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Street-corner Revolution

With winged trucks, paint, and corner kiosks, Portlanders are transforming their neighborhoods. Now, even city officials are applauding
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It's nine in the morning, and the tea water is hot at the southwest corner of Ninth and Sherrett Street in the Sellwood neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. An earthen goddess bench beckons mysteriously next to the wooden hook-tree from which mugs hang at all hours. At this crossroads, once a nondescript urban intersection, a new and ancient approach to community building is flourishing. Yet in the 1970s this neighborhood was so tough a U.S. Marine was beaten to death here the same year a 57-year-old grandmother was raped and killed.

Mark Lakeman, a resident of the neighborhood, grabs a cup of tea as he takes a stack of books to the community “library” across the street. It's a bookcase on the opposite corner, stuffed with such titles as Pearl Buck's The Good Earth, a biodiversity handbook, and Kahlil Ghibran's The Prophet.

On the third corner of the intersection, now known as Share-It Square, there's a produce-sharing station and a multi-layered information kiosk. On various “pages” of the information book, neighbors can advertise services needed or offered (such as housecleaning, gardening, massage, fix-it repairs), events, births, and deaths.

“There's a lot of sidewalk synchronicity,” explains Lynne Doiron, who lives on the corner by the tea station. “People just care for these things. They bring tea bags to the tea station, clean up the kids' playhouse, keep the library stocked.”

The fourth corner houses a children's playhouse full of games and stuffed animals, which converts to a food-serving station known as the Bombay Café when the neighborhood celebrates community gatherings. Each year, neighbors repaint the intersection with different colors and patterns.

“It's like we're planting a garden,” explains Lakeman. “Ultimately, it could bloom into world peace.”

These ideas sprouted from conversations over tea in a community space piled with cushions, built from recycled materials by neighbors for about $65 in 1996. The city ordered the teahouse demolished, as it did not meet codes. And the city tried to fine neighbors for creating community amenities on the corners of the intersection. One city official even said, “That's public space. Nobody can use it.”

Then the neighbors complained to the city commissioners. They invited them for tea.

Suddenly, city officials realized that the kind of citizen initiatives happening at Share-It Square were the sort they had been trying to inspire with expensive programs for decades. And it was all happening at no cost to the city.

The city passed an ordinance to encourage “intersection repair” in all 96 neighborhoods of Portland. Today, with the help of an informal organization called City Repair, citizens are invited to design paintings for the centers of intersections and creative public spaces on the four corners. Portland's ordinance requires that 80 percent of neighbors within two blocks sign statements approving the plan.

Now, five such “intersection repair” projects have sprouted in the city, mostly in the neighborhoods of Southeast Portland where many activists live. “It's a typical place, though, not some hippie enclave,” insists Doiron. “On these four corners you had an old Catholic woman, a drag racer, a potato farmer, and a bomb maker who worked for a U.S. military contractor.”

The neighbors mapped their area, identifying a surprising range of skills among nearby residents. They figured out how to reach out to neighbors who were different from them, going door-to-door or organizing community potlucks.

New projects emerged over the years, as the intersection got repainted (for about $500, raised by residents) and people worked together. One neighbor built an earthen oven in the shape of her Australian tree frog “Oblio;” it gets fired up for neighborhood pizza parties. Several neighbors went door to door and took 60 to 70 orders for fruit trees, huckleberry bushes, and other edible plants that will make the neighborhood a “fruitopia,” perfect for “grazing” as people walk through it.

“Anybody in Portland who considers themself a steward can be involved,” says Lakeman, one of a number of pied pipers of intersection repair in Portland and, recently, across the country. City repair projects are springing up in State College, Pennsylvania; Asheville, North Carolina; Eugene, Oregon; and Olympia, Washington.

Winged picnic trucks known as T-Horse and T-Pony took form after the original teahouse was torn down. They travel around the city to parks and public spaces, where people enjoy free tea and an opportunity to meet neighbors, sit on colorful cushions, and discuss the future of their neighborhoods. “Beauty,” Mark Lakeman smiles, “is our greatest tool.”

An architect by training, Lakeman has devoted enormous energy to fighting the “grid”-—not just the urban grid of streets, but the grid that forces linear, lock-step thinking in education, media, and consumer culture. “It's all symbolic,” he says of the physical work of intersection repair. “It's really about building community, getting people to talk to each other, and getting kids involved so they own their neighborhood. Then they'll never vandalize it.”

In fact, there have been a few acts of vandalism, but nothing serious. “Some kids have ‘laid rubber' in the middle of our intersection, there's often litter, and one time someone pulled out the wiring in our kiosk,” says Jan Semenza, a Swiss-born professor of public health who lives on the corner of 33rd and Yamhill Southeast, where neighbors painted a gorgeous sunflower design and called it Sunnyside Piazza. Rain water from Semenza's roof flows into a solar-powered fountain that flows and babbles over brilliantly colored mosaics, next to a solar-lighted cob-constructed neighborhood information kiosk. (Cob is an adobe-like material made of earth, sand, straw, and water that dries to the strength of concrete.)

