and outdoing the rest, the murals are all unique and inspiring in their own way. I spent 3 hours wandering in and out of alleys for murals on garages, tilting my head back for elevated murals, crossing the street for whole-building murals…and I could have spent 30 more. Many of the murals are sponsored by Precita Eyes, a non profit founded by muralistas (the women muralists), and I was lucky enough to stumble into their office on one of the streets in the Mission. They run a program that works with youth who have been caught for tagging...and makes them "tag," only in a more productive way. This program made me think of what ArtStormLA is doing...

Unfortunately I did not fully interview the folks running this organization, but I think I will follow up at some point because the art was just so...integrated into the community! It was like a living, breathing reflection of the beliefs and thoughts of people in the mission district...some controversial, some about love, some about family...all about life.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Two intentional communities, two very different approaches

In my attempt to catch up with blog posts it seems I glossed over a place that I visited a few weeks ago...Arcosanti in the middle of Arizona, an intentional community/laboratory for urban living started back in the 70s by architect and artist Paolo Soleri. At the time, Soleri's theory of "arcology" (architecture+ecology) was revolutionary, and his thoughts surrounding urban planning were rather unique. Now however, much of his vision and the work continuing in Arcosanti seems rather outdated and rigid. When I arrived, the very first thing I noticed was that the entire structure is made of concrete! Yikes...if you've been reading my previous posts, it's the same criticism I had for Earthship Biotecture...everyone is using so much portland cement (a main ingredient of concrete), but it has an enormous embedded energy! And the plan for the building of the city called Arcosanti has not changed much since the obsession with concrete in the 70's (as my friend Dave pointed out, SIPA on Columbia's campus is one example too many of that trend in architecture...). That is mind boggling. All the best designs and ideas must change as they are further developed and articulated, no?
I will say there are some successes to be claimed by Arcosanti, one of which is the ability to shape and work with concrete...making silt-cast murals, forming amazing arches, etc. The other being a city (really a small commune, ~100 people) that champions artistic expression (they have entire spaces allocated for metal work, woodworking, pottery, concerts) and forces people to interact with each other. Perhaps force is a harsh word...what I mean is that the buildings are designed to channel people into central locations, with smallish living quarters and large communal areas.

The other intentional community I visited was recommended by David Eisenberg, called LA EcoVillage. The community is, of course, in LA, which is a huge contrast to the more rural intentional communities I've encountered thus far, and I can say that I liked it so much better! Maybe I'm biased toward urban lifestyles, but I also just think it was functioning better due to the higher density...for many, it becomes their refuge in the big city. Still, there were many rules which were sort of lax and ambiguous duties, so much of the garden seemed neglected.

The things I found most interesting at the LA EcoVillage were the following:
1. They ran a CSA out of their 40 unit building. Totally something doable within a community, all this requires is a coordinator that schedules volunteer times for the members...and I believe they offered shares to non-members in the surrounding area.
2. They petitioned the city for permeable pavement. Is this possible in other areas of the country?? When walking on it there was seemingly no difference, and frankly I could hardly tell it was permeable...I need to research that material...
3. They painted their intersection. Hooray! I love this idea...though it seemed they did not use road paint, since the paint was slowly fading.
4. They champion reuse AND actually demonstrate by doing...their fence is made of welded bicycle parts, they used old doors in their renovations, they have a giveaway table where people leave their unwanted items that are still usable (Arcosanti had a huge room for this purpose, plus an attached library)
5. The diversity of folks living there. I think this is somewhat by chance, but it was refreshing to see a mix of all ages, races, classes, etc. Maybe it is this way because it is LA? Maybe they're just lucky? This returns me to a question I am always interested in...how can a program be successful in having all kinds of people involved? Should one actively try to increase participation in certain cases for certain people?
6. They have set up a land trust...I need to look more into this...

After visiting both Arcosanti and the LAEcoVillage I still remain somewhat skeptical of the exclusiveness of intentional communities. The LA EcoVillage has definitely been more successful in involving people surrounding the buildings that they occupy, but...don't the gates around the building utter a silent "keep out?"

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Painting circles

Kyle (my brother) told me I was a crazy person when I complained about LA traffic and told me no one travels where I was going unless they live there. Also, those people know when to leave and what route to take in order to avoid traffic. Wish I had known that...it took me almost 2 hours to drive to Long Beach and meet up with the founder of Circle Painting, Hiep, but it was definitely worth it.

Circle Painting falls under the categories of community building and arts organizations. I find myself drawn to these types of organizations a lot lately (does that mean I care less about green building/women's empowerment orgs? I don't think so, but maybe those two things become a part of whatever community building stuff I end up doing...? Who knows.). It brings people together for large, interactive art installations and "...develop[s] leaders who will employ art to improve their communities..." Their 3 power words are connect, create and celebrate. How do they do these three things and how effective is it?

