The Common House
EcoVillage at Ithaca in Flames
-Liz Walker, EcoVillage Co-director
Four and a half years after breaking ground on West Hill overlooking Ithaca's downtown, the Ecovillage at Ithaca (EVI)’s first neighborhood, called FROG (First Residential Group), hosted an open house for new residents and the public to experience green-built ecohousing. The majority of the thirty homes were still under construction, but eight new families had been able to move into their passive solar duplexes. The completed Common House stood at the end of the neighborhood’s pedestrian walkway as a material testament to the community they had formed. EVI’s co-founder, Liz Walker, poured hot apple cider for over 120 visitors from her family’s new home on that chilly November evening in 1996, and congratulated her community members afterwards on an excellent event.
Less than 24 hours later, the FROG neighborhood was ablaze.
A small ember from a gasoline engine within the construction site had blown into the wall cavity of an unfinished home, settled on the cellulose insulation, smoldered, and caught fire. 70-foot flames consumed eight of the unfinished homes, then jumped the 40-foot space to reach the roof of the Common House. After response from over 100 fire fighters (including the mayor of Ithaca) the fire was extinguished, leaving behind ashes.
From fires springs new growth.
On the Winter solstice in 2002, community members gathered in the rebuilt Common House for a ritual called the Winter Spiral. Pine boughs in a spiral shape were lain on the floor, with a single lit candle placed in the center. Each member of the community, beginning with the youngest child, walked through the labyrinth in the darkness to light their own candle from the center and return. The community sang:
“Light is returning, even though it is the darkest hour.
No one can hold back the dawn.
Let’s keep it burning; let’s keep the light of hope alive.
Earth Mother is calling her children home.”
Today, EVI encompasses three cohousing neighborhoods, three certified-organic farms, a root cellar, and gardens, interspersed amongst natural woodlands and meadows. The 4,500 square foot, solar-powered Common House in the FROG neighborhood overlooks the community pond, which fills with swimmers in the summers and skaters in winters. Within its walls, community finds both shelter and exposure; shared meals in the kitchen and dining space, workshops, concerts, and other activities foster communal connection, while forums and community meetings (and the conflict that can arise within those spaces) forge that connection. Neighborhood buildings are repaired and rebuilt, but EVI’s community retains their vitality. In the words of Liz Walker in a post-fire community newsletter, “the sense of community and the people are what is important. Buildings can always be rebuilt.”