How LAEV came to be at Bimini and White House Place
It was a Wednesday afternoon. I was sitting in my living room with Lottie Cohen working on the book we were co-authoring: Cooperative Housing Compendium. (Email me if you are interested in getting the on-line link to this book).
I lived in the four-plex across the street from the Bimini Apartments where the White House Place Learning Garden is going. Mine was the lower east unit. My front door was always open, weather permitting, and I didn’t use curtains or shades on the windows, so
there was a clear view out to White House, the intersection and Bimini Place. Lottie and I were sitting at a round glass table in the living room/library/office facing the windows and open door.
I had just returned two days before from Adelaide, Australia where I had been invited as a keynote speaker at the Second International Ecocities Conference and was full of enthusiasm for finishing the book and starting to focus more heavily on ecovillage planning.
There were always pedestrians on Bimini, and there were pedestrians that day. But suddenly, Lottie abruptly interrupted our work: “Lois, there’s rioting out there. We need to leave now. Grab what you need, I’m taking you home with me!”
Lottie and her Israeli husband had spent many years in Israel, and she intuitively seemed to know when something was up on the streets.
What she was seeing was people carrying all kinds of large items up and down the street, kind of streaming out of the alleyway. What I saw was my normal busy neighborhood at a certain hour when people were getting out of school, and the parents were coming to meet them, and shoppers were coming and going from the many stores in the neighborhood.
“Turn the TV on,” Lottie directed. I did (since I had a TV in 1992), and then, of course, I realized Lottie was right. People were looting from the stores on Vermont. The City seemed under siege. Fires were already starting to blaze in many parts of the City that were being reported on.
I agreed to go with her—she lived on the west side—but only if she would drop me off on Wilshire where I had a meeting scheduled around LaBrea which I planned to be heading out to shortly anyway by bike.
She insisted that I come home with her, and I insisted that she drop me off at the appointed address on Wilshire. She finally agreed, after arguing all the way there. The drive west on Wilshire was full of eeriness. Streets were beginning to be clear of traffic, and people seemed to be running in all directions.
I got out of Lottie’s humongous SUV and went into the office building for my meeting while she drove on west. When I came out after the meeting, the streets had pretty well emptied out. I headed for the bus stop where about a half dozen people were waiting and all talking with one another. Clearly the busses had stopped running. No great tragedy for me as I was less than five miles from home and such a walk would not be unusual for me. But the friendly bus stop group decided to hitchhike, and I liked that idea. After about 10 minutes, a large working van stopped, and we all snugly loaded in. I think it was a painter’s van, and we all had to kind of squeeze in around the equipment. When I got off at Vermont, the north south traffic was closed off for vehicles and pedestrians by LAPD.
I walked west one block to New Hampshire and headed north. New Hampshire was eerily quiet. Just before 3rd Street, a three story apartment building in construction phase was burning. A few people across the street were standing outside watching as neighbors on either side were hosing it, trying to keep it from spreading to their buildings.
I headed east on Third to Vermont and walked north on Vermont. All of the stores on the east side of the street were in various stages of being looted, including someone rolling a piano down the street—there was a piano store about where Frazee is now. One building was on fire, approximately where the 99 cent store is now. People were still throwing rocks at windows. I felt safer walking in the street than on the sidewalk, but I really did not feel safe at all. As I approached First Street, I noted that several people were on the roof of the mini mall on the southwest corner of First and Vermont where the liquor store is. They were guarding the mini-mall by pointing guns at the street
As I turned onto First Street, things were quieter. Approaching my home, in the four-plex where the learning garden is going, I felt just as anxious with the quietness as I did with the chaos on Vermont. I did not feel safe to remain at home. I did not have relationships in the neighborhood beyond the most casual of a few neighbors.
I made a peace sign, attached it to the back of my bike, grabbed my sleeping bag, and headed north on Virgil to Eco-Home up in Los Feliz where I spent that Wednesday night. I felt that the worst of it was going to continue on Vermont, and that Virgil would be relatively quiet and safe. I was right.
When I arrived at Julia Russell’s Eco-Home, I sat in the garden and cried a lot. I remember the feelings of stress and emptiness at the thought that when I returned, there may be nothing left. My resilience and exhaustion won out, and I soon fell asleep on Julia’s couch.
Returning home on Thursday morning, much to Julia’s objections, I was still feeling a bit anxious. There was no evidence of life in the neighborhood, but the fire on the two story building in the strip mall adjacent to the Bimini Apartments was underway. What I did not know at the time was that many people in the Bimini Apartments were on the roof with hoses working to keep the fire from spreading to this building. It must have been a gargantuan task because that two story section north of the alley burned to the ground. The air was incredibly toxic since there was a dry cleaners, a photo development lab and a printers in that building. As I’ve said often, I don’t think my breathing was ever the same after that. Years later, I learned that there had also been a fire set on the porch of my four-plex building (across the street from the Bimini Apartments), and that several neighbors from the Bimini Apartments had gone over to put it out.
That Thursday and Friday, I was glued to the TV – as were millions of others – as the uprisings raged on and began to wind down pretty much completely by late Friday.
What to do?
On Saturday, swarms of people had come to our neighborhood from near and far to sweep up, clean up the mess of debris and broken glass on the strip mall on Vermont. I debated with myself about whether to go out and help them, though as I walked the block that Saturday morning, there seemed to be more than enough people cleaning up.
Instead, after that brief walk, I came home and sat down at my computer and worked non-stop pounding out what was becoming increasingly clear for me: a plan for retrofitting neighborhoods like ours so that things like what had just transpired could not happen in a future where neighborhoods were healthy socially, economically and ecologically.
