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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.

"We're talking ... turning vacant or under-utilized space into places that people care about ... that help serve the community," said Sebastopol architect Sebastian Collet, who has spearheaded the local effort.

It could be a toy exchange, an informational kiosk for neighborhood notices or a mural, he said.

Canopied benches made from cob — a natural material using clay or mud and straw — as well as painted intersections are common choices.

But the examples coming out of Portland suggest variety and creativity that is stunning, Fleming said.

Ideas percolating in Sebastopol include a working cob-construction oven with attached bench seating, providing "a warm hearth to gather around, outside," Jaffee said.

Cittaslow Sebastopol, a community action group, is also working on plans to paint crosswalks, curbsides and sidewalks on McKinley Street in the city center to help connect downtown with The Barlow center.

A handful of projects are expected during the inaugural event this fall, in part because city officials have yet to propose and approve city guidelines for the event, said Mayor Robert Jacob.

"I just really love the idea of neighbors coming together to work on a common project," he said. "If this ordinance moves forward and if the Sebastopol community sees it's a fit for our city, I look forward to being at as many intersection repair workdays as are available."

During a March presentation in which Collet and supporters introduced the concept at a City Council meeting, other council members appeared ready to support the proposal in any way they could, as well.

"This really speaks to my heart and my mind," Councilman John Eder said at the time. "I think it speaks to a wide variety of people in Sebastopol."

Portland's event grew out of a neighborhood tragedy in which two girls were struck and killed in the street by a vehicle while they were on their way to a park, prompting a push by neighbors to reclaim the intersection and to create a public meeting place for the block, said Mark Lakeman, an architect and co-founder of Portland VBC. He later got married at the intersection and still lives in the neighborhood.

Such projects create a focal point and help fill the role of what in another place would be a public square, he said.

"It's kind of an opportunity for people to do projects in their neighborhoods to help transform and add to their neighborhood whatever they want to see," Collet said.

More information and project application proposals are available at www.sebastopolvbc.org. Collet can be reached at (707) 548-7113 for assistance.

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)

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