Mendocino Talking: Claude Lewenz

(Claude Lewenz proposes to build a self-contained “VillageTown” of 5,000 to 10,000 people to be located in McDowell Valley, Southeast of Hopland on 423 acres. 

The purpose of my interview was not to learn more about the project — which was well-presented at the recent forum in Hopland, and in his book How To Build a Village, and on the website MendoVito.com — but rather to find out who he is. He says that he is not a “developer” looking to make a profit, but rather a “social entrepreneur” defined on the website as “individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems.”

On the website… “A VillageTown is a set of organizational principles designed to enable people and communities to regain control over their own economies and lives. It is used to design and build a self-created, self-funded, self-governing settlement, an archetypal country town that is made of villages, and that does not use a developer. Car-free within its urban core, its people work within walking distance of home… Based on common sense, not utopian ideals, it is what happens when timeless "patterns" proven to work are integrated with the best potential of new technology. Environmentally, socially and culturally, it focuses on balancing life to be sustainable, so present generations leave the earth and its people in better condition than what they inherited from those who came before.”

Here is Claude’s personal story…)

I grew up in Baltimore County with a Tom Sawyer upbringing… we lived right next to a huge woods that went for 15 miles. We had a Swiss cowbell and my folks would ring that when it was time to come home. There was no question about safety… we didn’t lock the house, left keys in the car. My grandfather was a farmer and a mountain man who lived in Gettysburg that his family settled in before the Revolution. He told me stories that went back to 1820; showing me the charcoal pits in the Blue Ridge Mountains when it was the western frontier, before coal. He told me of the horror his family suffered during the battle of Gettysburg – his grandfather was in the Union Army and his family had to hide in the basement of the schoolhouse during those three days of hell. From Grandpa, I learned the value of keeping our old people in the community, passing on the culture orally, not in Disney movies.

When I was a kid, Marty Millspaugh a reporter for the Baltimore Sun papers, came to everyone’s kitchen table and said “it is so sad what is happening to Baltimore… it’s rotting, it’s destroying people.” I quoted him in my book; in 1958 he wrote “Experts and laymen can agree that slums breed a hopelessness in people’s hearts. Amid the piles of rotting garbage, tumbledown porches and junk-filled back yards, the human spirit seems to wither away.” So he laid out this vision which said we will start in the heart of Baltimore City and build and revive it. There were people like Jim and Libby Rouse, friends of my parents, who thought it was a good idea. In 1963, Jim and Libby said that they were going to build a new town where blacks and whites, rich and poor could live together in harmony… and from farm fields in 1963, they cut the ribbon in 1967 for the town of Columbia which would house 90,000 in population. In 1963, I was 12, and was deeply influenced by these practical visionaries who put forth complexly optimistic ideas and delivered on them.

The day I turned 16, I got a car and started my first company. I got a contract and hired 3 other guys to repair brand new Levittown roofs that were defective because of cheap construction methods. I developed an intimate knowledge of those “little boxes on the hillside made of ticky tacky that all looked just the same”. I loathed everything about them – what they were, what they did to people, creating the first glass-tube generation who watched life rather than live it. Now, it’s worse as kids sleep with their smart phones.

At a very young age, I was also quite active in the antiwar movement. When I was 14, in 1965, I volunteered for the American Friends Service Committee where I got to know anti-war activists including the Baltimore Quaker, Norman Morrison, who burned himself alive in front of McNamara’s office and Catholic priests Daniel and Phillip Berrigan. While my friends were getting drunk, I was being photographed by the FBI. My father, who had served front lines in the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, respected my view that what America was doing was wrong, and it was patriotic to say so, even if we disagreed on the politics, as long as I was prepared to accept the consequences of my views.

I got my undergraduate degree in History and I was most fascinated by, and spent a lot of time studying Thomas Jefferson and how he could write the documents that made America what it was.

My dad didn’t have a lot of money, so to put myself through college I worked for Bethlehem Steel, the biggest steel mill in the world. I got $3.25 an hour which was the highest pay in Baltimore, but it was hot and sweaty and dangerous. That mill is now gone, as are the blue collar jobs that were the city’s mainstay. Destroying America’s blue collar jobs was a bad idea, just as crushing the middle class now is not good for the country or the world.

