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Walls build community

TRIB TOWN: Mount Scott-Arleta transforms a triangle
by: JIM CLARK, Volunteers Rick Knight (foreground) and Scott Vala apply linseed oil to a cob wall that’s an elemental part of the Arleta Triangle, at Southeast 72nd Avenue and Woodstock Boulevard.

Afternoon traffic is always thick in Southeast Portland's Mount Scott-Arleta neighborhood, where drivers speed home along Southeast Woodstock Boulevard after exiting Interstate 205.

The traffic noise is particularly loud at the intersection of Woodstock Boulevard and Southeast 72nd Avenue, where a handful of volunteers armed with paintbrushes populate a large, triangle-shaped median that is being transformed into a community hub.

'For years, this space was weeds and shopping carts,' said Sarah Stacy Iannarone, director of the Arleta Triangle Project. 'It was a vacant canvas.'

Iannarone dreamed up the project nearly three years ago after she attended a Mount Scott-Arleta neighborhood association meeting where board members set priorities for the coming year. The goals included traffic calming, beautification and community building.

As a student of Portland State University's urban studies program - she's currently pursuing a doctorate in the subject - Iannarone conceived of one project that met all the goals.

She sought the assistance of City Repair, a nonprofit organization that helps neighborhoods create community spaces, such as the Sunnyside Piazza in the Belmont neighborhood and Share-It Square in the Sellwood neighborhood.

The design features a 3-foot-high wall topped with sandstone bordering the south and west edges of the triangle. Hovering over the walls and connecting them via a grand arch will be a large metal canopy that recalls the old streetcars. Ground cover includes flowers, edible plants and stone walkways.

There are multiple goals for the newly designed space, Iannarone said. The intersection is extremely busy, and neighbors hope the unique structure will get people to slow down to take a look. Iannarone also hopes it will help increase the visibility of pedestrians, who have no crossing options along a four-block stretch of Southeast 72nd Avenue that borders nearby Mount Scott Park.

'I hope it will lead to discussions about making crossings safer,' said Meghan Humphreys, a volunteer who has lived in the neighborhood since 2001.

While the project already is getting some drivers to slow down and gawk, Iannarone discovered the challenge of stirring community interest was harder than she imagined. Census data from 2000 shows nearly half of the residents in the neighborhood do not own their homes.

'It's hard to get people to take pride in their neighborhood when they don't own a home there,' Iannarone said.

The neighborhood boundaries are Southeast Foster Road to the north, Southeast Duke Street to the south, Southeast 60th Avenue to the west and Southeast 82nd Avenue to the east. Most of the neighborhood's 8,000 residents spend a significant amount of time each day commuting outside the neighborhood for work, which leaves them less time to devote to neighborhood projects.

'Enthusiasm waxes and wanes,' Iannarone said. 'Every time we make progress, more people volunteer.'

'Part of the problem is the composition of the neighborhood,' said Joshua Klyber of City Repair. 'The middle-income residents in inner Southeast neighborhoods seem to be more activist than people are out here.'

Klyber is guiding the volunteers through the long, laborious process of building the wall, which is made of cob. Cob is made by stomping on clay, sand and straw, creating a rough mix with a concretelike consistency.

Each batch yields just a few square feet of material, and the Arleta Triangle design called for a wall that is 54 feet long and 2 feet wide. It has taken more than a year to build the entire structure.

'This has been the cob wall from hell,' said Scott Vala, a volunteer who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years.

The crew had a three-month setback when a car crashed through one part of the wall in June. A Village Building Convergence volunteer from Coquille was working on the wall at the time and couldn't get out of the way soon enough. The car crushed one of his legs, necessitating three surgeries.

'It was a freak accident,' Vala said. 'There may be a lot of traffic around here, but, as far as I know, that's never happened before.'

The volunteers only have two more coats of sealant to apply before the wall is finished. In addition, a pile of rocks still needs to be distributed along the paths and bare earth awaits plantings.

However, the most pressing issue remains the canopy. The volunteers received a $3,700 matching grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council to commission artist Brian Borrello to create the canopy. They still need $1,800 to meet their goal, and the neighborhood's small businesses seem to be tapped, said Humphreys, who is in charge of fundraising.

There is one last work day at the Arleta Triangle Project before volunteers retire for the winter. It is 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Over the coming months, volunteers hope to raise the remaining funds needed so the canopy can be created and installed.

For information about the project, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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