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SAN GABRIEL VALLEY / COVER STORY : Live & Learn : At Cal Poly Pomona, 20 students reside in a communal center that stresses recycling and self-sufficiency.


Dinner with "the hippies on the hill" is no piece of steak.

It is Sara Trifiro's turn as resident chef at Cal Poly Pomona's Center for Regenerative Studies, where 20 students live, work and study with solar power, recycled waste water and organic crops--a postmodern Biosphere II.

On a secluded campus hilltop, Trifiro, 28, is madly chopping bell peppers from the garden for the organic eggplant-tomato casserole, to the funky beat of a Rested Root tape. Other students set the patio tables without landfill-clogging paper napkins--they prefer hand towels from the kitchen. After dinner, a tired Trifiro and crew wash the dishes in solar-heated water and dump the dishwater on the compost heap.

"Everything takes so much work here," groaned Trifiro, a graduate student in landscape architecture. "It just brings home the point that everything you do, everything you buy, every place you go and how you get there . . . you start thinking about it. We're trying to set an example here."

As the center's first anniversary approaches, students say they are forgetting their old, wasteful ways of eating fast-food hamburgers from plastic-foam boxes or running the dryer for just one towel. Now, they use homemade solar barbecues built of foil, electric tape and cardboard boxes. They joke about their "solar clothes dryer"--a clothesline strung across a window. They throw pumpkin seeds into the steaming compost heap to see how fertile their organic waste is; sure enough, a fat pumpkin grows.

"We're learning about living," said Diana Jerkins, 45, the center's new director, an agriculture expert from the University of Georgia. She lives there too.

Cal Poly faculty members designed the 16-acre center to promote regenerative studies, the use and reuse of natural resources without damaging the environment. A Cal Poly landscape architecture professor had conceived the center in 1976 as a project for his graduate students, challenging them to come up with ideas on a new, ecologically sound lifestyle. Major foundations embraced the concept and kicked in funding.

The $10-million complex, which is funded entirely by grants and donations, is the only one of its kind on a college campus, a throwback to the days of '60s communal living but with '90s technology. Within the next few years, plans call for 90 people to live in a mostly self-sustaining environment, similar to the now-defunct Biosphere II in Oracle, Ariz., except that Cal Poly's complex is open. Next month, construction starts on the center's Phase II, a 3,240-square-foot addition with classrooms, offices and seminar rooms.

The center opened last Thanksgiving weekend with 10 students but without full-time staff or organized operations. On Nov. 9, Cal Poly officials will dedicate the center as part of Founder's Day, a ceremony to mark the 1949 donation of land that got the university started. Meanwhile, visitors tour the center every day, including researchers from Hungary, Africa and India.

A year ago, the center looked unfinished, situated on barren land that was home to owls, hawks, snakes and tarantulas. There wasn't much there besides four solar-paneled buildings made of cedar from an old Louisiana barn. There were no trees, flowers or plants. No fish in the six ponds. No recycling system.

"The first year was spent philosophizing on our ethics, getting to know each other, figuring out exactly what we wanted to do here and what our goals were," said senior Nichole Sirbike, a 22-year-old animal science major. "This year, we're really just doing all the work we talked about last year. It's really exciting to see things actually get done because we talked about things for so long."

Now, grapevines wind around trellises in front of the buildings; in the summer, the leaves provide shade and in winter they fall off and let sunlight in. Around the center, students planted pomegranate trees, fig trees, morning glories, zinnias and other plants. In rooftop planter boxes, they're growing mint, savory and sage. Near the fishponds, which are teeming with tilapia, basil and lemongrass grow in planters made from old tires. Terraces on the hillside are shored up with broken concrete. And students have adopted four cats and a dog.

"It's feeling like home," said Steve Nawrath, 28, the resident manager since the center opened.

Some outsiders call them hippies, weirdos, guinea pigs or worse; residents jokingly describe the center as "cheap rent with a statement."

"I saw this as a place to start out these new ideas so people can learn from us here," said senior Liza Pugeda, 22, who could have graduated in June but chose to continue classes so she could live at the center. "It really is a family. . . . I've never had friends like I have friends here."

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