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• Some people just talk about community vision, but Mark Lakeman, City Repair make it happen

At first glance, the cob benches that dot the city's neighborhoods look a lot like alien artifacts. One sits outside Portland State University's library, shaped like a stack of books. Another, on a quiet residential street in Southeast, looks like a giant lighthouse. There's a new one smack in the middle of Lewis Elementary School's outdoor classroom in Woodstock. And another is adorned with an artfully displayed bicycle wheel, a memorial to a bicyclist killed at that site on Southeast 37th Avenue and Taylor Street.

They are all benches made of cob, an adobelike mix of straw, clay and sand that also can be used to build huts and even houses. Sprouting rapidly across Portland's landscape over the years, the cob bench has become somewhat of an icon of community place-making. If Wal-Mart represents all things corporate and nonlocal to many, the cob bench symbolizes all things grass-roots, organic and creative.

At least that's the thinking behind the City Repair Project, a nonprofit group that has spread its reach deep into Portland's creative class over the past 10 years, helping to propel Portland to be ranked the No. 1 sustainable city in the nation this year.

Largely led by Mark Lakeman, 45, a local architect whose parents were instrumental in the planning of Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park and Pioneer Courthouse Square, the group aims to tackle the isolation people experience in the world by creating gathering spaces in the community. Or as its tag line says, 'transforming space into place.'

To that end, the group helps mobilize people to create whimsical and functional projects in their neighborhoods: everything from benches and painted intersections to teahouses, information kiosks and even a cob-inspired public toilet that's planned for Old Town-Chinatown.

In total, there are 72 such sites throughout the city. More are added each year during the group's largest event, a 10-day Village Building Convergence in May that involves hundreds of volunteers working on dozens of projects. The group also holds workshops and invites speakers, artists and musicians to town during the event, which wrapped up two weeks ago.

The group's impact is attracting attention.

'It's some of the most important work in sustainability that's going on in Portland,' says Mike O'Brien, green building specialist with the city's Office of Sustainable Development. 'They're doing what I would call social building. It's social, so people in the neighborhoods design the projects, and the volunteers are building them. They're creating the social bonds that are so important to having a sustainable community. Really, that's the foundation of everything. Having trust in the ability of your neighbors is what sustainability's all about.'

Site withers under criticism

The City Repair Project's philosophy has spread almost like its own religion, becoming a mind-set to many. The core group has grown from 15 or so in 1996 to around 50 now. As its influence spreads, the movement also is expanding beyond its biggest following of twenty- and thirtysomething activists who live in Southeast Portland. It's moving into North and Northeast Portland, the west side, and farther east, where people might not regularly buy organic produce or ride their bikes to work.

Not everyone welcomes the involvement, however. One project that began two years ago at the corner of North Albina Avenue and Beech Street was derailed by a couple of neighbors who didn't think City Repair was including black residents in the planning process in the rapidly gentrifying area.

David Rogers, 35, who works as the associate director of the Western Prison Project, wrote a four-page letter to City Repair in October 2004 stating that he had 'no intention of being part of a project that could further alienate older residents of color. I can imagine people who already feel marginalized in their own neighborhood waking up one morning and walking through the redesigned intersection and being surprised by what they see.'

Another neighbor, who is white, also complained. 'I was telling them, Slow down,' said Jon Ross, 36, a law firm docketing clerk. 'Even if they think they're underdogs and the little guy and fighting for justice for everybody, they actually come off to a lot of people as a force of white gentrification.'

Lakeman recalls hearing Rogers' charge that there weren't any blacks involved in the planning process. But he said City Repair volunteers had involved the Native American Youth Association and Youth Builders in doing outreach in the community, and many residents said they were too busy to attend meetings but wanted to be kept in the loop.

The criticism is ironic, Lakeman says, because City Repair projects are intended to form a bridge between communities, not divide them.

Jenny Leis, 28, co-director of City Repair and co-founder of the Village Building Convergence, says she would encourage reluctant neighbors to get to know one another, in whatever way they feel comfortable.

'A lot of people say, 'I don't want some hippie sunflower on my street, some mud sculpture; I don't want to know my neighbors Ñ I don't like them,' ' Leis says. 'In any neighborhood, it's not necessarily about painting a sunflower in a street. It's really about addressing our needs. Everyone has some kind of needs.'

'Stop asking permission'

City Repair's roots began in 1996, when Lakeman, who goes by the nickname mOcean, returned from traveling for seven years and observing the lifestyle of a Mayan village on the Yucat‡n. He had new visions of common space, without hard lines between living spaces.

He decided to create his own public gathering place, and followed advice he heard from a Native American man he had met: 'If you really want to change the world, the first thing you have to do is stop asking permission.'

So on an empty lot in Sellwood that his father owned, he built a teahouse with 10 large pieces of glass. The 1,000-square-foot space was intentionally designed like a womb, a comforting spot to gather, relax and have conversations. The teahouse lasted a month under city officials' radar, until a real estate agent reported it. City officials told Lakeman he must obtain a six-month permit for the structure, since it was larger than 200 square feet.

He did so, and the teahouse hosted neighborhood gatherings from March to August that year. When it was time to break it down, residents were upset. But that's exactly what Lakeman was hoping for Ñ they now were riled up enough to create more projects.

