Thursday, August 7, 2014

Portland's Dignity Village: Thirteen Years Later

Portland's Dignity Village was one of the original inspirations behind my new book, Tent City Urbanism: From Self-Organized Camps to Tiny House Villages. But after thirteen years in operation, rumors abound that the community is losing sight of its original vision.

My friend Jeff and I were in town for City Repair's annual Village Building Convergence at the end of May, and so stopped in at Dignity Village, which was one of the participating sites of the VBC. 

After signing in we saw Mitch, a resident and leader within the community whom we had met on previous visits. He was showing a group of visitors around and getting people integrated in the gardening project that they had organized.

After a few minutes he recognized us. He approached us with a wide smile and was eager to hear about how things were going at Opportunity Village. I showed him a review copy of my newly finished book which he took and thumbed through. Mitch has long expressed a desire to see organization amongst the various tent city and tiny house village projects throughout the country, and was pleased to see the comprehensiveness of the book.

“We were still the first though, right? As far as places with tiny houses in the US? We’re really glad that we could be a template for these other places. And, as bad as it sounds, that you can learn from our mistakes.”

Mitch was right. Projects like Opportunity Village, Quixote Village, and OM Village are all now receiving a good deal of attention, but we all have learned a great deal from the experiences of Dignity Village—particularly around the consequences of an internal membership-based non-profit structure. Since opening in 2001 this place has been an inspiration to many, and has attracted delegations from throughout the world.

I admired the piecemeal growth that had transpired over the years as we strolled through the village. Many buildings had evolved to incorporate porches, bump-outs, or even a second-story. In terms of building inspections, DV primarily interacts with the fire marshall rather than the building department, and so fire safety is their primary concern. For example, the fire marshall has helped the village find a creative yet safe way of heating the dwellings with propane tanks outside of the house that pump heat in.


“You know what your missing at OVE?” Mitch asked. “Landscaping… there’s nothing between your buildings!” DV had an impressive array of raised garden beds, and several planting boxes even contained decent sized trees. This was key for dealing with summer heat on the asphalt-covered site. I told him how a short-term lease and contaminated soil had limited us significantly on this front.

Next, Mitch showed us a new addition to his house—a trellis above his south-side facing window with robust vines growing up the wall from a planter box below. “I bet you guys are just starting to realize how shading and ventilation is so important in buildings this small. Now that it’s getting nice outside, these places heat up like you wouldn’t believe.”


In one of the courtyards defined by a pod of houses there was a large pile of miscellaneous wood. One of the villagers has an old truck and they collect it around town, often as a result of city tree trimming or removal. Villagers then split larger pieces into cord wood and smaller pieces are chopped for kindling. The wood is then bundled and sold as firewood with signs on the street advertising their product. All proceeds go toward a collective fund to pay for DV’s insurance and utility costs. Along with $25/month payments from each of the residents, this is how the village covers its operating costs without being dependent on outside donations.

They also do a fair share of scrapping. “There’s a few things we do really well, and this is one of them,” Mitch told us as we approached the piles of sorted refuse. Most of it is brought to the village by outside sources and then organized and hauled to the scrap yard. While residents do not personally benefit financially from this or the firewood, they get their weekly hours met that are required for contributing to the community each week, and in doing so, they sustain a collective sense of home.


We made our way to the rear of the village where Mike was cooking up some hot dogs on a grill in front of his house. “I’m the village chef here. Whenever I can, I get food and cook for everyone,” he told us. We sat at an adjacent table and I began asking him about the houses. “They call my house the ‘the saloon’ because that’s what it kind of looks like.” He also pointed out “the castle” and “the barn.”

In November 2012, the city extended a three-year contract with the village, but with one new stipulation—a two year time limit for residents of the "transitional campground." And for some long-time residents like Mike, that day is drawing near. “Where else do they want me to go? I do a lot for this place and help feed people when I can. Why should I have to leave?”

While the city added the time limit, it’s unclear how it will be enforced since they do not appear to be tracking it, so many villagers are waiting to see what happens. Mike rang a bell, and several villagers began to line up, plate in hand. Everyone was thankful for the prepared food and good times were had by all as we shared a meal together.

Like many communities, they may have their fair share of problems, but a sense of common responsibility and a shared fate continues to hold this thirteen-year-old experiment together. And while, for years, some have anticipated a major incident that would lead to its closure, it has yet to happen. Instead, Dignity Village continues to provide 60 people with a place to call home at no cost to the city or taxpayer—even as imperfect as it may be.


To learn more about Dignity Village and similar communities that have proceeded it, pick up a copy of my new book Tent City Urbanism, available on Amazon or directly from me at the Village Collaborative.




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