The seeds for the Ashevillage Building Convergence were sown a dozen years ago when a small group of people in Portland, Ore., transformed a run-of-the-mill intersection into an attractive public gathering space. They built an earthen teahouse, planted gardens, erected a kiosk for fliers and poetry, painted a vibrant design on the pavement, threw a block party and dubbed their creation “Share-it Square.”
What they didn’t do was ask permission first.
That drew the ire of city officials, who took a dim view of nonpermitted structures. But the grass-roots project proved wildly popular, and four years later, the Portland City Council approved an ordinance making such community-based enhancement efforts legal.
The impromptu street-corner team evolved into The City Repair Project, and for the past eight years, the group has hosted an annual festival called the Village Building Convergence. The 10-day event propels do-it-yourself, natural-building projects throughout the city, seeking to promote environmental health while building community. In 2002, Asheville resident Janell Kapoor appeared on the scene, befriended Mark Lakeman—an unconventional architect who’s a City Repair co-founder—and began helping out.
Fast-forward to 2008: Kapoor is back in Asheville, spearheading a project that’s patterned after Portland’s Village Building Convergence but with a distinctly local twist. She is quick to note, however, that the upcoming Ashevillage Building Convergence—slated for June 19-21—is not her project. The three-day gathering, says Kapoor, is a collaboration involving more than 30 local groups, based on a collective vision articulated by hundreds of Asheville residents. Among her highest hopes for the convergence, says Kapoor, is that it will be “an absolutely 100 percent community-owned event.”
In one key respect, the Ashevillage Building Convergence already has a leg up on its predecessor: Far from meeting with official resistance, the local event has won city support from the get-go. The Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment, which is appointed by City Council, will co-sponsor the Ashevillage Town Meeting, a key event. Maggie Ullman, the city’s energy coordinator, will lead a volunteer energy-conservation project in city-owned buildings as part of Ashevillage in Action, the convergence’s hands-on component.
Meanwhile, a host of local organizations and businesses have signed on as partners, including The Media Arts Project, LaZoom Tours, the Clean Air Community Trust, the Organic Growers School and Arts2People. Ashevillage in Action will also include stream cleanups, community gardening, natural-building projects and even a mosaic—all conducted under the auspices of such diverse entities as RiverLink, the YWCA, the Asheville Mural Project, The Bountiful Cities Project, Quality Forward, Vance Elementary and the WNC Alliance.
What’s driving the event, says Kapoor, are the twin prongs of volunteer efforts and pro bono services. And the underlying goal is to forge networks among local grass-roots community leaders working to promote sustainability. “The ABC is about cohesion-building and not duplicating efforts,” she says. “There are multiple entry points for people—anyone and everyone in the community is welcome to be involved. Come for an hour or a whole day.” By staging hands-on projects, she adds, the event will leave a lasting mark: “an actual model of what we’ve done once we’ve come together.”
Still, there’s more to the convergence than digging a garden bed or constructing an earthen shed. The three-day event will also feature celebrations, a benefit concert, a “rolling theater” performance, a potluck and much-anticipated appearances by acclaimed activists Starhawk and Julia Butterfly Hill. Starhawk, a renowned permaculturist and pagan whose writings on earth-based spirituality have won her an international following, will lead participants in her signature Spiral Dance during the opening ceremony on June 19. Hill—who made her mark on the world in the late 1990s by taking up residence in a redwood tree in the Pacific Northwest to protest logging—will deliver the keynote address at the Ashevillage Town Meeting on June 20.
This won’t be the first time Starhawk has swooped into Asheville. During her last visit, in September of 2006, some 450 Ashevilleans turned out to hear her speak and take part in a brainstorming session aimed at “visioning Asheville’s future.” Organized by Kleiwerks International (Kapoor’s nonprofit), the exercise was meant to get community members tapping their imaginations for ideas about sustainable approaches to basic needs such as transportation, shelter, food, and energy. Out of that session came pages and pages of ideas scrawled in magic marker on oversized notepads. “People were really excited and really wanted to follow up,” says Kapoor. “They didn’t want it to just be talk.”
