City-dwellers show how to fight the blight
Seattle — In the alley near the corner of Fifth and Bell, a teenager in a black motorcycle jacket reads a solar energy brochure. Near the lentil bin in the open-air market, a housewife recruits food co-op members. At the bus stop of Yesler Way, a mother clutches a bag of compost made in the South Bronx, 3000 miles away.
At Seattle City Fair, a supermarket of urban ideas, you learn to expect the unexpected. In 40,000 square feet of exhibition hall, normally used for selling fiber-glass boats and motor homes, some 2,000 volunteers and 75 organizations constructed a four-story "mini-city" in the old barn-raising tradition. It incorporated street signs, bus stops, trees, and the deliberate dissonance of traffic sounds, as well as clothesline, burning buildings, alleyways, and even a demolition site.
"We wanted the mini-city to be honest," says Laura Millin, who co-chaired the City Fair arts committee.
The miniature city, the largest indoor structure built in Seattle since it played host to the World's Fair in 1962, was the superstructure for a six-day June celebration called CityFair. For the first time in Seattle, and perhaps the nation, an event brought under one roof nearly 100 of the nationhs most innovative grass-roots solutions to city problems of energy, housing, waste, health, food production, and unemployment.
For $1 -- admission was free to those who showed up at the door with a bag of aluminum recyclables -- a visitor to CityFair could see exhibits on:
* A tool-lending library in New Haven, Conn., which grew into a block-by-block rebuilding of one of that city's most blighted neighborhoods.
* A solar greenhouse, built by citizens of Cheyenne, Wyo., which created jobs and provided food for senior citizens and low-income residents.
* Techniques for preserving strawberries and drying zucchini into chips.
* A plan devised by the Boeing Company which reduced its energy consumption by 29 percent per square foot through the help of its employees and a Scottish squirrel mascot named Frugal McDougal.
* A new underground office building in Sacramento, Calif., which will consume only 8 percent of the energy used by a building of comparable size, thus saving 10,000 barrels of oil a year.
* Ways to rid a garden of aphids and cabbage worms.
* Soup cans in a grocery store which work as solar energy storers.
Based on the old Chautauquas and county fairs where families showed off their prized Jersey cows, Their biggest cabbages, and their juiciest gooseberry pies, CityFair became a smorgasbord of money-saving ways to cope with urban life. Most of these ideas transcend political ideology and could be transplanted from one neighborhood to another.
"We have to get over singing the urban lament and begin focusing on the possibilities of cities. CityFair is a chance to see what a city would look like if we did it right," says Stanley Hallett, an urban scholar at Northwestern University and vice-president of Chicago's South Shore National Bank, a "community development Bank" which makes high-risk loans in its neighborhood. Mr. Hallet believes that neighborhoods are the building blocks of cities, and his ideas provided the philosophical underpinnings of CityFair.
"We've learned that bigger is not better," Mr. Hallett says. "In fact, the big solutions rarely work."
Ironically, as neighbors, businessmen, and city employees gathered at CityFair to discuss alternatives to the failure of big government's attempts to solve local problems, the nationhs big-city mayors were meeting across town in Seattle's posh Olympic Hotel to bang on the federal pipes for more money. They passed resolution after resolution pleading for Washington to come to their rescue with more revenue-sharing, more CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) jobs, and more Urban Development Action Grants for housing.
Seattle Mayor Charles Royer tried, for the most part in vain, to get the visiting mayors to take the monorail over to CityFair and witness what he called "a cllection of people from all over America who have taken matters into their own hands."
Among the CityFair success stories of individuals and communities proving "we can do it ourselves" were:
Greening of the South Bronx. The South Bronx, 500 acres of devastated vacant lots and burned-out buildings, is everyone's favorite example of urban wasteland. It has the bombed-out look of Dresden after the war. During the '60 s, half its residents fled a neighborhood unemployment rate that approached 40 percent.
Two Bronx residents -- Irma Fleck, a community activist, and Jack Flanagan, a policeman from New York's 41st Precinct -- refused to surrender their neighborhood to urban decay. "I'm hard to get started, but once I'm moving there's no stopping me," Flanagan told me at a CityFair workshop on composting. He is a bearded linebacker of a man and speaks with a nasal brogue that is born and bred in the Bronx.
On his lapel Flanagan wears a covered-wagon pin, the logo for the Bronx Frontier Development Corporation which he and Iris Fleck founded.
The corporation owns a 3.7-acre composting pile it calls the "ranch." Here it collects garbage from the Hunts Point Market (the largest produce distributors' market in the nation), manure from the race tracks, and assorted crushed bricks and rubble. With this refuse the corporation turns out 40 tons of compost daily.
Through an ad in the New York Times, Flanagan recruited Curtis Suerth, a plant physiologist with a PhD in microbiology who helped engineer a system of aerating the compost with perforated pipes and a blower, powered by a 64- foot-high windmill. Mr. Flanagan, whose corporation has created nine acres of community gardens, now dreams of greening 90 acres in the South Bronx with gardens, parks, and "urban land trusts" which will put the ownership of these properties into the hands of the residents.
