“Whenever gunshots occurred it was always followed by the rapid speeding away of a car. The thinking was to make it less inviting to tear through the neighborhood.”
— Matchu Williams, Mt. Scott-Arleta Neighborhood Association
The leader of the Mt. Scott-Arleta Neighborhood Association, Matchu Williams, says he and many other residents were “desperate” for help after a spate of shootings rattled their community last fall. They called many City of Portland bureaus, leaders, and city hall offices for help and only two of them responded: the Office of Violence Prevention and a staffer from Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s office.
“There would be separate vehicles just unloading weapons into each other,” Williams recalled in a conversation with me this morning. “In one instance there were over 36 shell casings left on the ground. We’re talking bullet holes in parked cars, with people inside local businesses, bullets in peoples’ living rooms. One time it was five nights in a row. It’s terrifying waking up to your baby’s crying because there are bullets flying nearby.”
In one gunfight in September that Williams photographed the aftermath of, people in two cars exchanged fire near SE 72nd and Harold at the north end of Mt. Scott Park. One of them crashed at 72nd and Knight (pictured below) and two young men jumped out of the vehicle and ran away before law enforcement arrived.
“So as a neighborhood, we desperately needed something — anything — to happen.”
Williams found a sympathetic ear from Andre Miller, a staffer in Commissioner Hardesty’s office with the title — community justice organizer — that seems perfectly suited to the task. Focused on what Williams calls “preventative community investments” he and other neighbors began to share their ideas for what might lead to a safer community.
“Andre Miller from Hardesty’s office was really working behind the scenes to collaborate with Parks & Rec, the Office of Civic Life, and Office of Violence Prevention to come up with a multi-bureau approach based on our requests,” said Williams.
Williams is no stranger to community activism. You might recall his name from volunteering he’s done with Bike Loud PDX. In 2019 he organized a memorial event for Lou Battams who was killed while walking across SE Foster Road.
A set of relatively limited and quick actions began to emerge from neighbors (among whom, Williams noted, were several Black families). They included better street lighting, traffic calming, and crosswalks in addition to more public events to keep the park full of people.
“Our moonshot,” Williams said, “was closing the slip lane at Arleta Triangle on SE 72nd and Woodstock.”
In October the fruits of all this organizing hit the streets when the City of Portland — led by Commissioner Hardesty’s transportation bureau — began a three-month pilot project aimed at tamping down the violence. It included 18 orange barrels at intersections throughout the neighborhood, enhanced patrols from police and park rangers, and other measures residents had requested.
Some Portlanders scoffed at the idea that street-level interventions like orange plastic barrels would be used to address gun violence. But one thing that has become clear through this pilot is that traffic violence and gun violence often go hand-in-hand.
According to Williams, “Whenever gunshots occurred it was always followed by the rapid speeding away of a car. The two were not separate.” The thinking with the barrels was to make it “less inviting for people to think they can just tear through the neighborhood.”
Plastic barrels alone don’t prevent violence, but they are a clear symbol of authority and can create a sense of accountability. Williams said once the barrels went down “It was like night and day.” After it felt like shootings rang out every night, he said he counted five weeks without hearing any.
“It was a huge sense of relief,” Williams said. “I don’t know if the barrels were the reason why, but we were feeling the positive benefits.”
Another thing the community did was to host more events at the park and Tremont Evangelical Church across the street from Arleta Triangle. There was also a community market with local BIPOC artists and vendors. It was an intentional strategy to not just put more eyes on the street, but to engage young people in the neighborhood with something to do other than speed around in their cars and settle scores. “It was about activating the space. Giving more space for people to gather outside, to celebrate, and collaborate together.”
Now Williams says neighbors are coming to him and asking for more robust infrastructure like concrete traffic diverters and speed bumps. They especially want PBOT to do more to calm driving traffic on SE 72nd.
I’ve read comments from some folks who think this is all just political posturing from a re-election focused Commissioner Hardesty. I asked Williams what he and other folks in Mt. Scott-Arleta think about her:
“The people on the ground who are actually involved in talking about what we can do are just honestly grateful and impressed by her and her staff’s interactions with the neighborhood. I think the tangible results really exemplify what a public city government should and can be and we hope that this kind of action can be brought to other neighborhoods throughout the city, to create spaces for people to gather safely and feel confident in their neighborhood.”
I was struck how Williams’ account jibed with what Commissioner Hardesty told me about this project when I asked her about it in December. “I think the most important thing is that the neighborhood came together, identified a problem, and then they reached out to my office and said, ‘We think if we did X, Y, Z, it would actually calm the neighborhood and people would feel safer’,” she said.
Williams, other Mt. Scott-Arleta residents, and Commissioner Hardesty all see this just as phase one of a long-term project. There will be intersection paintings and more community events in the coming year.
As for the “moonshot” of turning the slip-lane at SE 72nd and Woodstock into a public plaza? Hardesty released plans this week to do just that. Hardesty has called for safe, carfree spaces in every community, so the move is perfectly in line with that goal. It’s all part of what her office calls a “holistic violence mitigation effort” that we’ll hopefully see expanded and implemented in other neighborhoods citywide.