By Don MacGillivray
Names are always important and a name will make a difference when the City of Portland’s Office of Community Involvement becomes the Office of Community and Civic Life.
The changes from Neighborhood Associations (NA) to Community Involvement to Civic Life suggest an expansion of mission.
Neighborhoods are necessary because local government responds better to groups rather than individuals. There have always been people that did not feel NAs were not responsive to the wide variety of issues brought forth by neighborhood residents.
While NAs are open to everyone, the volunteer leaders choose the important issues, but there are limits to the capacity of the system.
In the spring of 1974 the City of Portland made the controversial step to create the Office of Neighborhood Associations (ONA) under the leadership of Mayor Neil Goldschmidt. Before this, a few neighborhoods had social clubs that were the forerunner of neighborhood associations.
During the depression and after, there were neighborhood committees of social service staff that worked to address the needs of low-income neighborhood residents, but this ended in the late 1950s.
In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program initiated the Model Cities program in Portland. This program directed funding to low-income neighborhoods and their residents, but the city was chagrined when they found out that recipients must have a voice in how this money was used and how the programs were carried out.
NAs were formed to provide this representation. SE Uplift began in 1968 with four Model City neighborhoods in the inner SE with to the support of the Portland Development Commission, which was the urban renewal agency.
All of this was political and controversial, but Mayor Goldschmidt saw the value of having a better way to communicate with other interests besides those of local business.
The new office began with a director, a secretary, and a budget of $275,000. Opinions were all over the map and some neighborhoods thought the ONA was created to spy on them.
Others thought it was a waste of money while the city bureaucracy thought it would just complicate matters and make their work more difficult. Since the 1970s, Portland’s neighborhoods are a significant part of Portland’s nationally- recognized commitment to citizen participation.
The primary reason for ONA was to improve communications among the city, community, and neighborhood interests.
The two issues of greatest concern were community safety issues involving the police and those issues regarding land use planning and development. Both of these remain as controversial today as they were then. Many drastic land use changes were prevented from happening then such as the Mt. Hood Freeway.
The current central office supports seven district offices to serve coalitions formed from the cities ninety-five neighborhoods. They provide support to nonprofits such as the Latino Network, the Immigration and Refugee Community Organization and the Urban League.
Neighborhood offices in the future are likely to become more involved with non geographic organizations and diverse populations. These offices are where people from many different backgrounds can be encouraged to work together.
The other side of the work done by NAs is their service to the residents of their neighborhoods through events, public meetings, and common goals. Anyone can bring any issue to a neighborhood meeting for discussion.
Often board members can suggest possible solutions to problems. Sometimes the neighborhood board can work out conflicts among neighbors or at least suggest alternatives.
It took about ten years for all ninety-five neighborhoods to be established with no overlapping boundaries. While most have had relatively stable and strong organizations, typically they go through varying levels of activity.
District coalitions are there to provide assistance when needed and the Office of Neighborhood Involvement oversees the system and provides help in contacting the appropriate city offices when asked in addition to a variety of other duties.
The newly-named Office of Community and Civic Life expands its scope to be an integral part of the successful evolution of the many varieties of community groups that work to improve the ways Portlanders engage in partnership with local government and with each other.
The system is expanding recognition and support of non-geographic organizations. It is important to strengthen the civic engagement of diverse populations while keeping and strengthening Portland’s system of neighborhood associations.
In addition to the new office reorganization, a committee is being formed to rewrite the city charter so that it speaks to a broader range citizenry that will be involved in the decision of local government.
Currently the various programs of the office are comprised of: the Livability Program that includes neighborhood associations, the Crime Prevention Program, the Community Neighborhood Involvement Center, City/County Information and Referral, the Disability Program, and the Cannabis Program.
The OCCL wants to increase inclusion of the diverse communities and people into the decisions that can improve their lives. This will build and strengthen partnerships and relationships by investing in a broader spectrum of Portland residents.
Too often the groups that represent these people are not as open, accessible, transparent, and accountable as those involved with a neighborhood system.
Everyone is welcome in neighborhood associations, but often they don’t attract as diverse group of people as one would like. It is with this in mind that the OCCL will work to see that those having difficulty in understanding and navigating the processes of our local government will be heard.
Many fear the neighborhood program is losing standing within the new Office. It is very important that neighborhoods continue to grow and improve under the changes happening in this reorganization.
Portland’s neighborhood associations play an important role in keeping our city livable and responsive to the needs of everyone.
Editors note: In the October edition we will continue to report on the change in governance under the new director Suk Rhee. Will this new shuffle bring a much needed change in diverse representation or a loss of structure and power of the neighborhood associations.