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Tsuru Island volunteers 'plant' for the future

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: TROY WAYRYNEN - Ron Ture talks about the future of the Japanese garden.As the Tsuru Island Japanese Garden nears completion this summer, the volunteers who have worked tirelessly over the past three years to bring the space from an ignored, overgrown mess to a celebrated labyrinth are beginning to address the questions that remain for its future.

Answers to where the funding will come from to maintain the garden are just now being sought by the group, in addition to how to keep the garden from succumbing to the same pitfalls of its past, when it was a place that attracted drug dealers and homeless people, scaring much of the public away.

Recently the leadership of the Gresham-Ebetsu Sister City Association, the nonprofit group that controls the garden, faced some of those safety concerns when on Dec. 31 police arrested a man for vandalism.

Police responded to calls around 1 p.m. Dec. 31 and arrested Melvin Harris Jr., 26, who had been tearing apart features in the space. He was charged with second-degree intentional criminal mischief, said Kirsten Snowden, chief deputy district attorney for Multnomah County.

Ron Tore, president of the Sister City Association, walked through the garden this week pointing out the damage that had occurred. Lamps had been pulled out of the ground, pieces of a bamboo fence were thrown into the creek surrounding the island, and a water feature was destroyed, among the destruction.

A trial date for Harris is set for March 12.

The Japanese Garden, located in Main City Park, has experienced a renaissance over the last few years when the association took on the task of restoring it to its former beauty.

For decades, residents had been fearful to walk over the bridge into the garden because they could neither see in nor out from behind the plants.

“If you could have seen it - it was so overgrown. You couldn’t see out and so people wouldn’t go on the island because it was scary,” said Tomiko Takeuchi, a vocal proponent of the garden. “Kids were over there smoking pot and the homeless were not real welcoming. The first time I went, I didn’t even want to cross the bridge.”

Takeuchi enlisted the help of retired landscape designer Jim Card, who is credited with bringing to life the peaceful and healing vision for the land.

Every Saturday about a dozen volunteers gather to do plantings, clean up garbage or lay rocks on the pathways, but three big-ticket items have yet to be tackled: the replacement of the 40-year-old bridge into the park, construction of a two-sided pavilion for inside the garden, and clearing the “grassy slough,” as Card put it, which surrounds the island.

“When we’re talking about a garden of this type or stature, it’s never finished,” Card said. “It continues to evolve.”

To maintain the garden with plantings and upkeep into the foreseeable future, the Association is hoping to secure an endowment. But to maintain its safety, the garden leadership says it will rely on volunteers.

The association leadership wants members of the community to sign up for shifts to simply be in the garden, with the hope that an active presence of people will keep vandals at bay.

“The more we open the parks to activities and the more people are there the less time for people to come and vandalize,” Takeuchi said. “At Main City Park, there is no one there two-thirds of the day so it’s almost asking for it. We need to open up a kids program and encourage schools to come to us.”

Takeuchi and Card are even hoping to meet with Harris to convince him to volunteer.

“We would like to talk with him to help us understand where his thought process was and what drove this person to take this kind of action,” Card said. “We aren’t angry at him, we are seriously disappointed with his behavior.”

As the garden volunteers have been so focused on the logistics of the park — things like securing the right kind of plants or stones — they admit they’ve dropped the ball a bit on growing awareness of the garden’s renewed existence.

“You have to make people realize there is a lovely park here,” Takeuchi said.

On Tuesday, Jan. 13, Tricia Cochran strolled through the garden and stopped to chat with Tore, and said she would be interested in filling one of the volunteer slots occasionally.

“I love it. It’s so inviting to just come in,” Cochran said. “Even though it’s small, it’s peaceful.”

Cochran said she had wondered how the association would address the safety with the Spring Water Trail, where many homeless people gather, adjacent to the park. She said the garden had previously looked “kind of scary” and “felt deserted.”

Card knows the association will have to combat this view for use of the garden to bloom in the future.

“When we started spending as much time in the park and the garden as we were, the positive presence outweighed the negative presence,” Card said. “With the positive on the bigger side of the line, then the negative is going to go away.”

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