Hopes in childs play
At New Columbia, adults pitch in; so can the next generation
The price of hope on these 82 acres in North Portland was $153 million.
The cost of sustaining it has yet to be calculated.
But in the hazy, gray meantime, a collection of residents, cops and community-focused bureaucrats is determined to move beyond the stigma associated with what was known for more than 60 years as the public housing project called Columbia Villa.
A new neighborhood foot patrol and city-agency outreach efforts are the beginning, though not all the efforts are that public or organized. Even the gold-badge stickers the local police precinct commander gives to children as he walks past them are designed to help.
Little at this early stage is clear. The culture of poverty, of gangs, of deep-rooted insularity in this section of the Portsmouth neighborhood has been bulldozed and paved over, but it has not been forgotten. No one is sure whether it has truly left. Yet instead of pretending it never happened, people closely associated with the rebuilt and renamed New Columbia development acknowledge its past with a downcast nod and the resolute belief that it will not be re-created.
They are the people who believe in this place. They are the people who have already begun to make it their own.
'All of us who have moved in here, we can only do so much,' said Eric Sample, 39, a Multnomah County elections administrator. 'But what we do now - the efforts we make right now - will shape a lot of how the community develops. So much is up to us that we have to do something.'
Of the 544 housing units already built and occupied, 417 belong to renters and 127 to new homeowners. The final 306, another mixture of apartments and houses, are expected to be finished by the end of October - two months early. There were 382 families in the old Columbia Villa who were moved out three years ago to make way for the new development. Of them, 141 have returned or soon will.
It was one of the most diverse places in Portland: 60 percent minority, according to the 2000 census, with 56 households in which residents spoke no English.
Sample said he is already beginning to see a subtle division between the renters - mostly low-income - and those who bought market-rate homes.
'We have to address that,' he said. 'We have to make this a whole, open community. And we have to start right away.'
Foot patrol takes first steps
To be sure, the first efforts are small.
Three weeks ago, Sample and a neighbor, Sean Scelding, a 37-year-old DVD encoder, founded a community foot patrol. Its numbers have grown quickly, and they now claim 12 members.
The Housing Authority of Portland, which owns New Columbia, will pay salary and benefits for one full-time Portland police officer who will be exclusively assigned here. With that promise in hand, Portland police North Precinct Cmdr. Jim Ferraris pledged another officer. Both officers will work out of a house on North Fiske Avenue just north of the well-manicured 4-acre McCoy Park, and could be in place in two weeks.
And Havilah Ferschweiler, a crime-prevention coordinator with Portland's Office of Neighborhood Involvement, has become a New Columbia touchstone, helping neighbors meet neighbors and making sure the housing authority and police make quick inroads.
'A lot of times the grass-roots effort actually starts with institutions,' said John Keating, the housing authority's assistant director for community building.
A coffee shop and a grocery store should open in the next month or two. Portland Community College has begun holding work force training courses during the day and noncredit community education classes at night. A bank's automated-teller machine sits outside Keating's office.
Kids can help make the links
The foot patrol is still experimenting with different hours, different days. Members walk the streets with cell phones in hand looking for expired car registrations, burned-out street lamps, the smell of marijuana -anything that could suggest questionable activity or any hint of a threat to quality of life. They can call Ferschweiler, the police nonemergency number or a local district police officer, depending on the urgency of what they need to report.
'This is definitely about meeting your neighbors,' Ferschweiler said. 'But this is also very much about public safety, and it takes everybody to really do that.'
So far, though, all of its members come from the ranks of the new homeowners.
Even though a large majority of the development's residents live in apartments, 'we don't see a lot of apartment-dwellers out,' Scelding said. 'It's been hard to engage them. I can go door-to-door and I can leave fliers and try to meet them, but so far I haven't gotten any bites.'
Sample said he thinks there is a way around that.
'The kids are the bridge in this community between homeowners and renters,' he said, pointing to a group of six children dancing in a McCoy Park fountain. 'That's how people will end up getting to know each other. Kids don't care about a lot of the things that keep adults separated.'
Keating said residents were still getting settled and that holdovers from Columbia Villa were waiting to see what the culture of New Columbia would be.
'Everybody's new and everybody's trying to figure out their place, and everybody's trying to figure out how much of this they own,' he said.
Park fights raised the alert
To be sure, not everything is genteel and quiet. One reason the police and the housing authority began getting more involved in New Columbia were a few possibly gang-related fights in McCoy Park over the summer.
'We really wanted to respond to that very quickly,' Keating said.
Residents and cops were almost desperate to avoid the resurrection of the image wrought after Portland's first-ever drive-by gang killing, which occurred in Columbia Villa in 1988.
Joseph 'Ray Ray' Winston, 17, was an associate of a gang named for the project -the Columbia Villa Crips - when he was shot to death on a playground on Aug. 17 that year.
'We'd actually prefer it if nobody mentioned that again,' Ferraris said. 'This isn't the same place.'
Ferraris points to the Portland Police Bureau's involvement here as a perfect example of the force's guiding philosophy of community policing.
'What you see here is citizens doing what they can, solving some problems on their own,' he said. 'That only helps us gather information and do our jobs, and it's all based on a mutual understanding of what we need to do here and a mutual respect of each other's roles.'
North Precinct officer Barry Hosier, assigned to the Neighborhood Response Team, said residents could have a huge impact on maintaining the safety of the neighborhood.
'The patrol officers are basically going from call to call to call, and I do my work in several different areas,' he said. 'But with their involvement, with their passion and their work here, the police just feed off that. It helps us tremendously. And it allows someone like me to work on the core community issues that impact the most people. This sounds corny, I know, but it's really neat.'
But Keating said things had changed enough that he no longer saw residents cringe at the mention of the old name, Columbia Villa.
'It used to bother everyone in the beginning,' he said. 'We all - me included - used to be sensitive to that. But now I think it's just a reference to the way it used to be. I think it's in the past.'