Over where I’ve been living on Tucson’s Eastside, there’s a block that I pass on the way to Lincoln Regional where, inexplicably, on either side of the street, you’ll find a pair of simple yet beautiful metalwork canopy archways built over the sidewalks. Not only that, the sidewalks aren’t even straight in those spots; they wind around a bit for no particular reason. This arrangement is just about guaranteed to catch your eye straightaway as you ride by. They serve no functional purpose; they are just there, adding a touch of novelty to an otherwise typical neighborhood, arousing your curiosity, inviting you to walk that exotic stretch of sidewalk, as if something magical might happen if you did. It makes you think you’d like to live in a place where things like that decorate the streets, that you might actually want to spend time out on those streets if they were more unique and imaginative in some way. With your neighbors, even.
This thought is at the heart of Portland, Oregon’s City Repair Project. To call what City Repair does “neighborhood beautification” doesn’t nearly do justice to their amazing efforts. They organize. They mobilize. They energize. And they do it all by teaching people how to do for themselves and for each other. With humble beginnings in a cob community tea-house, City Repair has sewn the creative seeds for over 50 community functional art projects in the Portland metro area, connecting neighbors who were once total strangers and investing whole neighborhoods with a sense of belonging and care for both their living space and each other. Really, they do far more than my few simple words in this introduction can possibly convey.
What follows is an interview with City Repair founder, board member and Co-Director of Creative Vision, Mark Lakeman at City Repair HQ in Portland. Thanks again for your time, Mark. Shine on, friend!
jhon: Tell me what City Repair is about, and how it got started.
Mark: There are a few principles that are timeless at the core of what we do, kind of the thread that binds everything together. City Repair is a citizen movement, and it depends entirely upon people coming together to do things in collaboration. We knew that we need to be collaborating, and that we are coming from a place of being isolated. And fortunately our awareness was in the realm of urban design and history, and because we were familiar with the principles of design, we knew that, well, we can actually design our way out of this, and intend a different direction.
I personally am coming from this background of having both of my parents involved in architecture and planning. And because of their work in doing emerging projects in other countries and villages, I understood a lot about the difference between an urban fabric where people feel connected to each other, and one where they don’t. And I also was familiar with the political issues of why we don’t have that. Well, I was familiar with a certain level of those issues, but I hadn’t actually looked into the deeper implications or story of those issues; colonialism, the grid, the political imperative of placelessness. My parents weren’t aware of that story, they didn’t impart that to me. But I got to learn that story.
The name City Repair came into being pretty early. We knew that everything that’s wrong in the larger context is also off balance at the city scale, at the local scale. From planning-history we know that cities are administrative centers over local regions, and the dynamics for that region are driven by decisions that happen in the city. And when you boil it down, the one solution is to engender local culture, as opposed to a sort of federal mentality or attitude toward the world and humanity that depends upon isolating people and getting them focused on working rather than relating to each other. We understood that. You can almost just say, ‘well, if we’re told to go in this direction, then let’s go in the other direction’, and it’s going to work better. So instead of being afraid, be courageous. Instead of thinking that Nature is a commodity, think of it as special and sacred, you know? Instead of subjugating people, empower them and raise them up. This is all a bunch of philosophy really, but when you start to apply it to the systems of the City –you know, how do you create a more sustainable infrastructure, economically and politically in terms of all of its systems that support the lives of people– you need this philosophy in order to go in and understand what you’re engaging.
The bureaucracy is all set up to have control, and to not understand that communities are everywhere being hurt just by the mere fact that they’re not involved in overseeing the systems of their own lives.
jhon: And what was the bureaucratic response to what you guys were trying to do? Did they freak out or were they at all open to it?
Mark: Initially, like in 1996-’97, yeah, we had problems. Not with the city council; we pretty much subverted them right away. As soon as they saw we were doing this integrative work, they were like, “jeez, you’ve taken the public right-of-way and you’ve turned it into a cultural continuum, you’re slowing down traffic, the streets are becoming a little safer, people are picking up trash….”. We’d made all these promises that have been borne out to be true. People will talk to other people, they will feel safer, crime will drop measurably. We just looked at the before and after of colonialism and we were like, “let’s put in a few benches, let’s transform a few intersections”. People will immediately start relating differently if you change their physical environment in strategic ways.