To save money, I graduated college in 3 years instead of four by double-loading, including one term at U.C. Berkeley where I fell in love with California, especially Point Reyes.

After graduating, I came out here again and managed to get a job as a medical technician doing multi-phasic examinations of migrant farm workers who had just been unionized with new medical benefits. We would be given a map and show up to work in a field somewhere in the middle of California where our medical exam trailers were waiting. It taught me a new appreciation of the hard work that went into the food on my plate.

Because I did not serve in Vietnam, I volunteered for VISTA — Volunteers In Service To America — and was sent to the deeply racist “boot heel” of Missouri. I was sent there to develop secondary leadership in a black town where there were 5 white people including me and my fellow volunteers. The U.S. government guy I worked with was trained by Saul Alinsky. As my boss, he said “don’t try to do things directly. If you want to solve problems, build monuments, but do it in a way that enables people to work out their own resolutions. Build in checks-and-balances and then trust in the wisdom of people.” There were a lot of mothers there that had, literally, 20 kids with no males in the house except children. We held meetings in which I asked them what they needed. They said they needed a children’s park. Kids were playing in an abandoned lot full of dumped cars. So I got the mothers together and said let’s do this as a single group. They raised the $200 to pay the white guy who bought it on a tax sale and had no idea it was in the middle of a black town. We set up a competition with the kids and got the lots cleaned up. Then we built the parks out of scrounged power poles, chains, ropes and anything else we could find for free or cheap. Then I suggested they lease it to the city council to qualify for public maintenance funding. At that time, we were told this was the third poorest, 4th-class city in America; the Mayor couldn’t read or write. Black voting came late and votes were selling for $3 a piece by brokers who would drive voters to the polls and pay them $1 to vote for the candidate who bought the election. The corruption had come instantly.

They were trying to get a grant for a sewage system and they were clearly going to try to skim a lot money into their own pockets. My job, working for the US Government as a Volunteer in Service to America, was to develop secondary leadership to curb local corruption. By leasing the parks to the city, it meant these women had to show up for every city council meeting to make sure the city wouldn’t steal their parks. When the sewage grant came up for a vote, those women were in the room, and they stood up and repeated several times “Now, David, you do right…” never saying what was right or wrong, just “do right”. David, the mayor could not get the vote through, and in the end, the public got a better system because the money was spent on public interest, not pecuniary interest.

That’s where I learned about checks and balances in real life… you simply have to make sure that your stakeholding is such that different power structures are witnessing each others behavior… it’s much harder to be corrupt in the light of day.

I eventually found myself in Vancouver, B.C. working as a community education director of a public community school while also getting a Masters Degree in education under John Bremer of the Institute of Socratic Study at Western Washington University. I admired Thomas Jefferson so much and he had had a classical education… and I wanted to learn the same classical education that Jefferson learned. That gave me the intellectual framework to understand how to attain justice, not just talk about it.

I then got a job as Executive Director of a mental health agency in Bellingham, Washington which I ran for four years. It was front-line work as the state was de-institutionalizing, a fancy word for tossing the mentally ill out on the streets. I took an agency on the verge of collapse, rebuilt it with a dedicated, underpaid, overworked staff, and left it on a solid footing.

I was then headhunted by the lawyer on our board to join a new startup that was developed packaged “soft-ware”… they spelled it with a dash in those days. This is relevant because in 1980 in software, there were no experts, no status quo, so we had to invent everything. There is a freedom in that environment, a lesson I later applied to developing the VillageTown concepts where in the research we began with the presumption there were no experts, no books to read, only real-life places and talking to ordinary people about their needs and aspirations.

I did five software startups, soon returning to my area of expertise in the public sector focusing on local government software. My interest again was to combat corruption indirectly. We put a huge computer system into an East Coast city known for its sordid government. The software dispassionately revealed massive misuse of pubic money by previous administrations. With that financial success we merged with a Stockton CA company that had the highest integrity in the industry.

That went well until we grew too big and were bought by a Dallas company that breached my contract after they got my stock. Eight years later, I won in Federal District Court and then settled the case by having them fund two years of research on my passion – how to design and establish what we later came to call VillageTowns.

