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Whatcha Talking About?

Do Neighborhood Associations Speak for Neighborhoods?

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If the streets are clear of leaves and the sidewalks safe, many Portland residents don't think twice about who's looking after their neighborhood. But as the City Hall office that oversees such issues like business growth and livability revamps itself for the first time in five years, many residents have begun to notice who is--or isn't--watching after their neighborhood.

The Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI) is the bureau that coordinates the city's 95 neighborhood associations. Each neighborhood association is meant to provide a forum for residents to tell city hall about their concerns, says Brian Hopp, ONI program director. But many of Portland's transitional neighborhoods--those in flux between racial groups and economic classes--are outgrowing the associations meant to represent them. They are, say some residents, simply not the right voice for their concerns, often emphasizing economic growth over issues of livability, and favoring future business-interests over long-term residents.

"The vast majority of associations are white, middle-class homeowners," Hopp concedes. "There are some, like outer Southeast, that have a very working class leadership, but the associations have a lot of work to build a more diverse network."

This split between residents and their representatives is important because the neighborhood associations advise city council on how to vote on certain matters, from whether a new business should receive a license, to whether social services in a certain location should be cut.

Monique Snyder agrees. The 54 year-old hairdresser has lived on Argyle Street in the North Portland Kenton neighborhood for 30 years. The area covers roughly 3,000 homes between NE Columbia and Lombard, and until recently consisted largely of working-class families; but in the past few years, many younger and wealthier homebuyers have settled in.

"Most of us [long-time residents] quit going to neighborhood meetings," Snyder says, explaining that people got discouraged by the association's irregular meeting times. But a month ago she heard through one of her customers that major sections of the neighborhood were being studied for condemnation. "No one here knew about it," Synder says. The proposed condemned area covers the blocks known as "downtown Kenton" and houses many longtime mom-and-pop stores. "This [decision] is the life and death for a lot of businesses," she insists. "You need to ask people first."

Worried about the effects of urban renewal on her neighborhood, Snyder says she no longer trusts her neighborhood association to look out for her interests. After a long hiatus from the association's meetings, she plans to attend again. "I need to be there for our protection," she insists.

Jerry Rust, the president of the Kenton Neighborhood Association, says the association was asked to look at the condemnation study by the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Advisory Committee, the group overseeing Portland's largest urban renewal project. The Committee believes that condemnation of downtown Kenton will clear space for newer, more vibrant businesses.

News about the proposed condemnation spread quickly and, after a loud outcry from residents, the Kenton Neighborhood Association has decided to step away from the issue. "We're going to have an open meeting, let everyone have at it and vote," Rust says. (The meeting is scheduled on Monday, December 11 at 7 pm at the Kenton Fire House.)

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