This particular photo story, Green Garden, is a fine art photographic storytelling short from the series Bay by The City. In Green Garden, we meet a gig economy entrepreneur, Iris, living in a tiny-home eco-village in ever diverse Oakland, California.
Bay by The City is an ongoing collection of personal profiles of people that make life in the Bay Area so rich. These images explore my encounters with the people of the Bay Area and a slice of life and their stories.
As featured in CreativeBoom Magazine
Click the tiles to see the images, and read the story below after you see the photos.
February 23, 2017
Walking through an Oakland eco-village with Iris
from the series, Bay by the City
Words by Robert Andrew Rodriguez
Photographs by Robert Andrew Rodriguez
On my way to take a portrait.
This is the first of many photo stories about life in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the people that make living here so rich and diverse. I like to spend time watching and walking with my subjects, to catch them when they show me a true moment. I’ve found it helps them to avoid awkward postures and we are both generally more honest this way. For a quick moment I can view their world as if it were my own. Right now, my assignment is to photograph an uncommon type of gig economy worker, a model, Iris. I’ve agreed to shoot for her portfolio in exchange for portraits.
The Bay Area has always been home to fastidious people thinking outside the box, and making non-traditional employment work outside of the mainstream bubble. Industries being disrupted by exponentially accelerating technology, and automation mean more people go into business for themselves, or join the ever growing gig economy.
An environment that originally nurtured a cultured, diversely talented, and free thinking class of pioneer defined the image of California creativity and success. Facing new challenges with a shrinking middle class, and less regulation for industry, the typical person finds new ways to adapt and thrive.
One of the biggest ways to affect this situation is the minimizing the price of rent. Being able to manage large monthly costs can make an enormous difference living in the Bay and staying connected to vital creative networks. Those that live here know many people of all ages live in multi-roommate arrangements in a single household. Still, other minimalists part of a growing trend do something entirely outside the bubble.
If it were up to Iris, sustainable living would look a lot different. She has been one of many new adopters of small space living and community organizing. She lives on a plot of land in a ‘tiny-home’, with many tiny-homes along the central courtyard. The cozy living space is not unlike a New York apartment. Her current shared living space is in Oakland’s own “PLACE”. People Linking Art, Community & Ecology. Or as she refers to it, an eco-village.
Driving through some parts of Oakland you might glimpse a fenced-in property with perhaps an airstream or two, converted trailers, and vast gardens. Tiny home communities are popping up all over the Bay Area. Who lives in these tiny-home neighborhoods with lush gardens?
One early, cloudy, damp morning I met Iris on the outskirts of North Oakland, bordered by up-and-coming Emeryville and gentrifying hordes of suburban-style shopping, mall-loving settlers, waging war against long-standing residential communities. On a nearby street you can find an import car garage, thrift store, donut shop, and taqueria. One traffic packed street over hosts trendy gastropubs (aka a bar that serves food), line out-the-door Thai restaurants feeding the masses of white collar workers on their hour lunch break, and freshly converted bookstore-to-meeting-hall coworking spaces.
She appears from behind metal and wood structures. An avid yogi, runner, and cyclist, Iris cuts a dashing figure and towers over the gardens with her Nordic height. Her strawberry-blonde hair and piercing blue eyes hold my attention almost as well as her impossibly big smile. “Welcome to PLACE!,” she says as she rolls the main gate over and leads me into the garden labyrinth of the community courtyard. We follow a wood chip mulch footpath past several under-construction tiny homes into her quaint camper-trailer. Looking around the mermaid green interior she shows me her couches, kitchen, closet, pantry, bed, windows, and coffee table with a mason jar of fresh cut pink flowers. We sip rich homemade hot cocoa with a mushroom powder that I am assured is not psychadelic. “I’ve lived here about a year and a half." There are many residents of PLACE, so many that we see some passing by in their morning routine of dog walking and coffee drinking. Everyone has similar smiles and waves. “This place has been fixed up as a haven for sustainable living. The neighbors are artists, musicians, students, teachers.”
