EcoVillage Provides Challenge, Support
ITHACA, N.Y. When Laura Beck and Greg Pitts realized their marriage was falling apart, one thing was clear: They would work together to maintain a loving, supportive environment for their young son, Ethan. In June 2002, the couple had moved from Austin, Texas, to EcoVillage at Ithaca, an "intentional community" in central New York where environmentally friendly neighbors share space, meals, chores and generally look out for each other.
Today, with imminent divorce bringing its own distinct challenges, the couple continue to live in separate homes in the community and Ethan divides his time between them. With neighbors knowing their struggles after 16 years of marriage, that makes for some awkward encounters but Beck accepts it.
"Being in the community gave us a chance to be honest," she said as she sipped a cup of tea.
Moving out was not an option when talk of separation started.
"This is all (5-year-old Ethan) knows," his mother said. "The community, they kind of hold Ethan through it. It's an extended family ... It's a constant."
Like thousands of intentional communities around the world, people come to EcoVillage knowing they will be more than homeowners and neighbors, understanding that change in a community of environmentalists means trimming the fat -- making do with less and ignoring traditional beliefs.
"I see it as a challenge," said Michelle Nolan, who has lived in EcoVillage for eight years.
"This place has a way of making it easier on people to do the right thing, environmentally speaking," she said. "When you are ready to raise the bar a little bit more for yourself, someone is always there to share information and give support."
Descended from communes, hundreds of these alternative communities are developed annually and many more go unreported, said Laird Schaub of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, a Missouri-based advocacy group.
More than 100 adults and 60 children live in EcoVillage's 60 homes, which are clustered together in two existing neighborhoods on a hill overlooking downtown Ithaca. The houses, which cost between $120,000 and $185,000, surround a sandbox and gardens where black-eyed Susans grow near mint plants and rhubarb. Cars are parked on the periphery and gravel paths snake through to front doors.
When the community was designed in 1991, residents integrated some old ideas about community-oriented housing and sustainable living. After five years of public forums and meetings with architects and environmentalists, the first residents moved in.
Families fill a single 108-cubic foot Dumpster with garbage each week, about a quarter of the amount typically generated for a development of this size. Everything else is composted on site or recycled.
"People are searching for a better way of living on the planet, and we are an example," said Liz Walker, a co-founder and director of EcoVillage.
Once construction of a third neighborhood is completed, 80 to 90 percent of the village's 175 acres will remain open space.
In general, Americans reject a commune starting up next door, but once a community is in place for a couple of years members become part of the "local social fabric," said Tim Miller, a University of Kansas religion professor and author of "The '60s Communes."
"Established societies tend to fear the 'different,'" Miller said. "Intentional communities are not the norm, and are therefore inherently suspect."
In EcoVillage at Ithaca, the common house serves as a meeting place, with shared laundry facilities, a full kitchen and a dining room where residents can gather for four weekly meals.
The neighboring West Haven Farm produces enough crops on 10 acres to feed 1,000 residents every week. With a bountiful tomato harvest, the community dinner one night included homemade hummus with tomato chunks and quinoa taboule, a wheat-less grain salad with tomatoes and cucumbers.
Linda Glaser and her daughters, 6-year-old Elisheva and 9-year-old Tzipora, sat down at a table with their neighbors, the girls munching on rice cakes with jelly. Before moving to EcoVillage, the Glaser family had been living -- unhappily, Glaser said -- in the suburbs of West Orange, N.J.
Glaser, wearing a T-shirt with the slogan, "Democracy is not a spectator sport," said there can be no better place than EcoVillage to raise children because of the focus on family. Children don't have to cross streets to play and Glaser said she hasn't once hired a baby sitter because neighbors trade tasks with each other.
"Sixty households full of mothers and grandmothers," Elisabeth Harrod said, "... you can't get away with anything."
Adults are required to work two to four hours a week on a team, each of which is responsible for chores such as cooking, maintaining outdoor spaces and cleaning the common house.
If someone wants to use Harrod's car, he or she only needs sign it out and get the keys. In return, Harrod might ask for a gallon of milk or that the neighbor fill the tank.
In Los Angeles, Eco-Village gives a discount to renters who don't own a car.
Lois Arkin got rid of her car in 1999 and discovered that many of her social interactions were connected to it -- from costs and repairs to traffic and parking. More reliant on bicycles, the Los Angeles community turned one apartment's kitchen into a bike-repair shop.
Many homes in the Ithaca community have energy efficient utilities, including smaller ovens.
Though 68-year-old Sara Pines at times wishes she had her own washer and dryer, she had a stronger desire to live in a community that appreciated her. She cleans the common house refrigerator weekly as one of her chores -- and in exchange gets her lawn mowed and snow shoveled.
Pines believes her neighbors help her avoid many problems seniors face.
"When I observe the loneliness and isolation of many seniors, I feel sad," said Pines, founder of Friendship Donations Network, a nonprofit organization that distributes food and unused items to the needy. "I wanted to be in a community that appreciated me for who I am, what I do and how I can contribute."
Source: Associated Press