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How the first urban Earthship is getting neighbors acclimated to its mission

The world's first urban Earthship, under construction in West Philly. December 29, 2015 Category: FeaturedMethod
There’s a dirt lot at 41st and Warren streets in West Philly teeming with hundreds of old tires.

To the Lower Lancaster Avenue community, the tires are an eyesore. A disheveled heap of trash. Another blemish blotting the face of a neighborhood plagued by poverty so deep, it was deemed one of the nation’s first Promise Zones, areas identified by the White House as needing extra federal investment.

To Yeadon nonprofit LoveLovingLove, those tires aren’t a blemish — they’re a rubber foundation. They’re not a disheveled trash heap — they’ve been meticulously positioned within the donated property.

And while it may be an eyesore right now, it will soon be the site of the world’s first ever urban Earthship, a completely sustainable building that, once constructed, will serve as LoveLovingLove‘s new headquarters. There, the nonprofit will host free community workshops and offer the neighborhood fresh, organic food from its community garden — thousands upon thousands of pounds of fresh produce per year, according to founder Rashida Ali-Campbell.

“There’s nowhere to buy fresh fruits and vegetables in a five-block radius,” she said. “Our intentions are to bring fresh fruits and vegetables out of that building, anywhere between eight [thousand] to 12,000 pounds that we’ll give away to the community.”

But right now, the only thing that lot is producing is more tires.

Ali-Campbell said the organization initially brought 200 tires to the lot, but during periods of inactivity, that number somehow escalated to over 1,000. People took to dumping tires and trash on the lot, and the Earthship was feeling the collective wrath of the frustrated community.

Since breaking ground almost exactly one year ago, those tires have become a wedge between the neighborhood and the nonprofit, even going so far as to create problems with law enforcement. Ali-Campbell said local police are constantly receiving complaints from neighbors.

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Still, until the Earthship raises the money it needs to get construction rolling, the lot and all its neighborhood woes will remain the same.

Ali-Campbell said she’s been unable to secure any grants for the Earthship. Last year, she was able to raise funds for geotechnical testing through Indigeogo. Now, she’s looking to secure $25,000 for construction materials and solar panels through Kickstarter.

In the meantime, Ali-Campbell said the organization needs to build relationships within the community. The biggest challenge has been a lack of education in the commmunity on what exactly is happening in that lot at 41st and Warren. That’s a tough gig for a service nonprofit working in a rough neighborhood that hasn’t accepted them yet.

But Ali-Campbell and her volunteers are taking steps to try to create a level of trust. Here’s what they’re doing, and what other orgs in similar situations can do: 

  • Maintain a presence. Ali-Campbell and her volunteers regularly attend community and neighborhood association meetings to bolster their image. After all, ever since construction came to a halt, the lot has been largely unoccupied. “We’re keeping a presence in the community so they don’t feel like we just left,” Ali-Campbell said.
  • Present your mission. Ali-Campbell has personally reached out to community members. She’s handed out pamphlets and business cards. She’s held neighborhood viewings of the Earthship documentary New Solutions. Educating on mission will be a continuous process.
  • Demonstrate value. LoveLovingLove provided the community with a taste of the future by giving away pepper plants to neighbors. Simple, but it gave the neighborhood a glimpse of the services to come once the Earthship is complete.
  • Create partnerships. For organizations entering a new community, preferable partnerships will be with anchor organizations. In Ali-Campbell’s case, it’s SouthWest Nu-Stop, a local drug and alcohol recovery center.
  • Stand your ground. Ali-Campbell said there’s been no shortage of drug abuse on the property. Helping recovering addicts will be part of the Earthship’s mission, so it’s an opportunity LoveLovingLove is capitalizing on. “We can say in front of this building you cannot do this. We will not tolerate it here,” Ali-Campbell said. “We will continue to take that stance in that neighborhood. We want it to be a safe zone.

It’s been six years now since moves were first made to launch the project, and getting the world’s first urban Earthship up and running has been no small undertaking. Even so, Ali-Campbell is optimistic.

“We believe the nature of our work will be a beacon of light in that area,” she said. “We’ll bring a lot of traffic in from the city and all over the world. People are watching. They want to see how an Earthship will fare in a city.”

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