• Gentrification brings challenges for St. Johns residents, cops alike

Gentrification Ñ a potentially ugly word to some who live in North Portland Ñ leaves Portland cops with a shifting role as quality-of-life issues jostle for attention with car thefts and gang activity.

St. Johns is still the place where you can find abandoned stolen cars, sporadic shootings, the occasional gang graffiti and a well-known drunk wandering around with her little dog.

But while those things whisper as the background and context of the neighborhood, what has changed tends to shout. More upscale businesses Ñ Moonstruck Chocolate makes its confections here Ñ new construction of family homes and a proposal for the entire neighborhood to stop selling 40-ounce containers of malt liquor.

In the middle sit the police.

With progress comes pressure to keep the neighborhood from sliding backward.

'You bet we put the pressure on the cops,' said Ray Piltz, 70, land-use chairman of the St. Johns Neighborhood Association. 'We plan to keep it on them, too.'

The commander of the Portland Police Bureau's North Precinct, Cliff Madison, said he feels it.

'In a position like this, you want to help further along whatever strides the community makes,' he said. 'Definitely there's pressure. We have a real activist community base here, which has done good work that should be rewarded. If it doesn't work out, it can look like it's our fault.'

One of Madison's colleagues, Northeast Precinct Cmdr. Bret Smith, knows the pressure well. Within Northeast Precinct are the emerging neighborhoods of the Mississippi District and the Alberta Arts District.

'Real estate people tell folks they're moving into a hip neighborhood, and then I get calls when the folks are surprised because there was a gang shooting nearby,' said Smith, a former North Precinct commander. 'The neighborhoods do change, but they don't change overnight.'

Change in the Alberta and Mississippi neighborhoods has pushed some longtime residents with long police records to move elsewhere, often out of Portland, Smith said.

'But they're still commuting back,' he said. 'Their roots are here, their families are here, the market for what they do is here. Along with that, though, there is a real sense of Ñ maybe acceptance? Ñ I think enthusiasm and desire to work with the police from the people moving in.'

Scott Jensen shares that enthusiasm. The president of the neighborhood association in Portsmouth, just southeast of St. Johns, Jensen moved to North Portland in 2001 in large part for the diversity. Because of that, he refuses to use the word 'gentrification.'

'Personally, I hate it,' Jensen, 41, said. 'To me it means something racist, especially when you apply it to an area of diversity in the city. The biggest issue is career criminals, not aesthetics or longtime residents.'

Piltz acknowledged that St. Johns needs work. Because of the neighborhood's proximity to the Port of Portland and the Schnitzer family's huge recycling center, metal theft is a swelling problem, North Precinct cops say. Car thefts take up much of patrol officers' time. Gangs such as 18th Street make periodic appearances, leaving graffiti tags behind.

Target: toothpaste

Transients whom cops know by name wander along some streets. Possibly related to that, the Fred Meyer store in St. Johns reported $8,000 in thefts of toothpaste and hygiene products to Portland police last year.

'We told them we didn't think there were that many teeth in St. Johns,' North Precinct officer Terry Locke said.

For some incidents, there's no pattern, just reflex reactions based on traumatic memories. Police shot and killed unarmed James Jahar Perez, 28, of Northeast Portland in a St. Johns parking lot last March 28. A few months later, Locke pulled a car over on a residential street not far away. The driver immediately put his hands on the car's interior roof and wouldn't take them down even to reach for his identification.

'When I talked to him, I found out he had been the passenger in the Perez car who jumped out just before police pulled the car over,' Locke said. 'I looked at my backup officer and at the people gathering on the street corner nearby, and I said, 'OK, we have a chance to build some bridges today.' I didn't give the guy a citation, just some conversation.'

'Block by block'

Locke said he doesn't feel the same pressure Madison feels. What unsettles Locke is periodic talk Ñ it came up in 1991, 1997 and 2002 Ñ of closing North Precinct, considered by many who work there as the best-kept secret in the Portland Police Bureau.

'Other officers tell me they hear this place is terrible, and I tell them sure,' Locke said with a wink. 'Too many officers here as it is.'

The inviting brick building sits just east of the St. Johns Bridge, which Madison can see from his office windows. It has one jail cell, and its cramped lower floor Ñ the evidence room is essentially a converted closet Ñ recalls an old high school locker room.

First assigned here in 2001, Locke has seen St. Johns change since then.

'Yard by yard, block by block, you can see it,' he said. 'Yards are cleaned up, yard cars disappear.'

Businesses also crowd the area near the precinct, from a sleek tattoo parlor to the new Safeway.

Locke and his boss, Madison, hope to address the problem of chronically drunken transients by supporting neighborhood activist John Farra's push to make St. Johns a city-designated alcohol impact area, putting restrictions on sales of malt liquor, fortified wine and high-alcohol-content beer.

And perhaps even more telling of cops' interest in the area: Locke said he can think of five newer Police Bureau officers who have moved to St. Johns.

This is not Locke's neighborhood; he lives in a suburb southeast of Portland. And yet it is his neighborhood.

'Yeah, you bet,' he said. 'I have an investment here, too. I want to see this work out for the best.'

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