Los Angeles is a city where people are hesitant to even talk to one another – let alone water houseplants, offer free private cooking lessons, or teach Photoshop to complete strangers. And yet Echo Park Time Bank, an online community where members exchange and barter services to complete strangers, could very well be the closest thing this city ever sees to Pay It Forward.
In 2000’s Pay It Forward, individuals performed spontaneous acts of good-will for complete strangers – with no expectation of return or thanks: just the request that they “pay it forward.” Echo Park Time Bank does not reach quite such cinematic levels of altruism: the online community relies on a barter system, in which members post services they are willing to do for free – as well as requests they want in exchange. Founders Lisa Gerstein and Autumn Rooney began the Echo Park Time Bank hoping to “rekindle the kind of community spirit and thrift that existed before we got wrapped up in our iMacs and Motorolas, and paid for housekeepers and guitar lessons.”
Gerstein and Rooney have taken into account that inviting complete strangers into our lives – without the security of a company reputation or trusted referral – does not come easily. Echo Park Time Bank works because it relies on a market-like system of exchange: members trade through the bank, never directly with one another, and there is an approval process for prospective members that includes an orientation meeting/informal screening. And yet when it comes down to it, Echo Park Trade Bank is about recreating that small-town trust within a city hardened by first-hand knowledge of the potentially disastrous consequences of interactions among strangers (gang violence and drive-by shootings, anyone?). Perhaps that’s what makes the philosophy behind it so darn appealing: it’s founded on the conception of a vibrant, interactive community, a dying breed within our self-enclosed, iPod generation. Particularly for services like house-sitting and dog-walking, Echo Park Trade Bank requires a foundation of trust between people who might never have met before – indeed, who might never have met otherwise. It’s shocking – and oddly comforting – to realize that faith between strangers can exist in a city of this size, where people are more apt to avert their eyes than offer guitar lessons to a man they meet on the sidewalk.