But the bureaucracy was more resistant and suspicious. From the beginning they’d be like, “you can’t do that, we have the control, you don’t have the control”. And instead of being like, “oh yes we do have the control”, we didn’t even go there. We just said, “well, we’re sorry to upset you, but the truth is that you need a public square in your neighborhood too, and if we’re going to ever get anywhere towards that, we’ve got to work together”. We actually got into the sociological issues that traffic engineers don’t entertain, and to do the good work of helping them to realize that the streets aren’t just for moving things around; there are supposed to be people out there talking to each other.
Why are all the lines straight? Does that invite you to go outside and walk around, when everything’s completely linear, where every intersection’s the same and all the streets are the same and there’s no variation? It’s not interesting, and people need it to be interesting.
Cities stratify and compartmentalize communities, and make people feel like they’re separate and alone. So the repair of the City starts in a context where you wake up and you go, “hey, I’m still a villager”. And if we act like villagers again within the City, we can transform the City to work for us. But it can’t just be one huge entity, it has to be broken down into a scale where people have more local empowerment.
jhon: So a city like Portland for instance can be broken down into a lot of villages, and it can work that way.
Mark: Yeah, well, just look at the fact that there’s like 96 neighborhoods in Portland, and it’s interesting that each one of them is about the size of a typical European village –between 8 and 18 thousand people. That’s partially because the way that a developer engages things, they can only handle so much geography at once. So they’re development boundaries, they’re not even sensible geographic boundaries. The fact is though that these entities are recognized as geographies, but they don’t have any power. We’ve got this neighborhood association system (in Portland) and it’s the strongest in the country, but people are frustrated in it and they don’t really have a vision of where it’s supposed to go. Personally, I see the emergence of the neighborhood association system as just a reflection of people’s instinct to come together and organize and get things done. And the evolution of the neighborhood association is to become a creative entity and a council of representation within the community in which everyone is welcome at those meetings. Not too long from now, probably within 5 to 10 years, they will all decide to either tax themselves or to create a mechanism such that their own taxes are simply directed back into their own locale. And then through power-sharing with parks bureau, transportation, the city council, they’d actually start to seed the youth through job programs for kids right out of school or summer employment say for maintenance of the park; I mean there’s just no limit to the amount of things that they could be doing locally. And then they’re building their identity with the community, the community commons, they’re not as apt to feel alienated and isolated.
The most powerful thing about what we’re doing is that we’re not just going, “oh, wow, we need to make these changes because our ecological footprint is out-of-whack”. No, the coolest thing about City Repair is that we see that it’s a sociological issue, it’s all about our choices, and the fundamental thing that’s out-of-whack is us. I think our main strategy is if there’s places missing, if there’s community benches missing, a mass transit system that needs to be developed, we can potentially repair ourselves through engaging all those challenges. If we had a bureaucracy develop all those things for us, we’re still just going to be tax-payers who are slotted into our boxes. So we have to do this. Yeah. It’s great practice for rebuilding ourselves on a personal, individual level, too.
jhon: How would you describe the essential difference between what you’re calling a city and a village? I don’t think it’s just a physical space you’re talking about, so as far as the spirit of those things, what would you say is the difference?
Mark: The city is characterized fundamentally by institutionalized placelessness, and the village is characterized by aesthetics. And the definition I’m going by these days comes from the dance community, in which aesthetics is where we get in touch with inherent qualities of our experience, and then we learn how to artfully compose those things. And that I think is what characterizes the life of a really attractive, healthy village.
And at the same time, because we’re people, in the City, even though it’s an imposed structure, we’re hardwired to try to do that aesthetic composition. So as soon as you get on the other side of boundaries, people start to get creative, planting flowers, creating altars, making beautiful gestures to each other. Another way to look at it is that all forms of culture come from the village, and what the city does is really just appropriating patterns, redirecting them. Because the notion of an economy comes from the village, all forms of art and science come from the village. And then the city-state sort of says, “Oh, well we can exploit all those things”, but the city doesn’t really invent; if there’s any inventing that comes out of it, it’s because there’s villagers there, I would say.
jhon: So we’ve talked about the philosophy behind City Repair. How did you from the beginning go about implementing that philosophy, and how did it get from there to where it is now?
Mark: There’s a lot of different strategies that we’ve employed. I think the chief one though is just to have started off by saying, “Ah-ha! We’re villagers. Now what we have to do is act like it”. I think that was the key thing. That’s very different than starting off by saying, “Okay, so we’re going to be an organization, and we need to write up some by-laws”….totally not.
