News: It Takes an Eco-Village

An experimental neighborhood that works

Jared M. Holder

Approaching environmental responsibility as a kind of life puzzle, Jim Schenk has helped organize Cincinnati's only eco-village in Price Hill.

At the top of Price Hill, off a very western stretch of West Eighth Street, runs a half-mile, no-outlet street, Enright Avenue, the unlikely site of Cincinnati's only eco-village. Alternative energy technologies are put to use and organic gardening gets a green light in a neighborhood that thinks 21st century while still looking like its early 20th century roots.

Jim and Eileen Schenk, former social workers whose non-profit organization, Imago/Earth, is situated on 16 acres bordering behind and around the street, spearhead this local development of a movement to change our outlook before we manage to do ourselves in.

"We're in serious trouble," Jim Schenk says. "We must live in a different way or we'll destroy ourselves."

Rather than wallow in doom and gloom, Schenk finds the prospect of change energizing.

"These are exciting times," he says. "It's like a huge puzzle, how to live to do less damage."

A core of 25 households from the 90 families on the street make up Enright Ridge Eco-Village. Insulation of houses and double-glazed windows are a high priority, as are solar water heaters and cisterns to collect water for gardening.

Recycling is practiced. Organic and inorganic materials are separated before disposing.

"Windmills are a good energy source, but we don't have a strong wind here," Schenk says regretfully, but brightens. "They're improving them, though, to require less wind."

Insulation and social fabric
The Schenks' house, nine rooms on three floors, has an energy-efficient furnace and insulation under all the floors. Jim and Eileen together replaced all the windows.

"It takes two people an hour and a half to replace a window," Jim Schenk says.

The couple, now in their 60s, moved to Enright Avenue in 1974 when their son, Devin, was a month old. He's now a conservation biologist at Northern Kentucky University. In 1984 Imago was incorporated, at 700 Enright Ave., as an urban nature preserve. It hosts school and scout programs, adult workshops, habitat restoration and other projects with the aim of "ecological education to live in harmony with the earth, a vision of sustainability within the earth community." These ideas expanded naturally into the eco-village concept.

Originally, the plan was to convert a 50-block area in Price Hill, but "the area was too large, too depressed, had no strong constituency," Jim Schenk says.

Enright Avenue, on the other hand, has a stable community of mostly resident owners. The early 1900s houses have 50-foot wide lots that might extend 500 or 600 feet into the woods behind. The street runs along a steep-sided ridge that provides a surprising woodland surround.

In June 2004 a meeting for Enright Avenue residents was held, asking people "What do you like here? What do you want more of?" An awareness of energy conservation had already been established, as many houses had new windows and insulation through a mid-'90s grant from Cincinnati Gas & Electric Co. A steering committee was formed, and resident Jeff Stec turned to noted community consultant Peter Block for advice on developing meaningful participation.

"The wisdom of the project is to use development as a way of building community ... creating social fabric," Block says. "When citizens find their voice and act as owners of the future, they will be able to deal with anything that comes along."

By October 2005 they had organized six to eight houses in each of 10 sections of the street and set up four committees: housing, promotion, green and long-range plan.

Sharing as neighbors
Social fabric seems healthy on the street. When a note on Imago's Web site suggested a Scrabble evening, 12-15 people turned up, Eileen reports with some surprise. There are regular potluck suppers and a progressive dinner drew well. A long established food co-op and buying club operates out of somebody's basement. There's a truck co-op: Jim maintains the truck; people use it "to haul mulch, move furniture. They give us gas money in return."

Residents Tim McDonald and Ed Digman are in planning stages for a bicycle co-op that now consists of four bikes, two operating, painted white with the "Enright Ridge" portion of "I Love Enright Ridge" bumper stickers pasted on for identification. They envision bike sheds at intervals along the street, where people can pick up and return the bikes.

McDonald grew up on the street.

"When I was a kid, I was in the woods every day," he says. "When you turn the corner from West Eighth, you're not in Price Hill anymore."

McDonald is right. A two-mile, lightly blazed walking trail runs through the woods surrounding the street. Hundred-year old trees are frequent; some Chinkapin oaks are 300 years old.

"It's been a long time since this was logged," Schenk says.

An ambitious opportunity for the eco-village occurred when four Enright Avenue houses were foreclosed — "unusual on the street," according to Schenk. Three came into the hands of eco-village proponents, including the Schenks and Nancy Sullivan, a long-time member of Imago. Sullivan is bringing hers up to ecological standards and will move from her home in Ft. Thomas, Ky.

"It's a more interesting challenge to do something in an established neighborhood," she says. "The social component is important. The spiritual element is the glue that's hardest to talk about, but a spiritual dimension is found in community."

Eileen Schenk speaks warmly of the mixture of people on the street.

"Rich and colorful," she says. "Elderly, young people, children. Long-time residents and newcomers. Common concerns bring us together."

Enright Ridge Eco-Village presents a Home and Garden Tour from 1-4 p.m. Oct. 1. For more information, visit or call 513-921-1932.