Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

September 12, 2016

One year later, an update on poly-historical Harbin Hot Springs

An architects' drawing for the new main area at Harbin, posted May 2016.

The modern polyamory movement has some historic roots at the Harbin Hot Springs retreat center in northern California. An incubator of New Age culture and California-style personal growth movements for decades, Harbin hosted and helped to populate Loving More's annual conferences as the poly movement found its feet in the 1990s. Harbin was also the prime venue for the Human Awareness Institute (HAI), an unsung force that brought many polyfolks together and seeded some of the relationship wisdom widely repeated by the movement today.

A year ago tomorrow (September 13), the Harbin resort complex burned to the ground in one of the wildfires that have been sweeping California. The people on site barely had time to get out. Today reconstruction is under way, but it will be at least two or three years to some kind of completion. Greenery is reappearing, most debris has been cleared, and the hot springs should reopen in a few months to day visitors and campers willing to rough it amid construction work.

The loss of the storied retreat, and the stranding of many of its 285 staff and residents, received much news coverage at the time. Today the San Francisco Chronicle posted a report on the current situation:

A year after Valley Fire, visions of Harbin Hot Springs’ new life

Photo: Scott Strazzante, The Chronicle

By Kurtis Alexander

...But amid the charred remains of cabins, massage studios and a wooden temple, the center’s signature springs continued to flow. The water in the pools, the managers said, gave them hope for the future.

Now Harbin, like the rest of the region, is trying to move beyond a fire that, across the region, killed four people while leveling nearly 1,300 homes and 66 businesses.

On the anniversary of California’s third-most-destructive wildfire, the heads of Harbin Hot Springs are among hundreds of Lake County residents working to rebuild. Few, though, are being watched as closely.

Harbin’s comeback from the Valley Fire — and the momentum it may provide a broader, regional recovery — hinges on a multiyear plan being hatched at a small house in Middletown, the group’s temporary base of operations.

Their undertaking involves clearing out wide swaths of dead trees on the mountain property, reclaiming the area’s natural hot springs, and surrounding the soaking pools with a mini-village of rebuilt lodging along with a restaurant, theater and conference center.

The effort, which could cost as much as $60 million, is complicated by estimates that Harbin’s insurance payout will cover only a fraction of the bill.

“Harbin was put together over 40 years,” Mahmud said, appearing unfazed by the obstacles. “If you start thinking too far ahead, it’s overwhelming. I think what we’re doing, as they say in the cliche, is taking one day at a time.”

On the scorched hillsides where the rustic resort once stood, the sound of heavy machinery echoed on a recent morning. All of the burned structures were gone, and the frames and foundations of new decks and refurbished pools were emerging, alongside shoots of newborn oak and bay trees.

...The Valley Fire, which burned quickly from the mountain community of Cobb to Middletown 10 miles away, destroyed all but a handful of the dozens of historic buildings at Harbin. Many dated to the early 1900s, a time when the site operated as a high-end resort with Turkish baths and a dance pavilion before it was acquired by the Heart Consciousness Church and its new-age practitioners in the 1970s.

Among the small staff that has returned since the fire is a security team that works out of a trailer, keeping nefarious or merely curious interlopers off the property. On some days, dozens of onetime visitors drive up the dead-end road in the isolated canyon to check on progress.

“They just want to know that we’re coming back soon,” said Nikki Palmer, who was manning the entrance. “One woman recently told me that God sent her. I just got her a chair and let her sit by the sign. She did some yoga and said some prayers. Most people just need a few minutes.”

...Harbin managers say that if all goes well, six rebuilt pools — and two new ones — will open to the public on New Year’s Eve. Few buildings will be in place by then, but guests will be able to soak in the mineral water, eat at food trucks, and camp. Watsu, a type of aquatic massage that started at Harbin, and other bodywork are expected to resume.

