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Creating space for community on NE 7th

Posted by on December 3rd, 2019 at 9:12 am

Block parties brought neighbors together on NE 7th Avenue in the King Neighborhood this summer.
(Photos: Kiel Johnson)

I had never hosted a block party and didn’t yet know how we were going to pull it off.

This is the final post from Kiel Johnson in his series about a neighborhood greenway on NE 7th Avenue.

As we fight for better bicycle infrastructure in Portland, how do we act together as neighbors in places where community has been destroyed by gentrification? 

In March, PBOT decided against designating the street I live on, NE 7th Avenue, a neighborhood greenway. For me, neighborhood greenways are about connecting a neighborhood by using our public space for things besides car traffic. I’d just spent a year imagining the ways these sort of changes outside our house could shape the life of my newborn daughter. My hopes were dashed. 

At the end of my BikePortland post about the decision, I mentioned I was planning a series of summer block parties along 7th with my neighbors. At the time it was just a vague idea to have a block party every Sunday on a new street of 7th. I had never hosted a block party and didn’t yet know how we were going to pull it off.

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Sometimes when you are unsure of how to do something, you just need to start working on it. We got free permits, some traffic barriers, and a large astroturf carpet. I connected with the group Portland Free Play for some items that kids could play with, and we found some free lawn chairs and a foosball table. The first party was planned for the first Sunday in June at NE 7th and Going. The week beforehand, my neighbor and I knocked on every door on the street, including the surrounding streets, and invited everyone to come party with us. For future block parties, we would use custom yard signs that everyone on the street could place in their yard. 

As soon as the barriers were in place it was as if someone had flipped a switch.

Many of my longtime former neighbors have memories of everyone on the street being African American. In 1990, according to the US Census, 58% of the people living in my neighborhood were African American. Today, it is 17%

NE Portland is an important part of the city’s African American community and I wanted to make sure everyone was included. I reached out to Ron Herndon from Albina Head Start, PCRI (which manages housing in the neighborhood), the Community Fellowship Church on 7th, and the Good in the Hood neighborhood festival to invite them to participate in the block parties as well. 

The night before our first party I was pretty nervous. Would a car run through the barrier in rage? What if no one showed up?

My fears were unfounded. As soon as the barriers were in place it was as if someone had flipped a switch. All of a sudden the street grew quiet, you could hear people instead of cars, and neighbors I had never interacted with began emerging from their houses.

 

We had so much fun. One neighbor brought out an inflatable basketball hoop. I had advertised that we would have a community slow roll bike ride (and since it was the start of Pedalpalooza added it to that calendar as well). With a sound system, we all rolled around the neighborhood and when we got back we had a community BBQ.

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My neighbor Linda Okereke and me.

This would continue every Sunday on a new block of 7th until we reached NE Fremont. In total, we had 13 block parties on different blocks and by the end everyone who came out had a stronger sense of community and belonging. By the end of the summer we had worked our way to the south end of the neighborhood, but people who’d been at the first party at Going Street were still showing up. “Sundays on 7th” as they became known was one of my most meaningful experiences in Portland. 

Some of my highlights included when a band touring from Iceland called Bagdad Brothers performed at one of the parties. Or when it started raining so we all gathered in someone’s garage (except for a kid on riding around on his fire truck). I hardly saw a teenager or adult staring at their phone. I mostly just enjoyed listening to people, especially people who have seen the neighborhood change. During one party, someone who grew up on that block was in the neighborhood and stopped to check out the party. He got to meet the family that currently lives in the house and told us about concerts on the back of his friend’s truck in Irving Park. 

Now, when I go outside, I always run into someone I know and can have a conversation with them. Community does not just happen–it happens when you create space for people to interact positively. We are already planning the 2020 summer of Sundays on 7th. 

If you are looking to borrow some items or advice on hosting a block party–feel free to reach out! You can stay up to date on 7th Avenue activities by subscribing on our website.

— Kiel Johnson, @Go_By_Bike on Twitter.
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11 Comments
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    Allan Rudwick December 3, 2019 at 9:26 am

    This project is awesome. Nice roundup Kiel!

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    SilkySlim December 3, 2019 at 10:43 am

    Love this. Proud to say my block in SE has similarly built a sense of community over the years (I’ve been on the block for five years, and can’t imagine leaving). I think the consistency is huge. Ours isn’t a weekly frequency, but instead focused on holidays. I also think the ad hoc hang out possibility is crucial. In our case, more folks put chairs/toy/grill set ups in their front yard rather than back, so it is super easy to see somebody hanging out and go swing by.

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    billyjo December 3, 2019 at 2:50 pm

    those pictures look like the poster for gentrification….

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      Toby Keith December 3, 2019 at 9:52 pm

      Yup, more progressive white folks telling others how to live. Insulting.

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      turnips December 4, 2019 at 11:46 am

      there is plenty to dislike about gentrification and there are plenty of reasons to fight it. but wise up: block parties ain’t it.

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      • Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
        Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike) December 4, 2019 at 2:43 pm

        You are right that block parties are not going to stop gentifrication. I would love to hear your solutions on what would.

        Creating space for neighbors to get to know each other and listen to each other’s stories seems like a good place to start.

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          turnips December 4, 2019 at 4:24 pm

          hey Kiel,

          my comment was aimed at those whose comments it’s nested under. I was trying to make the point that focusing anti-gentrification ire on block parties is silly, because block parties are great even if gentrification is not.

          you took roughly the opposite meaning I intended, but that’s on me. I apologize for the ambiguity.

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    John December 3, 2019 at 4:40 pm

    Glad I was able to come out for one of these! It was a lot of fun and I look forward to this becoming a Portland tradition.

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      X December 5, 2019 at 11:11 am

      I’m witness that a block party half a mile away completely changed the character of the street. That’s on top of any human interactions that happened.

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