That roster of ideas will resurface in consolidated form at the June 20 Ashevillage Town Meeting, where attendees will have a chance to help develop the vision. “There will probably be 30 to 40 various community conversations,” Kapoor predicts. “We’re inviting everyone from city staff to the common citizen.” There’s a sliding-scale fee ($5 to $10) to attend.
Lakeman, the Portland architect who was at the eye of the City Repair storm from the start, will deliver a presentation during the convergence’s June 19 opening celebration. Having pioneered an organization that has since been replicated in numerous West Coast cities and Canada, Lakeman views his work as going far beyond building cob structures. To him, it’s about strengthening communities through the mass transformation of public space—one neighborhood at a time.
“For us, the issue of public space is kind of—I don’t mean to be dramatic about it, but it’s kind of an emergency,” he told Xpress via phone from Portland. At the root of the problem, says Lakeman, is a nationwide lack of public gathering spaces. “Sociologists have established a connection between the absence of gathering spaces in the United States and our high crime rates. … It’s all connected to isolation,” he asserts. “I’m standing in a typical American neighborhood right now, right in the middle of the street. And I can see everywhere up and down, all these straight lines and all these intersections. And they’re all cultural voids. … In this neighborhood, typically, people don’t know one another’s names even if they’ve lived across the street from one another for years. So we focus on this issue as a catalyst for helping people look at their landscape and say … ‘Wait, there’s something missing—I didn’t even know it.’”
Walking through a neighborhood while talking on his cell phone, Lakeman comes upon a street that’s been given a City Repair makeover. “Every public-space theorist in architecture school says great public space has active edges,” he notes. “So what we have here on the perimeter are many ways to interact with the space. I have the library here on my right, and a little birdbath, and a cob bench that is totally festooned with all these colorful ribbons blowing in the wind from a wedding that was here.” (Lakeman pauses briefly to yell out a hello to a neighbor.) “Further on,” he continues, “there’s a beehive-shaped newspaper dispenser. Across the street is the art-and-poetry center. And there’s a kid’s clubhouse, where they’ve just finished installing a brick floor inside. And further on there is a green roof … and a solar-powered tea station. So all of these things are ways to fill that void.” Projects like these have changed neighborhoods, he says. Some people, enamored with the potent community vibe, have actually bought homes based on their close proximity to City Repair intersections.
City Repair has provided the template for similar programs in Santa Barbara, Calif.; Eugene, Ore.; and other cities. But the nonprofit hasn’t been without critics: As its influence spread throughout Portland, one project in particular came under fire from residents who said the planning process hadn’t been inclusive enough. Asked if she anticipates any such problems in Asheville, Kapoor observes, “In this case, our project focus is a little bit different, and there’s a lot of awareness around inclusivity.”
Working toward solutions
Ashevillage in Action plans to initiate 14 green projects across the city, including building a rainwater-catchment system and installing a green roof at Isaac Dickson Elementary, performing energy-efficiency retrofits in the Burton Street neighborhood, planting trees at the Reid Center, tending a community garden plot at the Pearson Drive Garden, constructing a mosaic as part of the mural under the Interstate 240 bridge at Lexington Avenue, and removing invasive plants from the French Broad River Park on Amboy Road.
A June 20 benefit concert at BoBo Gallery on Lexington Avenue will star Johnson’s Crossroad, David Earl and the Plowshares, and Molly Rose Reed of The Barrel House Mamas. Another fund-raiser will give participants a tour of the various hands-on projects, and a community potluck at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville will give volunteers a chance to rest and share a meal.
But after all the hard work, says Kapoor, she’s just hoping the convergence is “totally fun. We’re not fighting against anything—we’re working with solution-based actions.”