I have to be honest; in the early part of it, I was really alone in doing this. I had very little support and people thought I was completely nuts. I’d come back from this immersion with Mayan people in this remote rainforest village, and this guy had said to me before I left, “When you get back, just keep looking at the lines, and just try to understand the story of those lines. And once you know the story of those lines, go back far enough and just keep taking it personally and try to understand where those lines came into your own family’s story. And once you know that story, you’ll know who you are, and you’ll know what you’re gonna do”. And I came back to my neighborhood and I was really haunted by that. I looked around and I was like, “Oh my God….”. I’d lived in all these different villages, for like seven years I was travelling just to visit places, and I came back and I was like, “Oh my God, I’d never realized that I didn’t care about anybody here, I never cared to know their name, I’ve lived here for a ton of my life and I’ve never been into their houses”. And I’d had all this architecture and planning education, and my parents were both architects, and I looked around and went, “Nobody here has ever made the choice to zone their life”! They have to leave where they live and go to work somewhere else; you work all day for someone and the fruit of our labor is never evident in our own lives, and nothing changes. So I started to understand the sociological impact of colonial planning, and it was really painful.
So then, as much for my own survival as it was an act of defiance, I started to build this tea-house. I basically needed a place where things would make sense, because nothing made sense anymore. And after being in a place where people are an inherent part of the ecology, kind of like gardeners helping things become more fruitful, it was so hard to be back here. I’d come back, and all my friends….I mean, I couldn’t hear it before, but I went, “Wow, we’re all trying to be heard, and we’re not listening to each other”. We’re desperate to be recognized as having worth, you can hear it in our inflections. They’re telling their best stories and they’re feeling demoralized by not being heard. So I started to build this place of safety. But also, because I had some very charismatic friends who would tend to hold court and dominate conversations, I decided to design this tea-house so that it had all this subtle distinction of spaces so that my friend Rob when he walked in there would be totally defeated (jhon bursts out laughing); he could only occupy 1/10th of the space at a time. That was actually really good, otherwise it would have been like, “Let’s bring everybody together into one big circle”, and it never would have worked. My parents still thought I was crazy, they were like “What are you doing?! Get a job”! But that didn’t make any sense anymore, intellectually, practically, no more sense. So, I just started to build this tea-house.
Before I’d gone back to Portland, I’d visited all these really functional gathering spaces, from a Mayan tea-house in the rainforest to sitting with Muslims in the street who were so poor they could only offer beans and chick-peas, and seeing how they transformed the street into a convivial place of sharing. I was trained in architecture school to think I had to make things lavish, and now I realize you could even surround yourself with garbage and be more inspired. So the T-Hows was made like that: how to express humility in the most elegant way, and what impact will that emotional resonance have on people? Will they be more encouraged to talk when the environment just says, “Hey, I don’t have to try to be better than you at all; here’s a comfortable place to sit, here’s a hot drink”, you know? And it totally worked. Once it opened up, it was such an original kind of experience for people that it immediately started to grow.
So when I started to build this tea-house it was very intentional; it was all about planting a seed in which people would just walk in and be like, “Wow, can I bring something? My grandmother used to make this awesome rhubarb pie, can I bring that?”, and I’d be like, “yeah, totally”. So that you wouldn’t have to explain it. People would just walk in and they would experience it spatially and socially, and then they would just change their own behavior. The idea from the very beginning was to plant a seed – an imperfect seed, you know, not to think, “Ha, I’ve got the answer”, but just to be really humble about it. I think the key was to realize that it was all about affecting consciousness and behavior, not like trying to replicate a certain prototype. I think that’s why it’s been successful.
jhon: So it started with the T-Hows, and then after that you moved on to Share-It Square intersection, right?
Mark: Right. There was a strategy. Okay, this is going to be really crazy, but you seem like you’re quite open to the crazy. This is about how things got started and how it went from the T-Hows to the intersection. I’m sitting there in the rainforest, and I’m talking with Mayans in a very frustrating way for me about the future and the past –like they can see it, because they track all these cycles and stuff– and this guy is trying to help me understand how to engage the cause that I was there to learn about, knowing full well that I had no idea what I was looking for, and they’re describing these things that I’m going to be a part of when I get back, like they even described the T-Horse, and I’m like, “How’s this going to happen?! I’m fully willing to do whatever it takes, but….”. And this guy’s like –it was very cryptic– “Find the center of the world. And when you find the center of the world, the world will begin to change”. And I said, “Look. I do not understand what you mean. You need to spell it out for me”. And he said, “Be yourself. Where you’re from, people are not being themselves. And if you can be yourself, then you will help other people to realize they can be themselves”.
