Saturday, November 22, 2014

Woodlawn Park

A post here a couple of months ago talked about Buckeye Bench, a small art thingy (which doubles as a bench) in NE Portland's Woodlawn Park. I'd never been to the park before so I wandered around and took a few photos of it too. It's an irregular shape, in keeping with the goofy Woodlawn street grid, and totals less than 8 acres, but it feels much larger than it is. I'm still not sure how they pulled it off, but if the designers didn't pick up an award or two for Woodlawn Park, they were robbed.

The park also has quite an unusual history. The park wasn't part of the original neighborhood plan; it originated much later as a 1970 urban renewal project by the Portland Development Commission, as Woodlawn was historically a lower-income part of NE Portland. Their May 1970 park plan required condemning and demolishing 34 homes in order to make room for the park. Which is kind of an astonishing idea. You could never get away with something like this today, even in the poorest neighborhoods in the city. You just couldn't, and rightly so.

Apparently 1970 was a different world, though. The neighborhood association's history page says people tried to fight City Hall over the proposal, but you wouldn't know it from contemporary Oregonian coverage, which made almost no mention of any public opposition. (For example, see this 1971 article on planning for the park ). The only clue we get about this not being a universally beloved project was an August 1971 item in which the PDC was asked to reword a HUD grant request so that the money could potentially be used for redevelopment & rehabilitation, not just for a pure "clearance project" where everything in sight gets bulldozed. The PDC gamely reworded the grant request, but this doesn't seem to have altered the project trajectory significantly.

This display of media bias is not exactly surprising. Whether it's 1904, 1974, or 2014, the Oregonian's default position has always been to cheerlead for whatever plans the city's movers and shakers and power brokers have come up with. They do at least mention public opposition now, though they don't always give it a fair hearing.

One odd detail in the early 1970s news accounts is that the local neighborhood association (or a predecessor of today's association) was apparently in on the urban renewal effort, even teaming up with the PDC to use the park to sell condos nearby. Building parks to sell condos is more or less what happened in the Pearl District thirty years later, although at least they didn't bulldoze anyone's home to make room for the park. The neighborhood association's website neglects to mention this little episode.

Anyway, here are some news items relating to the park after it was completed:

  • A 1977 article on citizen participation called the park a great example of citizen involvement. Although I suspect those 34 homeowners might have disagreed, if anyone had thought to ask them. The article includes a winter photo of the park, with snow and a groovy 70s play structure, which probably doesn't exist anymore.
  • The 1970s grooviness didn't stop with the play structure. A July 1979 photo shows a group of kids pushing an enormous shiny sphere around. At one time this sort of thing was supposed to be the utopian future of outdoor recreation for all ages, which is one of those mysterious 1970s things that nobody will ever be able to explain properly. The photo caption doesn't spell this out, but I assume everyone in the photo is wearing corduroy bell bottoms.
  • The long-awaited condos finally opened in 1979. The article mentions the connection with the old "Model Cities" urban renewal program, phrased as if the project was already a weird vestige of a bygone era, which it more or less was.

Then the 1980s rolled along, and suddenly news stories about the park were all crime stories, no more kids pushing giant shiny spheres around. The 80s were a golden age of "moral panic" journalism, so news coverage of anything related to drugs or gangs tended to be lurid and sensationalistic, with ugly racial undertones. So take these news articles with an appropriately sized grain of salt:

  • In April 1980, the park saw a group of 300 unruly youths throwing bricks at cars. Police dispersed the crowd and closed the park. This was only about a year after the groovy thing with the giant sphere, so either the neighborhood changed suddenly over the previous year, or the paper's coverage changed.
  • A very early interview with a Crips gang member from 1982, which notes that Woodlawn park was part of their territory at the time. This was early enough that the paper still had to explain what the Crips were.
  • Beginning at some point in the mid-1980s, the park lent its name to the notorious Woodlawn Park Bloods, so that gang-related violence miles from here still ended up tarnishing the park's name even further. There were occasionally gang shootings in and around the park itself, including a 1988 fatal drive-by shooting.
  • A 1988 feature about gang violence in NE Portland talks a lot about the local Bloods, though it focuses more on neighborhoods to the west and south of Woodlawn. The article mentions a lot of areas that are quite twee and trendy today, but at the time houses were being boarded up and residents were fleeing the area.
  • Woodlawn Park Bloods members congregated in the park after the 1993 shooting death of a gang leader.
  • Violence continued into the mid-1990s, including a 1995 fatal stabbing and a 1996 fatal shooting.

Violence ebbed away after the late 1990s as gentrification began to reach this part of town, though news articles still referenced the neighborhood's lingering reputation.

  • "Investors reshape Dekum Triangle", 2009
  • Also in 2009, the park hosted the inaugural season of "Trek in the Park", the year they did the classic episode "Amok Time".
  • A recent controversy over idling TriMet buses next to the park, which TriMet wanted to do in part so drivers could use the park's restrooms. Neighbors found the buses loud and annoying and fought back, calling it "a slap in the face". The article continues:
    "It's been a nightmare," Matt Busetto said. Underlying the ill will is a sense the community was dismissed because of its troubled past.

    "There's a lot of anger that maybe they took advantage of Woodlawn," he said.

    Gladstone said, "We've worked hard to stabilize this neighborhood, and this is disruptive."

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