...The long-term plans for Harbin are less certain. The managers have drawn up a lengthy to-do list, which includes building a dozen guest cottages and a small market next year, but the timeline beyond that is fuzzy, in part because of finances.

An insurance payout between $10 million and $12 million is expected, well short of the estimated planning and construction costs for the new Harbin. The resort had limited coverage.

Members of the management team, however, hope to come up with enough money through savings, visitor fees, grants and a fundraising drive to pay for the work as they go along.

A few hundred thousand dollars in donations have already come in, but the money went to displaced residents and employees, many of whom are now staying in communal houses that Harbin owns in and around Middletown.

Heather Rogers, a magician in El Cerrito and a longtime Harbin devotee who has been following the retreat’s headway on Facebook, said she’s ready to “come home.”

...“People talk about it being a scene, and it’s true there’s naked people cuddling all over ... but Harbin has this magical power, and it’s the only place on Earth I’ve found it,” she said. “It was like a Disneyland for people who need to shut down and are a little new-agey.”

Interest in the rebuild goes far beyond the guests.

Bringing money and jobs into the county, which was struggling economically even before the Valley Fire, is critical for financing the pipeline of projects planned for burned areas, said Lake County Community Development Director Bob Massarelli.

“Harbin Hot Springs, with the tourist tax and the revenue it generates, is really important,” he said.

Harbin Managing Director Eric Richardson says that if there’s a silver lining for the resort, it’s the unique chance to move forward with a “tabula rasa” — a clean slate. ...

Read the whole article (online Sept. 12, 2016).

● Here's a TV report late last spring on the rebuilding, by San Francisco's KPIX-5 (3 minutes):

● A report in The Guardian around the same time:

'Keep the quirk': Rebuilding a famed New Age resort, clothing still optional

Seven months after Harbin Hot Springs in California burned down, the community is wrestling with the blank slate on which to imagine a new home.

A ceremony at Harbin Hot Springs 

...According to Harbin press representative Eric Richardson, a normal, pre-fire Harbin weekend saw 600 guests, with up to 1,000 on holidays.

...In the middle of the desolation, a colorful mosaic mandala clings to a crumbling wall above a circular labyrinth outlined in river rocks.

...“It’s definitely the juiciest opportunity we’ve ever had,” says the project’s lead design architect David Goldberg, president of Seattle-based firm Mithun.

In January, Harbin’s management team, residents and the Mithun architects held a series of day-long brainstorming sessions.

A Harbin memo called Key Points: Purpose of the Master Plan lists several bullet-point directives such as “respect the earth”, “facilitate connection” and “create a place of beauty and inspiration”.

Another prescription commands, “Keep the quirk”, so I ask Adams what that means.

“It’s the way I do things,” she says, laughing. “I like accidents … and jokes. I love it when you come around a corner and there’s an altar where you don’t expect to find one. Those unusual, unexpected experiences that cause you to stop for just a minute … and look.”

...Adams knows what she doesn’t want at Harbin. “It would be unbearable to me for it to become steel and glass,” she says. “It would be noisy – it has to stay quiet so you can always hear the waters.”

“Wood, stone and some glass,” she says summarily, mentioning a tantalizing vision of the hotel buildings “tucked into the hillsides that’ll kind of look like Mesa Verde does”....

The whole article (May 30, 2016).

● Harbin and its 5,000 surrounding acres have been owned and operated since 1975 by Heart Consciousness Church, a nonprofit set up for the purpose. Some longtime residents and staff chafed under what they considered its leaders' autocratic or exploitive management (for instance). There was talk of pushing for a new organizational structure, alongside the physical rebuilding, that would allow voice for more of Harbin's stakeholders. I have no word on followup to this. Anyone?

The fundraising, donated labor, and investments that the Heart Consciousness Church will require to do even half of its planned reconstruction means there will be many more stakeholders now, with even more claims to legitimacy, starting with a requirement for open books. Let's hope for the best.




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