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Taking greenway activism door-to-door in northeast Portland


My door-knocking partner, Kate Johnson.
(Photo: Kiel Johnson)

This post is written by Kiel Johnson, a local business owner, transportation activist, and northeast Portland resident.

Over the next few weeks, in their downtown offices, city staff will determine the route for the Lloyd to Woodlawn Neighborhood Greenway using a combination of personal egos, local political winds, community feedback, and hopefully, reason. Whenever the city wants to make it a little harder to drive a car somewhere they are always faced with passionate opposition. Trying to do it in inner northeast Portland, an area that has undergone rapid gentrification and change, is even more difficult.

I recently moved to NE 7th so this process has gotten a lot closer to home. Over the next weeks I am going to share my attempt to navigate this complexity and advocate for the route greenway route to be on NE 7th. Our society has wronged a lot of groups and as a white male I have benefited from a lot of those policies. Is it possible to address this privilege while also advocating for something that will be a big change for a lot of people? My approach is to include as many people and viewpoints as possible and make sure everyone is heard, even if I disagree with them.

A recent article in the Skanner News, a newspaper that has been vital to advancing the role of African Americans in the press, led with the line, “You’ve heard that Northeast 7th Avenue might get shut down but where do you air your opinion about it?” For anyone who engaged in the Williams planning process that line was a big red flag.

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Kiel Johnson.

My biggest takeaway from the Williams process and the Skanner article is there is a tremendous disconnect among people living in the same community and no easy answers for how to connect them. Everyone in the neighborhood will not suddenly tear down their fence, start sharing their butter, and do away with private property. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Seven years ago I was at a community forum for the Williams redesign sitting across from an older man who had spent his entire life in the neighborhood. He asked me why people on bikes couldn’t just use the sidewalk? It is extremely hard to come to agreement on something as complicated as road infrastructure when road infrastructure is your starting point. So instead we started talking about what foods we both liked and the conversation ended not with some new designs for Williams but with me inviting him and his wife over for a salmon dinner.

We agreed we could like each other.

Too often we talk about “community” and the need for “engagement” as if they are things that the Mayor or some bureaucrat in an office is supposed to provide for us. Nothing could be further from the truth. My biggest takeaway from the Williams process and the Skanner article is there is a tremendous disconnect among people living in the same community and no easy answers for how to connect them. Everyone in the neighborhood will not suddenly tear down their fence, start sharing their butter, and do away with private property. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

I hope to advocate for the NE 7th greenway route in a way that draws on the lessons I learned from the Williams project. I am not on any neighborhood associations and as a new neighbor do not have many connections to other people on 7th . I’m starting at zero. I welcome you to comment below on your thoughts on how we should approach advocating for things in our neighborhood and hopefully you are able to draw some inspiration from my experience. I do not claim to know the correct way to do this; all I know is that I need to do something. Hopefully, I learn some lessons along the way to share.

The first thing that needs to be done is to go out and talk to people. Over this past weekend I knocked on over 100 doors up and down 7th inviting people to an ice cream social to talk about NE 7th. I’ll share that experience with you soon.

There is a lot of pressure at city-sponsored open houses to get your point across. I want to provide people with a low-stress space to just talk with their neighbors about how these changes would affect them. I figure, even if no one shows up for ice cream I will have had some great conversations. It’s not as easy for my generation that grew up online to go out and talk to my neighbors.

Things are about to get interesting, stay tuned.

— Kiel Johnson, @go_by_bike

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