Sebastopol seeks unique public gathering spots


Sebastopol community organizers are hoping to replicate in their small city a cultural event rooted in Portland, a metropolis with like-minded liberal leanings and countercultural movements.

Conveying in clear, concise terms what exactly it is they are trying to achieve has not been easy.

Those who have experienced Portland's annual Village Building Convergence or who have viewed the results may begin to grasp the vision of bringing neighbors together to build outdoor meeting places that promote social engagement, sharing and creative expression.

The possibilities are so varied and endless — from whimsical treehouse-like structures and saunas built of mud and straw, to mini libraries, produce exchanges and sculpted corner benches — that it becomes a bit hard to define.

The concept "is definitely tricky to share," said Maggie Rinchen Fleming, a local activist working with Village Building Convergence Sebastopol.

But the movement's themes — cultural vibrancy, collaboration, sustainability and community resilience — resonate with ongoing conversations in Sebastopol. With its own general plan update underway, residents and officials are discussing how to better link the city's various neighborhoods and cultures, bolstering its unique, sometimes unconventional character.

"A lot of people know about it, and a lot of the right people get it," said Lawrence Jaffe, vice president of the Sebastopol Grange. "But I think it's the classic problem that people can't 'see' it because they haven't seen it before."

The movement is structured around an annual cycle that culminates in a 10-day event described as part festival, part conference, where community volunteers and visitors join to build public meeting places, using natural materials and grassroots planning.

A volunteer group oversees the place-making process, accepting proposals months ahead of time and assisting, when needed, with obtaining materials and city permits.

Plans are well underway in Sebastopol for the first Village Building Convergence Sept. 12-21 this year. Project proposals are being solicited now through May 15.

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