What makes a neighborhood?

What makes a neighborhood? This is a recurring theme in this column. Typically it is about “imports” of low-income and special needs populations from the parts of the city who refuse to accommodate them in their own neighborhoods. At times it is about new construction that ignores the historic character of Eliot simply to express an architect’s ego or a developer’s greed. Almost always, it is preaching to a powerless choir because the City refuses to take the complaints of inner-N/NE seriously.

There have been some successes in Irvington however and I am trying to network with folks there and other eastside neighborhoods to come up with a united front for dealing with the pending Portland Plan. The outline of our position is slowly coming together. It is based on accepting that growth, infill, and change will occur, but that it should be better integrated into the existing neighborhood fabric than almost all of it has been to date. This has been a difficult case to make under current design guidelines mostly because developers have cowed the city into watering down design review because they (developers) think it is “too subjective” and they can’t figure out what is and isn’t allowed.

What has emerged in some of the recent cases is a need for new projects to engage with the neighborhood. For example, most of the older homes in Eliot and Irvington have front yards, porches and driveways the let you and your neighbors see each other. That facilitates conversation and a sense of belonging and caring. It is also well established that it deters crime and provides good models for our children and new immigrants; however almost all new infill is a zero-lot line box with a garage hidden behind. The occupants drive home and never see a neighbor. Porches, if there are any, are two or three floors up where the new residents can stay hidden while they spy on long time residents.

There are also elements that make a neighborhood unique. In Irvington it is the gracious homes and lawns. In Eliot it is the deep lots (for gardens) fronted by small homes oriented towards the streetcar lines that use to exist to transport working-class residents around town. In Eliot’s core residential areas it is the old homes that are reminders of a time when Eliot was the heart of the independent city of Albina in the 1800s and in the early 1900s when it was the heart of Portland’s black community. Hopefully City planners feel these are virtues worth protecting otherwise they will almost certainly be lost in the next few decades.

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