By Gerry Bill
These are exciting times at the Dakota Eco-Garden (DEG). There are more and more success stories as current and former residents continue to move forward with their lives, and construction is about to begin on an innovative new eco shelter. On March 1, all of the above will be celebrated with a special event at DEG.
The big celebration will begin at noon with the unveiling by celebrated architect Art Dyson of his newly designed eco shelter—a completely different design than the first eco shelter that already has been built on the property. Dyson will speak at the unveiling, followed by remarks from Fresno City Council Member Esmeralda Soria, whose district includes DEG. The new design to be unveiled is sponsored in full by Temple Beth Israel, and representatives of the Temple will speak at the event. Also, some of the current and former residents who are turning into great role models for future residents will be recognized.
Before the groundbreaking celebration, there will be two work parties going on simultaneously, starting at 10 a.m. There will be a garden work party made up of community volunteers preparing the garden for spring planting, and there will be a special construction work party of Temple Beth Israel youth preparing the site for the new eco shelter.
Following the groundbreaking celebration, there will be a tour of the complete DEG site, including the recently completed first eco shelter, which was also designed by Dyson. After the tour, there will be a potluck meal and a chance for visitors to mingle with the residents.
The DEG began about two years ago when Nancy Waidtlow, acting on her own, bought the property on Dakota with the intention of turning it into a place to house some of the homeless being evicted from their encampments by the city. The property needed a lot of improvements to make it ready to accept residents.
While Waidtlow was getting the property into shape, the Eco Village Project learned of what she was doing and began to look at joining forces with her. The board of the Eco Village Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, decided that DEG would be an excellent site for some demonstration units—prototypes of what could be used later in a full-scale eco-village with 12 to 20 housing units. The Eco Village Project now leases the site from Waidtlow for $1 per year and operates its demonstration project there. The first resident arrived 18 months ago. Since then, the population has grown to as many as 13 residents. Currently, there are 12 residents.
While a full-scale eco-village would include a purpose-built community building, the Dakota site relies on an existing house to fulfill that function. Waidtlow has transformed the house on her property into an effective common space. There is a large kitchen with two refrigerators, a laundry room, two bathrooms with showers and a computer room with several donated computers. The computer room doubles as a sewing room where two of the residents take on sewing projects.
There are three bedrooms in the house; the onsite manager, Nancy Holmes, who moved to DEG after the city evicted her from one of the encampments, occupies one. The other two bedrooms are rented out at a low rate to residents with enough income to pay some rent. The remaining residents live in tents on raised platforms in the backyard but use all the facilities in the house.
The residents prepare their own meals with food they obtain with food stamps, with donated food, and with fresh produce from the large garden. Residents are able to use the computer room to perform job searches and prepare resumes. Residents are also expected to contribute to the upkeep of the property. Everyone puts in at least five hours per week for the common good, doing such things as gardening, housecleaning and helping with construction projects.
The goal of the DEG and of an eventual eco-village is to provide transitional housing for people coming out of homelessness or near homelessness. The expectation is that with the stability and support of the Eco- Garden, community residents will be able to take steps leading to eventual independence. That process can be seen working out nicely in the lives of several residents at DEG, some of whom already have moved on with their lives. In addition, three of the current residents have become employed since moving into DEG and there have been three residents who have taken classes at Fresno City College. Other residents are pursuing recovery programs, and some are getting much needed but deferred medical treatment. Everyone is doing something to get his or her life moving in the right direction.
The Eco Village Project is learning a lot by operating the DEG, and the lessons learned will prove useful when someday the project reaches the stage of a full-scale eco-village.
Come see for yourself. Join us for any part of the event-filled day on March 1, but especially for the ceremony at 12 noon. DEG is located at 2231 W. Dakota, on the south side of Dakota just west of Hughes. The house phone at DEG is 559-225- 2767.
Gerry Bill is emeritus professor of sociology and American studies at Fresno City College. He is one of the founders of the Eco Village Project and is co-manager along with Nancy Waidtlow of the Dakota Eco-Garden. Contact him at 559- 227-2133 or firstname.lastname@example.org.