Connect: While it has the potential to connect people of similar socioeconomic status, faith, age etcetera, it also has enormous potential for bringing people together from all walks of life. For me, connecting cannot happen without communication of some kind, so there is also a basic level of communication going on in this type of activity. A downfall to this would be the one-time, single trial nature of the project...how can one build community when there is not continued connections?

Create: Much of this is referring I think to the creation of the artwork. Groups paint parts of the circle either on canvas or murals or whatever is around, pass it on to the next group and continue until everyone has contributed to each part of the artwork/circle painting. I take the word create to mean creating a sense of community. Yes, there is always some sense of community, but oftentimes it feels as though we need to recreate aspects of our relationships with neighbors and have a reminder on just how great communities can be! Getting people together with interactive activities is a good way to do so...

Celebrate: One of the more important lessons I've learned from organizations is HAVE FUN! Enjoy the work you're engaged in, enjoy the people you're interacting with, and celebrate each day you get to be a part of it! In talking with Hiep I realized what I would really like to see more in Buffalo and the east side is a celebration of what we like about our city. Change the way we look at things from negative to positive, because only then can there be progress made. A negative, defeated attitude only means more trouble...

Hiep told me about his 50:50 project, 50 cities in 50 states...an attempt to increase community participation in the arts and have circle painting installations in each place. Circle painting is not the solution to poverty, poor public school funding, high rates of teen pregnancy, etc. in Buffalo, but I see its potential in sparking an alternative to the negative aura that many Buffalonians have adopted when it comes to speaking about change in their communities...

Monday, September 6, 2010

ArtStorm LA

When I would ride the subway around Manhattan as a little girl, visiting my Uncle Timmy, I would often try to count the number of different graffiti tags on buildings. As you can well imagine, the task was impossible; there are more tags seen passing by than is discernable and all that can be seen is a wall of paint and concrete blending together. Unfortunately, people often tag illegally, and 9 times out of 10 a tag is marked as a sign of blight.

…but have you ever seen an intentional mural-style graffiti-ed wall? Have you seen graffiti artists who are so incredibly talented that there is no way to label what they do as being remotely the same as illegal, unwanted tagging? ArtStormLA is an organization that I stumbled upon in LA that works to relabel graffiti as an acceptable art form called masterpiecing. In order to do that, the organization “…provides canvas, paint and safe and legal locations for young people to pursue their art…”

I met Steve Bagish in South Park this past week, a park in south central LA, which is a place still largely affected by the 90’s riots, to talk a bit about what he does and how his org got started. His invitation to come join him on a Thursday late at night was something to the effect of…if you want to be the only white girl for miles around in a rugged ghetto/barrio with a bunch of wild and screaming kids in a real life after-dark crime prevention program in the heart of homicide capital USA, come on down! I was surprised at such an obvious attempt to deter me from coming, but it occurred to me in speaking to him later that he had has his fair share of flaky “volunteers” who, upon agreeing to work with him, had bowed out because of this very reason. He used it as a mechanism for weeding out people who were not serious in their inquiries and involvement. Luckily, I am starting to know the things that I care about and that speaking with him and seeing the organization in action would be worth my time, so I showed up at 8:30pm on the SE corner of South Park.

I learned a lot about what ArtStorm does, but I think perhaps the best part about talking with Steve was when we were shooting ideas off each other. There was something that Steve mentioned that has gotten me to thinking about income generating models…

Picture a city grid, 1 street and 10 blocks long, with streets coming into the main drag on either side. At one end of the main street there is something called a permanent public art station with concrete blocks in the shape of easels that can support rather large canvases. Artists can set up shop for a day, paint away, and at the end of the day walk away with their canvas. At the other end of the ten blocks there is another station, on the opposite side of the street. Now, think of cars passing through…they see the first station and think: how cool! But they don’t stop. As they pass through to the other side of the 10 blocks they see the other station, and this time they decide to pull over and check it out. Maybe they offer the artist money for the artwork, maybe they don’t, but either way they are talking about the art, they are slowing down their cars, and they are spending a little more time in a neighborhood they might usually blow right through. Steve says he has successfully tried it at a temporary location, so I am wondering how and if something like this is possible on more permanent basis. For example, how can a station be legal? Is it like an adult playground in a sense? Regardless, I think permanent art stations are a pretty neat idea…

I love love love that ArtStorm works with guys who have gotten caught tagging to demonstrate how graffiti in certain contexts can be productive and even income generating if the artist becomes good enough (see my future post on Precita Eyes in SF). My only real concern for the organization becomes that it is largely a one man show…continue on that trajectory and you’ll end up wearing yourself down pretty fast, no?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Inside Out, Outside In

Finally in LA and hanging out with my big brother! He has to work (he's a real person with a real job, not avoiding a job like me, ha), so I've been occupying my time with bike rides along the beach, yoga in the mornings, and leisurely lunches while catching up on reading (and blogging!). I've also set up a few meetings while here in LA, one of which I had yesterday...