This was not difficult to do. All these ideas had been rolling around in my head for more than a decade, and I had already written a number of papers and articles, several of them published, about the ecovillage concepts. The uprisings catalyzed these ideas in a new way for me, a way that I believed could connect on the ground for a very damaged LA neighborhood.
At that time, a group of about 25 CRSP constituents had been meeting fairly regularly to hammer out the plan for the 11 acre new construction ecovillage on a site in Montecito Heights. We felt confident that with the City’s help, this could be the home of the future state-of-the-art ecovillage we had been planning for several years at that location. In fact, the ecovillage concept had already been written into the city’s Housing Element which is a section of the city’s General Plan. And, to boot, the American Planning Association had given me its annual award for Advocacy Planning for my big mouth about that project.
Could we chuck all this work for a radically different concept? Could we do the ecovillage as a retrofit of a built out inner city neighborhood that had been affected by the riots? What we all seemed to be in agreement about was that the ecovillage retrofit would demonstrate the kind of neighborhood where people could live in a “post-ism” way: post-racist, post classist, post agist, post-sexist. The idea was that if a diverse community could learn to live peacefully together, there was hope for the world. There were other points that people were equally interested in: a neighborhood that was transit rich, had good multifamily housing, was close to schools and institutions of higher learning, and had a diverse population.
But “Which neighborhood?” was the big question. Where could we implement this retrofitting concept? And if we did, what about all the planning work that had been done on the 11 acre site in Montecito Heights?
Several agreed that if this was going to happen as a retrofit, no matter where or when, people who were going to develop it needed to live in the neighborhood. So there was another round of several discussions, as we considered different neighborhoods, mostly in south central LA where the worst of the Uprisings/Riots were, along with continued planning for Montecito Heights. No one on the committee wanted to move to any of the suggested neighborhoods, in spite of there being several African Americans on the committee. And committee members were still concerned with the enormous amount of work and planning that had gone into the Montecito Heights site.
It was December 1992, eight months after the Uprisings. We were having a mini retreat to focus on two points and make a decision: 1) should we completely abandon the idea of Montecito Heights in favor of retrofitting an existing built out neighborhood, and 2) If so, which neighborhood?
The retreat was being held at the home of Grant Barnes who hosted a nearby intentional community in his big old house on the southeast corner of Kingsley and Second. Long time friend and LAEV member Brad Mowers was facilitating that meeting. In prior meetings, we had come to an impasse about what neighborhood to go to.
I’m not sure how Bimini and White House Place got decided on at that meeting, but it did, much to everyone’s relief. UCLA Architecture student Ian McIlvaine (later to become a CRSP Board member and President) was at this retreat and recalls that there was a segment of time when everyone got on the same page. “Why are we planning to build a new neighborhood when so many of the old ones are broken?!” someone exclaimed, adding,. “We have to flip this thing around and fix what we have!”
For some time, committee members had been aware that there had been several fires within a few blocks of here, and people knew I had lived on the block for 13 years and had a presence in the neighborhood.
“So why don’t we just do it here where Lois lives?” seemed at that point to be the rhetorical question that someone asked. Others started to add the advantages: the discreteness of the two blocks of Bimini and White House Place, the attractiveness of the old multi-family buildings, the diversity of the population, the mixed land uses, the potential of the Bimini Baths, the old trolley car lines, the transit rich area and the subway stations planned for a few years down the road, close to LACC and so many public schools, the closeness to downtown and Griffith Park, the potential for the streets to become carfree and realize the vision of several cohousing communities, Lois already lived there and others were familiar with the neighborhood from all the meetings attended there, Esfandiar had already started gardening there and working with the K-2 White House Place Learning Center.
As the list of advantages grew, the meeting moved toward its great “Aha” moment of consensus and relief for the 20 or so attending. It was a no-brainer. Let’s do it on Bimini and White House Place.
And on January 1, 1993, a few members of that committee and I hit our streets, beginning to be a friendly and open presence in our two block neighborhood. The L.A. Eco-Village would be a process oriented development.
All of our work for the next three years was on the streets with our neighbors and the kids in this neighborhood, mostly with volunteers who came in a few times a week, though Ian McIlvaine and Mary Maverick had moved to the neighborhood by 1994 I believe.
On Earth Day 1993, just three and one-half months after we started ecovillage processes, we planted our first four fruit trees with about 25 neighbors, mostly kids, four of whom became stewards of those first four trees, all of which were named by the kids: the macadamia in front of the fourplex on the southeast corner, named “Crazy Nut” by Paola Ramierez who lived there; the guava on the northeast corner of the Bimini Terrace, named “Fruity Guava” by Rosie Vazquez who lived there; the loquat in front of the Bimini Apartments, named “Pinocchio” by Amber Johnson who lived in #221; and the persimmons, named “Percy Persimmons,” in front of the northeast corner fourplex where I lived, which was later transplanted to the front of the Bimini Terrace adjacent to the alleyway.
A few years later, Diane Herring, one of our committee members wrote: “”Eco-Village is a state of mind. You think and you play around and you talk about and work on all these systems, and eventually other people start doing it with you. And soon, it just jumps out at you and you are thinking in Eco-Village systems about everything!”
And that is how we happened to be here as a result of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprisings and Riots.
Note: Of the early LAEV design and planning team that spanned the mid 80s to early 90s, five eventually moved to LAEV for one to several years, including Esfandiar Abbassi, Brad Mowers and Jesse Moorman, all of whom lived in the Bimini Apartments, and Mary Maverick and Ian McIlvaine who lived in the southeast corner fourplex along with two other roommate members of the LAEV community.