Three years ago, neighbors were complaining of noise, speeding, drugs, and abandoned cars. After a series of meetings and workshops facilitated by City Repair, they determined to paint a sunflower in the middle of the intersection, turning it into a piazza. One neighbor provided 28 gallons of paint. The city's street sweepers cleaned the intersection. Planter barrels were placed on either side of the four corners to keep people from parking in the piazza, and to slow traffic down. Neighbors had a community gathering, complete with dancing and a visit from the winged T-Horse.

The next year, the city approved plans for trellises on all four corners, the first arches built over sidewalks in Portland since the stone gateways to Laurelhurst Park some 100 years ago. One neighbor, who had initially opposed the painting of the intersection, came up with the idea to plant honeysuckle in the trellises. Neighbors raised the money and did the work.

Jan Semenza, whose studies of public health have suggested that “urban planning processes may contribute to the epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and depression that are sweeping the United States,” has assigned his students to study neighborhood reactions to the Sunnyside Piazza over time, and to compare crime and other statistics with those at comparable unimproved intersections in demographically parallel neighborhoods. After more than 700 interviews, they concluded that 65 percent of Sunnyside Piazza-area residents rated their neighborhood an excellent place to live, compared with 35 percent at another similar but unimproved intersection. Also, 86 percent of Sunnyside neighbors reported excellent or very good general health, compared with 70 in the adjacent neighborhood. And 57 percent versus 40 percent said they felt “hardly ever depressed,” even in Portland's rainy weather. Calls for police services have decreased since the intersection repair.

“It's not about paint,” says Semenza, now on City Repair's board. “It's about neighbors creating something bigger than themselves. One woman, an artist who was very opinionated about what color we should paint the square, after hours of back and forth, said, ‘I finally realized my relations with my neighbors are more important than the colors we paint the intersection.'” Semenza estimates he spends two hours a week maintaining and cleaning up the intersection in the summer.

Volunteer energy is at the heart of City Repair, which describes itself as an “organized group action,” not an organization. All the leadership donates its time. Organization decisions are made by consensus of a council of nine project coordinators, which meets monthly. Many key leaders became involved after happening upon T-Horse events in city parks, sitting on cushions, and chatting with their neighbors.

One vision shared by the City Repair community, and no doubt discussed in the community sauna built in a converted garage two years ago, is to see public squares in all 96 neighborhoods of Portland. “Each person has to individually figure out what it is to be a citizen,” says Charla Chamberlain, a co-founder and one of nine co-directors in the ever-evolving structure of City Repair. “And that can best happen very locally. Somehow we have to unlearn our conditioning of fear and isolation, and relearn a new way of being.”

The village building convergence
Each spring, City Repair coordinates an event that brings visionary architects, planners, and artists together for 10 days of concentrated work on 10 or more projects in Portland neighborhoods. The Village Building Convergence, as it's called, provides a catalyst and new volunteer energy to neighbors who are considering creating public spaces. Workshops in how to design and build cob structures and plant ecological gardens combine neighborhood energy with that of out-of-town visitors, who pay a nominal price to attend the workshops.

“For ten days, it's the world you wish you could live in all the time,” recalls Michelle Freedman. “There are work parties and festivals all over the city.” Freedman coordinates a People's Park built during the 2003 Convergence in two city-owned lots at Southeast 47th and Ivon Streets that had been slated for a freeway until citizens put a stop to that. “At first there was big opposition to doing anything,” she says. “But now we love our park.”

Well, most neighbors do. One couple who lives directly across from the recently cleared lots, dotted with stone and cob planters, complained, “The planters are ugly. They look like empty cardboard boxes designed by a committee. But getting the neighbors together was good. We finally recognized this place as a public space.”

Other public spaces catalyzed by City Repair include:
• The Salmon Street Poetry Garden, a spot in a yard where people are invited to write, read, and appreciate poetry. One poem, written by a kid on a tile in the garden, reads: “I wish tomato plants would grow through my window and into my mouth...”
• The Memorial Lifehouse, a solar-powered lighthouse with a shrine dedicated to Matt Schekel, an 18-year-old bicyclist who was killed by a vehicle at the corner of Southeast 37th and Taylor; a tiled “love bench” big enough for two to sit very close; and a “life cycle” wheel, made by his mother, telling the story of Matt's life.
• A big red labyrinth painted in the middle of the intersection at Southeast 19th and Washington, with an herb garden and benches on the corners. (As at other “repaired” intersections, two houses have been repainted by their owners since the community got involved.)
• At Southeast Eighth and Ankeny Streets, a shrine to the Virgen de Guadelupe conceived, designed, and built with the Mexican day-laborers who wait on the streets in that neighborhood to be picked out for work.
• Outside of Portland, a community plan for the coastal Oregon town of Bay City, where a parking lot is becoming a public square, intersections are becoming piazzas, and a skate park has been developed for kids.

In the end, it's about increasing personal and community expression in what Lakeman calls our “muted society, where the guts of community have been removed.” Ultimately, he hopes neighbors will expand the idea of public spaces, perhaps blocking off traffic altogether in some places, and meeting each other face-to-face more often. “When we can look into the eyes of a future generation on a daily basis, and know they will carry on our co-creations, we'll build a culture of gifts, not of fear.”

Stephen Silha is a freelance writer and communications consultant who lives on Vashon Island, Washington.

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