Inside Out Community Arts is a non-profit based in Venice, CA that runs arts programs for kids throughout the LA area. As an arts organization, I felt it fell under one of the three categories of organizations I am talking with...environmental, art-based, and community-based. They run a performance arts program that teaches kids how to develop communication skills and to effectively deal with looming social issues in their lives. It was good to hear the work they're doing, but I mostly became interested in one particular, if small, part of their work...

The Community Action Project: A one-time day of action where the students involved in the program pick a controversial topic, approach people in their community about it, and say how they would work to change it. It is a lesson in activism and using art to provoke thought. I was interested in it because it uses art to engage a community, but what I was looking for wasn't exactly the main mission of that project. Whereas the CAP was created to start conversations and it is the kids approaching others, I was looking for more long term involvement of community. In my own life, I've come to realize that kids programs are secondary to my greater desire for an engaged and active community. That sounds harsh, but it shouldn't be...it's not that I don't care about kids...it's just that I feel that if the whole community is excited about learning and being engaged, then we have less to worry about not only in kids, but in relationships between generations, in drug use, gang violence, etc. If we really want to tackle all these issues, it needs to be a part of everyone's lives, not just the kids. The counterargument to this of course would be that it is easiest to reach parents and grandparents through their kids. Sure, but maybe then connecting with kids in programs like the one I interviewed shouldn't only be meant for their individual development, but also as a means to lift up and educate the larger community...?

Maybe we need to start thinking more laterally when it comes to communities. There is no step by step to an active community...it comes together from all sides with many different projects going on at once, and maybe only a few of those programs stick around in the long run, but they are more efficient and effective because they survived and outlived the other programs being tried at the time. We have to learn to be okay with potentially competing methodologies for community building, understanding that different methodologies work in different areas of a city, and trusting that the one that is successful in one community will outlive the others "competing" against it...

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What? I'm no Scare-DCAT

Met with David Eisenberg from the Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT) in Tucson on Monday. DCAT does many things, though its focus in the past several years has been in "greening the codes." Instead of speaking of DCAT specifically, I want to post quickly on a few things David said that has gotten me thinking...

1. The way in which we as a society, but also we as builders talk about sustainability in our lives and in the built environment. Ineffectively, really. Many designers/builders that are pushing the envelope that I have talked with have spoken of the permitting office and building codes in a negative fashion. "They won't change, they are so hard to work with, they just don't get it, etc. etc." Instead of reframing how we look at green building and the current codes, we immediately blame a municipality and inspectors for not understanding. Well, building codes are here to stay, and the for the most part there is a reason behind why they were made...so we must rethink the way in which we talk about integrating green building into the codes. David gave a good example: most building codes require a plumbing system to tie into the sewer system, so greywater systems are often illegal. Instead of a knee-jerk reaction of "that's so dumb!" let's analyze this. Why was the code regarding sewage made? Probably because people were getting sick from blackwater. Well...taking relatively benign greywater, of which there is no documented cases of people getting sick from, according to the CDC, and putting it into a blackwater/sewer system...what does it mean? It means you are increasing the amount of blackwater, of which there are TONS of cases of people getting sick from, by requiring that the greywater is added to the blackwater. Instead of reducing a hazardous situation, you are increasing it 20fold. Now think of approaching building code officials with this argument, instead of the response of "that's dumb," and you have a more convincing reason for re-evaluating the code...

We can try thinking of other situations where this is the case, and we'll soon find a new way of thinking about building codes and how to approach thinking about a code...not simply naysaying, but having reasons why and ways to change it to make it more appropriate for modern technology and building methods!

2. Think laterally, not vertically. It seems in talking briefly with David that he has mastered thinking laterally...something I can appreciate, since we are trained in society to be vertical thinkers. What do I mean by this? In typical problem-solving, we tend to think vertically, or step by step to find the solution. ...Like a math problem where you cannot jump around, but must logically solve it step by step. Instead, we should try to think laterally...it is an exercise in increasing the number of potential solutions, trying them all and finding the right one eventually...even if it means you try several wrong solutions first. It is brainstorming different approaches, different ways of thinking about the codes, etc. I am reading a book by Edward de Bono called Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step...a good, very basic read that has exercises in getting your mind away from traditional problem solving...

We of course talked about the progression of "alternatives" in the building codes, and there is some really exciting stuff being looked at nowadays...earthen structures, strawbale, etc. that are being reviewed and possibly added to the Intl Green Construction Codes, though many codes will need to be revised before they enter. I like the way David puts it...

...consider wood. As a material it is susceptible to rot, insects, and structural problems; if we were to introduce it today, there would be a million questions on type of wood, number of knots, age of wood, etc. that would prevent it from being accepted as a "safe" building material. And yet...it is the most widely used building material on the market today! It is only natural that strawbale, rammed earth, etc will take time to become accepted, but we should not rule them out! Considering the amount of research that has gone into wood as a material, we need to consider doing the same with "alternatives..."