We tour the many shared spaces - greenhouses, bathrooms, bike garages, water collection infrastructure, and a shop area. The workshop features a community space where courses are taught and events are held through classes offered on Facebook. These events can range from readings, music, craft making, children’s activities, guest musicians, ecology and cultivation, and anything and everything sustainable living.
Walking through the garden with cocoa in hand she exhibits the handmade furniture, beautifully tarnished lanterns, upcycled pottery and vegetable beds planted in ceramic bathtubs that make up the green gardens. “Yes, we all have access to the gardens. It’s really great. I just basically eat all day here. Try some!” I eat a bright and dewy raspberry.
She plucks a large sprig of Tulsi and tells me about its stress relieving properties and health benefits. “Here, take some and make your tea with it.” A thick translucent plastic covers a wooden house-like frame across the way. Inside are black wire shelves hosting a variety of herbs and small veggies grown from locally produced compost. “I dare you to eat that pepper!” I pause. “I bet it's super hot - actually please don’t eat that.” She pops it from its perch stem and nips a bite. “They are not hot at all actually!” I pass a taste test offer, taking her word for it.
“Do you want to see my truck?” she eagerly asks. Iris has just bought a truck. We venture outside the gate to the street parking. It's a wonderfully vintage white Toyota 4x4. Understandably, she tells me she’s in love with it. A gorgeous old beige volvo and a trio of motorcycles flank the truck. A utilitarian wooden luggage rack is grafted to the rear of her Honda motorcycle. She parks it and pretends to ride it and rev.
Next she takes me to the rooftop garden. Ascending a ladder up to the top of a converted shipping container we pass and are greeted by a sleepy tiny-home resident waking in his rooftop bedroom. We momentarily view him and wave through clear plastic walls as he sits up from his bed. “It’s okay, they know me.” She tells me. Wading through a gauntlet of seemingly equally sleepy hovering bees and white hive boxes reveals a closely tended micro-crop of broad leafed salad greens, and an array of tiny mysterious sprouts. An above-ground hose irrigation gives visual cues where something is growing. I accidentally step in an un-sprouted spot that I quickly learn is not vacant, but Iris graciously forgives me. She tells me about her job and her likes and dislikes. Iris loves her work. She likes to explore boundaries and revels in the beauty of bodies, “It’s a work where we are both exposed.” The clouds thin and sunbeams tilt our heads up. The roof-scape of the neighborhood is revealed against a web of power lines and tree branches. She agrees they don’t get all their food from the property, but the sustainable gardens do help, and certainly don’t hurt.
She remembers she has some chocolate that she wants me to try. Back in her mermaid green home she presents a hearty chunk of deep, dark chocolate. Notes of cayenne, cherry, and other hints of TLC are revealed as we nip at the piece. Her friend made it and gave her some. She checks her phone, “Just a second.” The phone case resembles a pint-sized milk carton and reads, 100% BOYS TEARS. Noticing the pink all caps letters I ask, “Is that a true story?” “Oh no, not really. Well um, maybe kinda. Sometimes!” She trails off, blushing and laughing. All the small windows of the camper are filled with soft light of the brightening day. I pass her next offer of herbs and ganja. My ridiculous stories of hypersensitivity to drugs fill the small space with laughter. Her hair is redder and her eyes bluer. Her rainbow watercolor painting and rainbow poncho fill the sitting area with color.
As we talk on the couch she produces a tiny stick of juniper wood she brought back from a fallen tree in the Arizona desert. She burns the end of it with a drippy candle, and lights a curled Yerba Santa leaf collected in the Santa Cruz mountains. Leaning in she lights a joint.
Chocolate and sweet roasty smells occupy my senses. Living in the Bay Area is an exercise in adaptation. It’s like no other place on earth. This is a new version of an American dream, where the youth of an entire generation make their own choices and shape a future they chose, instead of accepting an outdated vision of one chosen for them. Many adopters of tiny-home community living are not only trail blazers dealing with a new housing culture, but are experts in adaptability and sustainability. She survives, and adapts with a smile.
She tells me about her future plans about moving in a few weeks. This time to a larger, more sustainable urban farm close by in the Berkeley Hills. “There are way too many people here.”