So in the design of how City Repair got going, there was all this stuff that had to be aggressively engaged, but then, once we got to the point where we had raised awareness of the issues we were engaging, then we started to attract all these calls for help, and at that point we didn’t need to initiate anything anymore; all we had to do was assist and support and then grow ourselves. In the first year we built the T-Hows, which was this little womb-space, and then that magnetized people from the immediate neighborhood –hundreds of them for blocks around. But then from the larger community of Portland and even beyond, people were hearing about it. That phase was to test something: how powerful is this story? We said, “ Okay, no publicity, we’re not going to make any flyers, we’re not going to make any announcements, let’s just open this thing and see if it works”. So it attracted literally thousands of people, and then the city government came in and they’re like, “Whoa, you built this without permission, you can’t do that”! And then everybody in the neighborhoods and some engineering and architecture firms organized their own communities internally and wrote petitions and letters to the city government saying, “Back off. This is ours. This is too important”. Then the city government backed away a little and they said, “Okay, you can have it for six months”. And we were like, “Oh, fine”. Meanwhile, it just kept working and working and attracting more people. And then just when the city government thought, “Okay, now they’re going to take it away, no problem, it’ll be gone”, then we had the critical mass with the awareness, and it was like, “This is our place! What the hell?! These bureaucrats think that they decide what happens here when we’ve spent 30 years working to pay for a house here and they never come to our neighborhood and we have no power in the commons? BULLSHIT!” (we laugh)
So then we went outside, and grabbed the intersection (known from then on as Share-It Square –jhon). And the T-Hows at least was on private space. We went out and seized the intersection, and the city government was like, “Wait a second, we told you that you can’t do this and then you go and do that, which is worse?!” And pretty quickly it was legalized, because we got really sophisticated fast, and organized, and we had so much support because of the T-Hows. The T-Hows was the main catalyst, and the things that were really key about it were intimacy, beauty, food, pleasure…and I remember people asking ,“Okay, what are we going to do now?”, and I’d be like, “Well have some more cake”, you know? To never have an agenda, just be open-ended. To not be about anything other than just attracting and converging. So we started to get all this familiarity with planning and zoning. And then our neighborhood historian who lived like a mile away was part of this community dialogue, explaining westward expansion and the grid, and all these people were like, “We had no idea”. And the pulse just kept getting stronger and stronger. We knew as whole families that we were going to break the law, and we were joyful about it. It was way past any kind of fear.
When the city council became engaged, we created the T-Horse, and this thing was supposed to go out all over the city and do all these different events, and we did Hands Around Portland –thousands of people, crossing the bridges and crossing geographies to unite the four corners of the city– and by then the city council was like, “Wow, this is really awesome”, and easily approved (the Share-It Square intersection intervention). All of that in a way was a distraction, a distraction for the city council to see the bigger issues, and also not to think that the intersection was so threatening. And shortly after all that, the intersection was legalized. Well, it became legally supported three months later, and then later officially legalized after all the preparations were done.
Once that happened, the T-Horse just kept running around the City for like three years, building more and more capacity and building the organization of City Repair, until finally we had the next intersection intervention, and then the next year there were seven projects, and then the next year a bunch more, and so on. So there was this huge burst, and then just constant outreaching, information, and celebration. After that, things finally started to bloom.
jhon: It sounds like the two things that were the main ingredients to the success of City Repair were communication, and the intrinsic value to the lives of human beings of what you’re trying to accomplish. Is there anything else?
Mark: I think that you’ve boiled it down, but I would also add that there’s something about the approach that has this aspect of mystery. Like someone would walk up to these things and just be totally curious; they couldn’t understand it right away. So I think there’s something about being on the edge, and doing something that no one’s ever seen or heard of before. And I think in critiques of American culture and about consumerism, sometimes you hear people go deep enough to say, “You know, what we’re really looking for is connection and intimacy and a sense of belonging. Being safe and being fed, having friends. That was what we were offering. And I guess that’s part of what you just said in boiling it down, but that’s what people were getting by engaging in this. They were getting their deepest needs met. And there was no overt agenda, it was just modeling it. That’s the success of it. And it wasn’t representing itself as work, you could just bake something and show up, or not even bring anything. Everybody made new friends there. It was amazing.
For more information and inspiration, visit www.cityrepair.org
And check out their youtube channel: www.youtube.com/CityRepair
CITY REPAIR PROJECT 101