That passion was first articulated a few years prior when I attended a 1984 New Years Eve dinner party in Baltimore, where the subject turned to how to deal with the underclass of Baltimore, the people of the same black slums that Marty Millspaugh wrote about a quarter century before. I asked what would happen if we redesigned the layout of communities to empower people so the “problems” did not spawn and breed that hopelessness that Marty wrote about. The question turned a typical red-blue conversation into a lot more thoughtful one.

Out of the blue, three weeks later, I got a call from Libby Rouse, co-founder of Columbia, MD who I talked about earlier. She asked me to come back down to Baltimore to give a talk in front of 20 of the top urban planners in the country where I gave a talk similar to the one I just did in Hopland about villages, but of course, the idea was much less formed at the time.

Some of the feedback was that instead of starting from scratch, we should work on retrofitting Baltimore – a question that pops up regularly the first time people hear about VillageTowns. I said that there have been people trying to do that unsuccessfully for decades, and you would have to wait until Baltimore hit rock bottom so you have a clean-slate, knock the condemned buildings down and get the cars and criminals out of there.

The only success I saw in retrofitting Baltimore was homesteading, where the underclass was displaced by the grown children of the privileged Baltimoreans who gentrified the inner harbor. While that was better than nothing, my focus was not on expanding opportunities for the comfortable class. I was more interested in complete communities, which includes the full spectrum of society – including privileged but also the rest of society who could live securely, earn a decent living, own an affordable home, have a stake in their community and give their kids opportunity to do better than their parents – in other words, the American dream.

At the end of the talk Libby said that what I put forward included the things they wanted to do in Columbia but couldn’t do, because despite its success in having rich and poor, black and white living together in harmony south of the Mason Dixon line, the financial backers were too conservative to let them go the whole way. Also of course, it was an earlier time; remember 1963 was the year of the race riots in Cambridge MD. Libby asked me to promise that I would pursue this. I did. I worked on it and then the 1987 crash came and I had to shelve it.

Then, when the lawsuit was settled in 1995, I started doing serious research on VillageTowns. By 1997, the idea was much more fully formed, and it was time to start experimenting on the physical forms. We soon realized it would be very difficult to experiment in America because of the building codes and zoning laws. We were told about New Zealand which had a law called the Resource Management Act which purpose is to “enable people and communities to provide cultural, economic wellbeing while protecting and preserving the environment for now and for the foreseeable needs of future generations.” If you can get an engineer to issue a producer statement, you can do an environmentally-sustainable building… you don’t have to follow the local building codes. We also found New Zealand appealing because we could let our six-year-old daughter have a Tom Sawyer childhood like I did… walk barefoot into the village alone and not have us arrested for child-neglect. So we made the move to New Zealand, built a sustainable home out of earth bricks made on our land, harvesting rainwater and growing our own food – back-to-the-land Kiwi style.

After we finished building, I turned attention back to VillageTowns, and in 2006 began to write a book. It went viral, selling a lot more copies than we expected. I found myself on the speaking circuit, even doing a TED talk in Sydney. Finally, in 2012, with a large group of people who were attracted to the idea – we called ourselves VillageTown stewards – we decided the time for talk was over and began a search for a host community.

The view of these stewards is that big business and big government cannot and will not do what needs to be done. They have their own agendas, and investing energy in fighting them means the outcome will be that you are going to be hurt.

Traditional capitalism works. If an individual is rewarded for their own initiative, they will exercise initiative. But capitalism does not work if people are not accountable to each other. So if you don’t see who you are hurting, like workers in China where they are polluting their water, polluting their air, you don’t care because you don’t see them. I visited China to look at electric, retrofit bicycle motors. We found some good motors; you can read our findings at slowcycles.com. But as for China, I came away deeply shocked by what our cheap, big-box products were costing present and future generations of the Chinese people. Global capitalism is nothing like traditional capitalism. It’s more like feudalism.

When capitalism becomes like monarchies, fiefdoms, kingdoms, it’s no longer capitalism, it’s modern-day fiefdoms. Today they are not kingdoms controlling land, they are multinational corporations competing for global power. They don’t use knights anymore, they use lawyers and campaign contributions. But if you challenge them, they crush you, just like in medieval times.

