City Repair Comes to Asheville

November 15th, 2003

There is no solution that is not beautiful.

Carolyn Casey


Last Wednesday night, a number of local organizations brought The City Repair Project to Asheville for a slide show at Sky People Gallery. Over 160 people came. City Repair coordinates neighborhood revitalization projects in Portland, Oregon, and in just seven years has grown into one of the most successful community-building movements in the country. Co-Founder Mark "Mocean" Lakeman and Co-Coordinator Jenny Leis were here-- and in 18 other cities this month-- to explain why.

City Repair focuses on fostering relationships by creating "villages" within the city. They encourage LOCALIZATION, neighborhood development that allows people to live and work in a small radius. With people's lives less scattered across the city, they become less isolated; we get to know our neighbors. City Repair also restores the heart of the village by designing and creating central spaces where people can meet: parks, plazas, public squares and cafes. Above all, City Repair tries to get people talking, and lets them take it from there.

The very name "City Repair" belies the beauty of their achievements. A dragon-shaped bench for children at the local community center. A street-corner memorial to a killed bicyclist. A "Dignity Village" for and by the homeless. Neighborhood associations turned key intersections into gathering spaces, calming traffic and drawing people together. Ironically, at first officials said, "that's public space; you can't use it!" Then the mayor and city council got behind it and the pieces began falling into place. Soon public art, meeting spaces and gatherings were happening all over Portland and inspiring other cities to do the same.

No one waited for funding. Everyone donated what they could. "Libraries" appeared on suburban lots; clapboard kiosks with a dozen free books. One woman put a "make a poem, take a poem station" in her front yard. If a neighborhood wasn't ready to build what they wanted at a given intersection, they painted it on the street.

People were sharing produce and meals, peaceably assembling. It was like Norman Rockwell was back in business.

There WAS something refreshingly basic, familiar, and heart-warming about the whole thing. It was EXTRA-ORDINARY. Even the diversity of the crowd that night showed how non-political, non-partisan this is. It's only natural that people would want beauty, safety, and community in their lives.

For all this magic, City Repair's Co-founder, Mark Lakeman and Co-coordinator Jenny Leis emphasize that they don't impose their ideas. The overwhelming success of their programs, which are all-volunteer run, is that they are based on neighborhood initiative. Indeed, the broad vision they outlined in their presentation was equaled by their willingness to listen. By handling questions with patience and respect, they demonstrated their repeated insistence that in community, no one is left out; there is no "us and them."

Naturally, the crowd was eager to organize and work to save our public spaces. But Lakeman and Leis reminded them that in effective social action, community-building comes first. Like courtship, it's a process that takes time and patient listening, for without mutual respect and trust, people rarely achieve long-lasting change. We don't even KNOW what we want, when "we" includes everyone, until we start talking. And that's what City Repair is all about.

For more information on City Repair visit their website.