It’s rare that a sitting Portland city commissioner will dance at a public event. Rarer still when it’s in the middle of what used to be a street known for regular shootings and traffic-related violence.
But that’s exactly what happened Thursday night in the Mt. Scott-Arleta neighborhood as Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty joined neighborhood leaders to celebrate the opening of Arleta Triangle Square (yes that’s what they call it) — a permanent plaza and community space that has sprung up in the former slip-lane of SE Woodstock at 72nd.
As we’ve chronicled since October 2021, people who live near Mt. Scott Park lived in fear of regular gun violence — much of it involving reckless driving. They got together and pressured City Hall to do something about it and found a champion in Commissioner Hardesty, whose interests in non-police public safety efforts, love of neighborhood organizing, and leadership of the transportation bureau proved to be a perfect combination.
Hardesty and neighborhood leaders like Matchu Williams and Nadine Salama put together a multi-pronged approach that — judging by all the smiles and happy people at Thursday’s party — has worked wonders.
“This slip lane right here was being used for drive-bys and a lot of violent activities,” Salama shared with me as she applied face painting to one of the many little kids at the event. Salama said they knew from the start a different approach would be needed because the problem was so complex and multi-layered. “We worked with the church to close their parking lot, we worked with Commissioner Hardesty’s office to get the [traffic] barrels down to slow down traffic, and now this plaza, it’s just so wonderful. I’m so grateful.”
The effort also included more patrols by Portland Parks rangers and police officers. But the centerpiece is the Arleta Triangle plaza.
Painted with a vibrant rainbow of colors, the new plaza has a permanent stage on one end, and large, colorful concrete planters at the edges. The site design was donated by Portland-based Bora Architects and Anderson Construction gifted installation of the furniture, benches, and stage. Central City Concern coordinated hundreds of volunteers to paint the pavement. Those are just a few of the many organizations who’ve contributed.
Commissioner Hardesty told me that because of all the partnerships, the City of Portland paid just $30,000 for the entire plaza project. PBOT has already secured an $800,000 federal grant to do 2-3 similar projects. “But I think we can do significantly more than three of these if we continue to build the partnerships that made this happen,” Hardesty said.
When Hardesty first became PBOT commissioner in January 2021 she voiced support for carfree spaces like this one all over Portland. Last night she called the Arleta example a “community space that the community owns.” “This is about thinking of community safety in a way that’s different than just ‘law and order’ and this is a good example of community being in the lead and government being responsive, listening and trying something different,” she said as I tried to hear her over the Bollywood beats of DJ Prashant. “I didn’t know if it would work, but it was worth the effort to try it.”
Has it actually worked? There are a lot of skeptics.
I put that question to Salama, who lives within earshot of the plaza. She mentioned data that showed a clear decrease in gun violence after the effort began. She also said, “All I know is we went from a summer where we had 14 shootings in one month and then 10 the following month, to this summer where we’ve had barely any at all. And everything feels safer.”
A big part of it is just being present and together. “We’re utilizing our spaces in a positive way. We’re occupying this space,” Salama added. “It’s encouraging other people to come out, to go walking, to come to the park.”
And it’s encouraging people to dance.
We can’t wait to see more plazas like this spring up all over Portland!