The indigenous peoples of New Zealand, the Maori have a pertinent story. They tell of a huge forest with very big, very sick trees. If you walk on the forest floor, look up and tell them they are dying because they are so sick, they will get annoyed and drop a branch on you to shut you up. So instead you go about your business planting new trees on the forest floor. Then when those sick trees die and crash, even if some of your new trees get crushed, sunlight shines in, and the new life you planted grows a new, healthy forest. My vision sees VillageTowns as the new life; the allegorical new trees in a new, healthy forest. So I don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s wrong with the world, and I don’t invest a lot of energy in complaining or even reading bad news.

[The interview then shifted to other subjects]

Costco? I don’t get it. I went into Costco, and I walked around, and there was nothing I would buy there. My father-in-law, a windshield cowboy before he passed away, did Costco three times a week. He was a hunter… instead of hunting a buffalo, he was hunting an exercise machine, and his garage was full of this junk that he never used.

Big box stores take your money and wire it out of the county at midnight. They take a lot more out of the county than they leave in payrolls and taxes. They diminish the wealth of a community. Sure, people get bargains, but not really. It’s not a bargain when the America can no longer afford the American dream.

My friend James Samuel brought Transition Towns to New Zealand. When it came my time to talk at the first meeting, I said I had a problem with it. I don’t see how you can build a community around negatives. The meeting was asking us to prepare for Peak Oil, Global Warming, Economic Collapse, so I named it POGWEC, the boogie man of doom. This is fear-driven and you can motivate people with fear, but what do we have left? We raise out kids with no hope. The meeting then shifted the focus to visioning for a hopeful future, not a defensive one.

Speaking of kids, folks here tell me that their kids won’t stay here. They don’t want to work at Walmart. They would love to stay here, but they have aspirations. That lack of opportunity is not good, we need to change that; we need to create good jobs, affordable homes and a socially and culturally enriched community so the kids can and will come home. Yeah, that sounds like a politician’s stump speech or a planning commission’s workshop white-board outcome, but I’m serious about finding real ways that ordinary people can do it.

Some have said that this project is utopian… and in saying so, they are not paying a compliment. Saying something is utopian is to say it is unrealistic, it’s a polite putdown, a curse. Utopia is defined as “where everything and everyone works in harmony, a community or society possessing highly desirable or near perfect qualities.” MendoVito is proposed as the opposite. It expects and plans for human corruption, preparing for it by instituting checks and balances with transparency in public dealing. I have that in the book. VillageTowns are based on realism, on taking people as they come, not expecting them to rise to perfection.

Others have said that McDowell valley is an iconic grape appellation valley, with the implication that taking out 235 acres of the valley’s 1600 acres covered in grapes will make it somehow less iconic. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s the grapes that make it iconic. Yes, there is something special about the landscape, the surrounding hills and its lore long before grapes took the place of the woodlands. I read that very long ago, before white people showed up, it was an iconic Pomo village, although no one knows exactly where the village was in McDowell Valley. When the Pomos lived there in a village, it probably was woodlands, with deer and a lot more wildlife, and probably was quite idyllic and more iconic than it is today.

I have difficulty with the iconic grape identity. There are 3 million acres of grapes in the north county. The people of this county can decide to take out 235 acres of grapes and make it into an iconic model of 21st century, sustainable living, a country town rather than the suburban sprawl that continues to creep north.

The proposal is not anti-grape. To the contrary, we propose to leave the 35 acres of century-old historic grapes in a preserve and to make MendoVito into a Slow Food town that showcases Mendocino wines in a more authentic and down-to-earth way than the glam-wine image of Napa. And MendoVito has to be iconic. It has to be better than grapes; if not, I don’t want anything to do with it.

When I was nine years old, with my family I watched President Kennedy conclude his inaugural speech by saying “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I and most of my generation took that to heart. And I haven’t given it up. I’m just one of those sixties kids still trying to do something good for my country.

(Coming Up: Spencer Brewer — Composer, Pianist, Performer, Impresario, Concert in the Park, Acoustic Cafe; Pinky Kushner — Neuroscientist, Sierra Club; Todd Walton — AVA Columnist, Author, Musician, Artist.)

3 Responses to "Mendocino Talking: Claude Lewenz"

  1. vic   December 3, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    Thanks Dave. great interview. excellent talk food for our saturday walks.

    Reply
  2. humbilly   December 9, 2014 at 7:11 am

    So is this a non-profit venture? If not, Mr. Lewenz is just another ‘garden variety’ property developer. The interview was too much self importance and too little information about his plans.

    Reply
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