By Don MacGillivray
Neighborhood Associations in Portland have always been a center of controversy. Some believe if you don’t have any adversaries, little can be accomplished.
This is especially true of neighborhood associations as they are often pitted against powerful interests while advocating for their issues.
From the beginning, Portland neighborhoods have had place names and identities often taken from the names of subdivisions and historically-significant individuals. Churches provided organizational support to neighborhoods as well as social relationships.
The first organized neighborhood system grew up around the need for social services during the depression. Their activities were organized in small geographic areas usually using the boundaries of a neighborhood school.
This drew residents closer together as they got involved in helping their neighbors. These organizations lasted through the post war redevelopment period and into the 1950s.
At the beginning of the 1960s, there were no official neighborhood associations except for a few social clubs in well-to-do neighborhoods. However there were still many people in need, especially in deteriorating inner city neighborhoods.
This was a national issue across the country, so the Lyndon Johnson administration instituted the “War on Poverty.” One of the key components was the “Model Cities Program”.
This was begun in NE Portland’s African American communities in the mid 1960s. Federal requirements for the assistance dictated that decisions about local actions must include the people in the neighborhoods. This was the beginning of Portland’s official neighborhood associations.
The Portland Development Commission (PDC), the city’s Urban Renewal agency, became the official manager of the work.Inner SE neighborhoods felt they had an equal right to renewal assistance, but were being ignored because of local politics.
After much talk, study, and work, the city decided to include the neighborhoods of Buckman, Sunnyside, Hosford Abernathy, and Richmond. The Portland Action Communities Together (PACT), todays Impact NW, worked with PDC to create SE Uplift in 1968.
One of the things that neighborhoods wanted were area plans to help identify and justify broader issues needing attention. For Buckman this was three years in arriving and then the 12-month contract was ended before being fully completed.
As the 1970s arrived, things changed even though there still was federal block grant money for the city to use in improving area neighborhoods. Neil Goldschmidt was elected to the Portland City Council in 1970.
Two years later he became Portland’s mayor. The progressive people involved in neighborhoods were some of Neil’s greatest supporters.
It was about this time that discussions occurred about institutionalizing neighborhood associations as a communication vehicle with city government. To date, the commission form of government was a rather insular and the public was not able to have a voice in many important decisions.
Another key organizing factor was the State Highway Division’s desire to continue building freeways in the center of Portland as I-405 and the I-5 freeways had been built through major sections of the inner city.
These went though low income neighborhoods and succeeded in separating parts of the city that had strong relationships. At that time, I-505 freeway was planned to go through NW Portland and the Mt. Freeway was in the works for SE.
This became a contentious issue for the neighborhoods being run over and after great public outcry, these plans were shelved.
Remarkably, the city was able to convince the State Highway Commission that Harbor Drive, a four-lane throughway similar to today’s McLaughlin or Barbur Boulevards, should be torn up and replaced by a centrally located city park.
A commission was formed in 1971 and met for about nine months to discuss the function and benefits of an Office of Neighborhood Associations (ONA). Communications back and forth between the city and the community is an important function, along with creating positive relationships.
Two big issues that seemed to be important to neighborhood people were: 1) crime and safety and 2) land use planning and development. In the discussions about the role of neighborhoods, many wanted to control the development activities within their boundaries, have a say in city budgets, and staff to work with them or for them.
The city politicians and the bureaus were not sure neighborhood associations were a good idea. So when the committee suggested motions to give neighborhood associations real power over their geographic area, they generally failed.
A committee recommended forming the Office of Neighborhood Associations and it was adopted by the City Council in the spring of 1972. Then followed the work of making it happen.
A small budget was allocated and a director and one staff person were hired. The first director had been in charge of the Northwest District Association (NWDA), possibly the most active and successful neighborhood association in the city.
The decision whether to fund neighborhood associations directly or through an intermediary non-profit office was also contentious. The result was the formation of five district coalition offices. SE Uplift had always been managed by PDC and East Portland at this time was still unincorporated Multnomah County.
This is not the end of the story. Many more interesting changes have happened over the past forty years and undoubtedly will continue.
Neighborhood associations remain an important feature of Portland’s governance. They have accomplished great things and have been source of consternation to many people involved in the issues of local government.