Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Portland's "neighborhoods" aren't neighborhoods

As a Portland resident, I’m told I live in a neighborhood.

The map tells me mine is Hillsdale here in Southwest Portland. Wilson High School and the Hillsdale Town Center are at its core.

But with a population of 7800 and boundaries that separate Hillsdale “neighbors” by as much as three miles, we are living a “neighborhood” fantasy.

Worse, the designation of Portland’s 99 as “neighborhoods” is beyond fantastical, confusing and inexact. It is leaving us grossly unprepared for major natural disasters such as a massive earthquake.

My real neighbors are the folks who live near my house up and down the street. They are people I occasionally chat with and whom I frequently see. I know many of their names, but I should know more.

This is my neighborhood. If it is like yours, it consists of the 20 to 35 people living in roughly 10 to 15 dwellings. If you do the math, the Hillsdale community comprises approximately 300 such neighborhoods.

So where does that leave Hillsdale and Hayhurst, Sunnyside, Belmont, Woodstock, The Pearl and Hawthorne? They are COMMUNITIES, and we should call them exactly that.

The change would free the term “neighborhood” to be used accurately and effectively.

When it gets right down to the nitty gritty of organizing for crime watches, emergency preparedness and, yes, block parties, we do it with our neighbors in our true neighborhoods. We do it with people we know well enough to care about as neighbors.

The distinction is vitally important.

Recently I met with one of the co-chairs of Hillsdale’s “Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET).” The team has only 14 members, out of those Hillsdale 7800 residents. The co-chair recently told the Hillsdale Neighborhood Association that Hillsdale NET’s tiny numbers and our large “neighborhood” make “neighborhood-wide” preparedness impossible.

Note the repeated use of the term “neighborhood” above. He and I agreed that the pervasive misuse of the word stands in the way of grassroots organizing in true neighborhoods.

We agreed that if Hillsdale were instead conceived of as “a community” consisting of small, coherent and intra- and inter-connected neighborhoods, organizing for emergencies would be much easier.

Each neighborhood, with its own distinctive place name, would have its own local emergency cache of supplies stored in a centrally located shed. It would provide storage food, medical supplies and an emergency generator. Neighbors would pay for the shed and the supplies. The whole pocket emergency center might come to a couple hundred dollars for each household and would be a visual symbol of the bonds uniting neighbors and their neighborhood.

In January, Portland will have a new mayor. I urge Mayor Hales to put the words “neighborhood” and “neighbors” to proper use for the health and safety of our citizens and our city.

Accordingly, the “Office of Neighborhood Involvement,” which answers to the Mayor, would find that it is suddenly working with real neighborhoods through community organizations called “community associations.” The job of the former “neighborhood associations” would not change, but they would become much more at effective working with and involving a community organized by small, efficient, caring neighborhoods.

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