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Getting Started – Atwater Street Cooperative, a Transition Street in-the-making

Nikko is playing catch with Bill the Younger in the back yard. When the ball hits the ground, one of the chickens chases after it. But she runs away when Nikko, who is seven years old, offers her a turn.

atwater streetMeanwhile, Bick and "Smaller Adam", as Nikko calls him, are at the hardware store, buying supplies for super-insulating one of the 100-year-old houses. We were astonished to discover that the woodframe three-story, two-unit house has absolutely no insulation! Bick, an experienced green builder, is half-donating his time to our fledgling Transition Street, helping us plug the cracks and insulate attic, basement and walls in the homes we're buying together.

We've made friends with people in seven other homes, including two Puerto Rican extended families, two low-income white families, and an ex-convict who lives across the street. The initial cooperative members are, humorously for us and confusing to everyone else, Adam and Adam, and Bill and Bill. Together the ABBA gang (they reject my nickname), and now me, have informally adopted Nikko from across the street. And Nikko has adopted us. Today he helped us carry wood and drywall up to the third floor. He joined us for lunch – eating a delicious and unusual cabbage and mushroom dish cooked by Bill the Elder, a macrobiotic chef who serves up a cancer-prevention diet. And Nikko played with the two children of our newest community members, Daviyd and Rikkia, a couple who are African Hebrew Israelites, and practicing Sabbath (Shabat) on this Saturday.

Nikko tells us that he is moving: his Grandmother, sister and uncle are leaving the apartment across the street to move to another neighborhood. We're sad because he has become a nephew to us all, and we like how he feels comfortable popping over when he's looking for something to do. Adam the Taller, a professor of computer science at a local university, has been tutoring Nikko in math. We worry about the young drug dealers down the street (whom we talk to when we walk around the neighborhood). We seek to create a respectful connection with them as we also instinctively want to protect Nikko, as if he is our own child, from the harsh street environment in this poor neighborhood. New Haven was recently named "fourth highest in homicides in the U.S." Nikko's mother sent him to live with his Grandmother, because our street is slightly safer.

backyard in atwater streetEven with motorcycles racing down the street at 75 miles per hour, supposedly our street is a little better than streets a few blocks away. (Hmm...there goes one of those noisy motorcycles now...a "motorcycle club" has taken up residence at one end of the block. It has been 80 degrees Fahrenheit here, in March, instead of 30-40 degrees, so summer motorcycle racing is starting up early.) One blessing of rising oil costs might be less motorcycle racing. Or, possibly, for a while there will be more racing as people can't afford cars. But we have a dream of "traffic-calming" speed bumps, and of transforming half of the asphalt into trees and bushes...We got started last spring with tree-planting. Partnering with a city program, we added seven trees to the street last summer!

So far two houses have been purchased by the "Atwater Street Cooperative". Two additional houses have been purchased by friends. We were about to purchase another home, but it caught on fire two weeks ago, and is now a boarded-up carcass, with smells of burned plastic wafting through the neighborhood (life will be better when we can't fill our homes with oil and natural gas-based plastics – less toxins everywhere!). Fortunately no one was inside the house, and the fire was caught relatively early. Perhaps the building is not too badly damaged, and we will be able to rescue it.

Sometimes, if we step back to think about all of the challenges, we get a little overwhelmed. How do you transition a street, and a neighborhood, in an American city of great extremes between the wealthy and the poor? (Connecticut has hovered as 49th out of 50states in greatest gap between rich and poor.)

atwater streetWe're not sure we have a very good answer yet, but we're getting started with food production – chickens and improving soils, and hopefully container gardens for children in the neighborhood. Bill the Elder is cooking meals most days for a growing number of macrobiotic enthusiasts. The whole grains, beans, vegetables, seaweed and health-promoting herbs and seasonings help protect our bodies from the toxins in our industrialized environment. We have a dream of using Ripple Pay or another labor exchange system -- to help neighbors help each other to insulate our homes. Bick will teach teams of three how to insulate and air-seal, and the exchange system will, we hope, enable people with carpentry skills to get services from neighbors in exchange for hours spent insulating our homes together. Relationships at the center, the Transition way.

Our goal is to set up community-based cooperatives, businesses and non-monetary exchanges – to reduce our oil dependency and money dependency as we "live more locally". Even in our community, few understand the severity of the global climate change threat. More, but not all, understands the weaknesses in the U.S. economy and global monetary system. Most of our neighbors are barely hanging onto their homes, and getting enough to eat.

But what many of our neighbors know better than we do is how to be in community. How to sit on the front porch. How to celebrate with music, food, and human connection, no matter how tough life can be. How to take care of chickens in a hurricane.

Lhurricane ireneast August, Hurricane Irene tore through the Northeast U.S., and many in Connecticut lost power for 1-3 weeks. Rafael and his family lost a freezer full of meat – over $800 of food. It was a difficult blow. The loss of electric power enabled us to start a conversation, and soon we will have our first neighborhood-wide meeting to discuss how to help each other in times of emergency.

Just before Hurricane Irene hit, Rafael, whose backyard is covered in asphalt and used as a parking lot, suggested to Bill the Younger, who has been trying to create a garden in our backyard on top of soil contaminated with lead, that Bill should "bring the chickens indoors." The middle-class, college-educated white boys were enthusiastically raising six handsome chickens. They'd even had a chicken-naming contest at the house-warming party. But the Puerto Rican native knew more about protecting chickens in a hurricane.

We're gradually connecting with an ever-wider circle of neighbors, exploring common concerns and interests. Renters interested in housing cooperatives where they can build up equity with monthly payments rather than givng money to neglectful landlords. Single people interested in community friendships. The scrap metal guy looking for old metal to haul away in his "borrowed" grocery cart – metal to sell so that he can eat. A 50-year-old neighbor battling cancer who is interested in eating a macrobiotic diet.

Three of us have made it our job to pick up trash on the street. Neighbors watch us. They seem to be curious as to what we're doing. Maybe we seem crazy! Frankly, sometimes I think we are!

Yet this time of deepening crisis calls for crazy action. We're called to creativity and flexibility, and courageous community-building.

Tina Clarke has been an advocate, educator, consultant, and director of nonprofit programs since 1985. She was recently a consultant with Bill McKibben's global 350.org initiative and the Sustainability Institute A popular speaker on energy and environmental issues, creative frugality, and social change, she has trained and advised over three dozen Transition Initiatives.TinaClarke@TransitionNetwork.org.

Photos: of Atwater Street; Hurricane Irene hits the North East

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