Says Flanagan with an assured grin, "If we can do it in the South Bronx, it can be done anywhere."
Spreading an Accurate Rumor. Seven years ago, a group of residents in St. Paul, Minn., became alarmed at the epidemic proportions of teen-age drug abuse, smoking, and pregnancy.
Figures showed that there were 1 million teen-age pregnancies nationwide a year, and one-third of all abortions were performed on women under 18 years old. Ninety-six percent of the pregnant teen-agers who keep their babies become entangled i a vicious circle of poverty, unemployment, and welfare.
A group of concerned St. Paul parents met with health officials. Instead of building new health clinics and hiring more social workers, they decided to train 150 teen-agers to spread "accurate rumors" about health, drugs, nutrition, and sexuality through the teen-age grapevine.
Teen Age Health Consultants (TAHC), as the program became known, has reached more than 6,500 teen-agers and now has 18 groups working in six states (Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, California, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania).
"We don't puch ourselves on other kids or put ourselves on a pinnacle. We just want them to listen," says Sue Steuwer, a TAHC counselor who skipped her graduation ceremony at St. Anthony Village High School in Minneapolis to attend CityFair.
"In the 10th grade I was smoking marijuana four times a day. I didn't want to be a cheerleader of play basketball. Drugs was one way of being part of a group," she recalls, sitting on handmade CityFair bench across from the TAHC exhibit, designed to resemble a high school locker room. "The dope made me so confused and disillusioned and sarcastic. A week before I joined TAHC, I gave it up altogether."
Ecology Action. The average American throws away four pounds of garbage a day, which amounts nationwide to 150 million tons a year -- enough to fill garbage trucks lined from New York to Los Angeles three times, and containing enough potential energy to light the entire country for a year.
In 1967, during a fit of frustration, Cliff humphrey took a sledgehammer and smashed the family's Nash Rambler into metal sculpture. He was fed up with the beast and the consumer ethic it ran on.
Three years later, with a few empty barrels and borrowed trucks, Humphrey began one of the nation's first community recycling centers in Modesto, Calif., some 80 miles southeast of San Francisco. Through collection bins stationed at a local grocery store, he recycled about 8 tons of glass, metal, and paper that first year.
Last year, his organization, Ecology Action, was recycling at a rate of 400 tons a month. The City of San Francisco has hired him to advise the city's various recycling organizations.
This April at a national convention of recyclers, celebrating the 10th anniversary of Earth Day, he was named "Recycler of the Decade." Now Mr. Humphrey is even marketing an accessory kit capable of converting the game of Monopoly into a recycling board game.
"People are finally beginning to see how wasteful we are," he says. "Recycling is more than cashing in containers. It becomes a daily expression of a change in values, consuming less. Recycling will not automatically bring world peace. But given the world resource situation, you can't have world peace without recycling."
Tree People. While Andy Lipkis was attending a summer camp in the San Bernardino National Forest outside Los Angeles, a forester told him that smog was killing 40,000 trees a year and would probably destroy the entire forest by the year 1995. That prognostication so troubled the 15-year-old that he mobilized his fellow campers and lobbied the camp director to let them all dig up the parking lot and baseball field to plant Coulter pines and incence cedars -- both smog-resistant trees.
That was in 1970. Within three years Lipkis had contacted 20 other summer camps in the San Bernardino Mountains, raised $10,000 in nickel-dime donations, solicited the aid of 4- wheel-drive vehicle owners' associations and the California Air National Guard, and was convoying thousands of trees from state nursery areas into the national forest.
By 1976 Lipkis and his California Conservation Project, better known as "The Tree People," had planted over 100,000 trees around southern California.
"Smog is made up of 10 million people in Los Angeles doing something which on an individual basis is barely perceptible," said Lipkis, a small, indefatigable fellow who was at CityFair givin away 10-day-old "smog-resistant" canary pines in milk cartons.
"If you look at smog as a whole, it looks insoluble," he says. "But if everyone made a little change, something could happen. What individuals do day to day makes the difference. Either you're doing something or you're saying you don't count. And sitting still is enough to make a reality of that feeling you don't count."
Lipkis and the eight full-time Tree People staffers have trouble sitting still. They have established a new headquarters in an old Los Angeles fire station and created an environmental education center and a 45-acre park surrounding it. Lipkis's next plan is to establish "urban forests" in communities around Los Angeles.
He recently involved nearly every child in Culver City -- from kindergarten through high school -- in the reforestation of a local eyesore, a 28-acre hillside cluttered with oil wells.
The Good Samaritan reputation of the Tree People hs spread throughout government agencies in the area. During recent floods that devastated sections of Los Angeles, Mr. Lipkis and his staff were called in by the city to organize volunteers. For 10 days the Tree People worked round the clock with 3,000 volunteers in an unlikely coalition that included ham radio operators, environmentalists, and members of 4-wheel-drive associations. By sandbagging, pumping out basements, and diverting mud slides, they were able to save 1,200 homes.
Says Mr. Lipkis: "The [Los Angeles] City Council said we created a miracle, but it didn't seem that miraculous to me. You'd be surprised what people can do when they push through their feelings of helplessness and get involved."