By Don MacGillivray

Controversy, criticism, and change challenge neighborhood associations today. It is not just city problems troubling the neighborhood system, but the possibility that the fifty-year system of public advocacy and volunteerism may face a complete overhaul.

Many neighborhoods grew up as independent towns often with their own post offices. These included East Portland, Albina, St. Johns, Sellwood, and Linnton. In the early 20th century, various neighborhoods were the home to newly-arrived immigrants to Portland.

The Lewis and Clark Fair in 1905 brought visitors from all over the world. Many liked it and moved here, doubling the population in just a few years. With the streetcar, people were able to travel long distances, and soon the automobile allowed residential infill throughout.

The depression of the 1930s impacted older neighborhoods causing social service agencies to form neighborhood committees with their residents to help people in distress.

With the post war success of the nation in the 1950s, social service efforts slowly declined. There was still a serious need to rehabilitate neighborhoods and provide social assistance in the inner city. The Johnson administration of the 1960s created the nation’s Great Society initiatives, one of which was Model Cities Program.

This was an anti-poverty program that targeted low-income communities in inner NE Portland. Residents in depressed neighborhoods were involved in decisions on how to implement federal programs. This was the beginning of some inner NE neighborhoods.

Inner SE also organized under Model Cities Program in Richmond, Buckman, Sunnyside, and Brooklyn. In 1968, SE Uplift (SEUL) was formed by Portland Development Commission.

PACT, (Portland Action Communities Together) became IMPACT NW, the social service organization. SE Uplift worked with the neighborhoods to use federal money in the area and PACT became the advocacy organization.

Neil Goldschmidt was elected mayor in 1972. He was a believer in citizen advocacy and many of his progressive ideas changed city government. He saw neighborhood associations as an important tool of access and communication between city bureaus and residents.

Mary Pedersen,  the director of the successful Northwest District Association, was tasked with creating a city office to work with neighborhoods and to help them communicate with the city. The Office of Neighborhood Associations (ONA) opened in 1974 to work with NAs and to organize them in the other areas of the city.

The existing neighborhood groups believed ONA was a front for downtown control and ONA had to demonstrate there was sufficient value in the neighborhood concept to justify City support.

One goal was to eradicate blighted neighborhoods and to address livability issues. Then in the 1980s, neighborhood programs of crime prevention and mediation were added to local planning and the reporting of neighborhood needs.

In 1979, Portland had sixty active neighborhood associations. Today there are than ninety.

In the Bud Clark and early Vera Katz administrations, the NA system probably reached its zenith. Most of the inner city neighborhoods developed their own, city adopted, neighborhood plans to advocate for needed improvements in each neighborhood.

This met with limited success because of the failure of the city and commercial interests to support and fund these citizen-generated proposals.

Other citizen groups began to criticize the neighborhood system as not being inclusive and representative and  neighborhoods were accused of being run by white, middle class, homeowners that did not reflect the interests of their entire neighborhood.

Most people do not realize or appreciate the work that neighborhood leaders and volunteers provide to improve both neighborhoods and the city. There are volumes documenting these efforts.

The lack of participation is often due to public apathy and difficulties in communication. Often controversy becomes a good means of organizing.

Renters can be temporary neighborhood residents with little interest in their local geographic area. Diverse ethnic residents have a unique set of interests and needs that may not be shared with others in their neighborhood. Common interests must be the basis for successful political advocacy.

These issues were addressed by the four-year effort to revise ONA Neighborhood Standards in the 1990s with the participation of citizens from a wide range of interests and backgrounds.

Then in 1996 a commission was formed to study neighborhood systems and to recommend improvements. One recommendation was to change the name of ONA to the Office of Neighborhood Involvement to broaden the scope of the office. This led to wider participation of under-represented groups in the city neighborhood office, but there was little to attract them to their NAs.

In recent years Portland has succumbed to significant growing pains. Affordable housing, traffic, parking, public safety, planning, and homelessness have all become significant challenges. It is no wonder that the neighborhood system is under attack.

Many powerful city leaders don’t appreciate the criticisms that come from their citizens. Many of the diverse, ethnic citizens want a share of the assistance and resources that could be available from the City though the OCCL.

Many recognize these issues, but there is strong support for maintaining geographically based Neighborhood Associations as they are.