Bonnie Kooken spent decades working to preserve Hillsboro's historic Orenco neighborhood

COURTESY PHOTO - Bonnie Kooken sits on a bench in Orenco Woods Nature Park last year. Friends hope to immortalize Kooken, who died this week at age 81, with a commemorative bench of her own.A year ago, Bonnie Kooken celebrated the opening of Orenco Woods Nature Park, admiring the park she spent years working to protect.

Now, friends are raising money to make sure the longtime Hillsboro advocate is remembered for years to come.

Kooken, 81, died Feb. 2. A fierce defender of Orenco's historic heritage, she leaves behind a legacy of preservation in the northeast Hillsboro neighborhood.

Kooken worked tirelessly to preserve Orenco, a Hillsboro neighborhood which has seem massive redevelopment in recent years. A former company town run by the Oregon Nursery Company and named after the company's initials, the town of Orenco had stood largely unchanged since the early 1900s. But the community, now a major neighborhood in Hillsboro, has undergone major redevelopment over the past 30 years.

After a MAX light rail line was built through the neighborhood in the 1990s, Kooken began work to preserve the community's historic heritage. Kooken is best known for her work to preserve Orenco's look and feel. A tireless advocate, Kooken worked with city officials, and sometimes in court, to ensure that her neighborhood stayed the old-fashioned neighborhood which had stood for generations.

Kooken was the head of the Orenco Neighborhood Organization and the Hillsboro Landmarks Advisory Committee.

"Her purpose was to keep the history of the area intact," he said. "She has been the mother hen of Orenco, and been its watchdog. Had it not been for her, the historic elements of Old Orenco would be gone."

Kooken's greatest win came last year, with the opening of the Orenco Woods Nature Park, 7100 N.E. Birch St. Kooken and others fought to protect the site after developers planned to build 350 homes on the property. Kooken and the Oregon Neighborhood Organization — or Oh No — fought the development in court for years before it was purchased by The Trust for Public Lands in 2012.

"Bonnie was always leading us forward to never give up," said longtime friend Dirk Knudsen.

Developers abandoned plans for the site in 2012 and the land was purchased by The Trust for Public Land, which worked with the city and Metro, the regional government, to transform the site into a nature park, which opened last year.

Last year, Kooken attended the park's grand opening and officially opened the park during a grand opening celebration with Mayor Steve Callaway.

"You could just see her beaming," Knudsen said. "She could have gone home and said, 'I've done my piece,' but she was a scrapper."

At the time of her death, Kooken was preparing for another legal battle, this time against developers hoping to construct homes on land in Orenco she said wasn't buildable.

Knudsen has known Kooken for more than 40 years. He was with her during the grand opening of Orenco Woods Nature Park last year, when the pair stopped to admire a bench named in honor of local historian Joan Krahmer.

"Maybe they will get me a bench someday," she told Knudsen.

"I guarantee it," he told her.

Knudsen has established a GoFundMe account to raise money to place a bench in Kooken's honor at Orenco Woods Nature Park.

Knudsen hopes to raise $1,500 for the project. He has been in talks with city officials to place the bench on the property.

"I've never seen a stronger combination of sweet and tenacious," Mayor Steve Callaway wrote on a website remembering Kooken. "Kind and persistent, I treasured our friendship. When we broke ground for the park I made sure to stand by her to celebrate this with her. It was truly more than turning a shovel. She always thought of others first."

Should the fundraiser collect more than the $1,500 needed for the bunch, Knudsen said proceeds will go to purchasing Orenco apple trees, a breed of apple once common in the area.

"She was very proud of the Orenco apple. We want to purchase apple trees for the neighborhood, if we can."

Knudsen said Kooken's death leaves a hole in the community.

"She was in the middle of most of it," Knudsen said. "She'll definitely be one who is remembered."

Kooken had a hand in much of the city's planning for the Old Orenco neighborhood over the past three decades, Knudsen said.

"When you go to Old Orenco, you are going back in time. Maintaining that was super important to her up to the last minute of her life. The fact that we have a place that doesn't need to be changed in a world of change was really important. She didn't want her way of life to change, and that's why she fought so hard."

Knudsen met Kooken more than 40 years ago and said the community owes a debt to Kooken for her work to preserve Orenco's history.

"The things she was doing weren't about enriching herself. She never asked for notoriety and wasn't in the newspaper. She was interested in making rules that protect Orenco in the long term, when people won't."

By Geoff Pursinger
Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
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