Saturday, June 09, 2007

Neighbors as Strangers

Twelve strangers attended last Wednesday’s monthly Hillsdale Neighborhood Associations meeting.

And that’s a problem, because these “strangers” are also neighbors. At least they live in what we call the “Hillsdale Neighborhood.” All of them live on SW 29th Avenue. To one another, they are real neighbors. That’s the tip-off about why they were at Wednesday’s meeting at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church.

You see, there’s a problem on SW 29th. I’ll get to that in a moment.

SW 29th is down the hill and about a quarter mile from my house. That’s really not that far away except I never have occasion to walk on the little street, which runs straight up the slope between busy Sunset Boulevard and Hamilton Street.

In the larger scheme of geography, we are relatively near each other, in the northwest “corner” of the Hillsdale. The southwest corner of the “Hillsdale neighborhood” is a good three miles away.

So you see how these “neighbors” might be strangers at the Hillsdale Neighborhood Association meeting.

Another reason they are strangers is that they had never before attended an association meeting. They never felt a need to, until now. For most of us “neighbors,” the neighborhood association only becomes important when something goes wrong.

We’re blessed, and paradoxically, cursed, because so little does go wrong.

This sudden appearance of “neighborhood strangers” or, if you will, “strange neighbors,” has happened before, and unless things change drastically, will happen again. Ten years ago, attendance at neighborhood associations throughout Southwest Portland exploded when city planners announced they wanted to increase zoning density here indiscriminately.

But that was then and this is now. We more or less won that fight with City Hall. Now only a few of those once irate neighbors are still involved in their neighborhood associations. Most have gone back to, well, doing whatever they did before.

Back to the crisis on SW 29th Avenue. To shrewd property owners, there’s money to be made out of the street’s deep lots. So a couple, relatively new to the street, wants to divide their lot by creating a “flag” lot where they can build an additional house. Current zoning allows them to do just that, never mind the feelings of neighbors, who are concerned about handling run-off (see photo), changes to “the character of the neighborhood” and managing increased traffic and parking on their crumbling narrow street.

What to do? Someone told the 29th Street neighbors that perhaps the Neighborhood Association could help.

Even as we regulars (I’m a board member) supported the neighbors’ concerns and agreed to send a letter to City officials, we told the group not to get its expectations up. Yes, the neighborhood can ask for an appeal of a land-use decision to a hearings officer. And yes, we can raise their concerns about environmental impacts etc. But if the developers are abiding by the rules, neighbors should prepare to suck up a land-use loss.

It’s no good showing up at the neighborhood association after a development is in the works. The approach should be to anticipate the problem – any problem (count’em) and demand code changes. (That’s not easy. City officials are equally notorious about failing to be proactive).

The need for prevention is hardly a great motivator. Witness everything from our failure to prepare for natural disasters to our planet-destroying lifestyles. Who, after all, is showing up at the Earth’s neighborhood association? Or make that plural: the Earth’s neighborhood associations?

Which takes us back to the problems of size. The folks on SW 29th Avenue need their own neighborhood and their own neighborhood association. They know where they live – their place — better than we do. What we share is a conglomeration of places called “Hillsdale,” which itself should be an autonomous township or a village or a community. But not a neighborhood.

The folks on SW 29th also need the power over the destiny of their place.

Before that can happen, we all need attend Hillsdale Neighborhood Association meetings, routinely (monthly), and use them as the forum and lobbying force for returning power to neighborhoods, real neighborhoods.

Ones where “neighbors” are neighbors, not strangers.

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