'We needed them to tell the neighborhood they can't have it,' he says. 'We were able to take their indignation and turn it around.' A few weeks later, neighbors had painted that intersection in Sellwood, at Southeast Ninth Avenue and Sherrett Street, and named it Share-It Square.

That was the beginning. During the next four years, the group drove a mobile teahouse called the T-Horse around the city, seeding conversations about place-making and civic engagement.

The T-Horse is a 1979 Toyota pickup with 20-foot attachable wings made of plastic stretched over a bamboo frame. Like a barn-raising, community members help raise the wings once it reaches the site, drink hot chai tea and gather for conversation on pillows and rugs underneath the wings.

This month the T-Horse will start traveling around the city again each Monday night for 10 to 12 weeks, helping with Mayor Tom Potter's community visioning process. VisionPDX, as it's called, is an outreach effort to get residents' input on their vision for Portland 30 years in the future.

Other cities inspired

In 2000, as the group's momentum built, residents of the Sunnyside neighborhood collaborated to paint a giant sunflower at the intersection of Southeast 33rd Avenue and Yamhill Street to slow down traffic and beautify the space. Called Sunnyside Piazza, both it and Share-It Square spawned a movement called 'intersection repair' that has been replicated in other Portland neighborhoods and across North America.

Los Angeles; Olympia, Wash.; Duluth, Minn.; and other communities have done their own intersection repairs, while City Repair-inspired groups have formed in Seattle; Oakland, Calif.; Eugene; and Ottawa, among others.

In Seattle, neighbors have thrown their own teahouse gatherings, held block parties, built cob ovens and benches, painted murals, created poetry gardens on rocks and torn down fences between their yards, says Seattle City Repair activist Cheryl Klotz. They're also working on a vehicle akin to the T-Horse.

'People are inspired by the do-it-yourself essence of the City Repair movement, and they are doing just that,' she says. 'It's very mycelial Ñ you can't see the connections, but the effects pop up like mushrooms everywhere.'

City Repair became a nonprofit in 2001, formed a board of directors and a council, and hired a few people to do bookkeeping and office work. In 2004, the group moved into its headquarters at Southeast 21st Avenue and Division Street, next to the Red and Black Cafe.

Also in 2004, Lakeman ran for City Council along with five other neighborhood activists who tried to unseat Commissioner Randy Leonard. Lakeman, who owns his own small architecture and planning firm and had taken a lead in building cob structures for the homeless at Dignity Village, came in second to Leonard. Lakeman garnered 9,756 votes, 8 percent of the total.

Now as he sees City Repair expand, he hopes to find a 30,000- or 40,000-square-foot facility to hold functions such as shows, workshops, potlucks and concerts, both for the group and for the public. He thinks the former Wild Oats site on Southeast Division Street would be perfect. If the group can secure a location by next May, it could become one of the sites for the next Village Building Convergence, he says.

Not everyone's a believer

The concept of place-making doesn't appeal to everyone.

Ross Monn, chairman of the Wilkes Neighborhood Association, says he's heard of some of the group's projects but doesn't see them fitting in with the landscape in his area, in far Northeast Portland near 148th Avenue. 'I think it's an inner-Southeast thing; we're very auto-oriented,' he says. 'We don't have sidewalks or anything. I think you'd have to have sidewalks if you have a bench.'

He says he hadn't heard of the intersection-as-community-gathering-place concept before, but can't think of a place where it would work.

As far as community events, he says he and his neighbors do celebrate National Night Out, a Labor Day potluck and a Fourth of July fireworks party on the street, but in general, 'people don't walk around the streets and talk to people in their yards. É People can get as involved as they want to. But most lead a busy life and don't want to get involved. They don't want to come to meetings.'

City Repair leaders stress that they don't force their projects on neighbors Ñ in fact, they work only with requests from the community. Before the Village Building Convergence each year, the group issues a request for proposals and helps each neighborhood through a planning process.

They hold tea parties, block parties and door-to-door knock-and-talks, and they post fliers and take other steps to keep neighbors informed. Once a project begins, it's usually completed within a few weeks, weather permitting.

But one at the intersection of Southeast 72nd Avenue and Woodstock Boulevard has been in the works for two years, in part because neighbors wanted to do most of the work themselves without the aid of a professional builder, Lakeman says.

They hit a major kink late last month when one of the workers was hit by a car and pinned for a short time against a bench being built at the intersection; he had surgery on a leg and spent time recovering in the hospital.

The incident was ironic because the intersection feature was intended to slow down traffic, says Sarah Iannarone, co-chairwoman of the Mount Scott-Arleta Neighborhood Association and a student in urban planning. 'We initiated the project on the corner to have a stopping-over point for traffic, a calming effect, also just to kind of add a point of pride to our neighborhood,' she says.

'With infill, we're increasing our density so much. People are using our streets as arterials to interstates. There's so many people trying to get so many places so quickly. It's becoming a battleground. We're concerned for our children.'

That's exactly Lakeman's concern. He wants to build a fabric of public spaces throughout the entire city, and says that starting this year, the group will try to intentionally generate interest in areas like the Pearl District and work on a partnership with Metro.

'Everyone's going to learn that just because we do this stuff, it's not going to change the world,' he says. 'The work is ongoing. It's a huge challenge, because the world is so isolated.'

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