Is the City forgetting what neighborhood associations are good for?

Urban equity is a vital goal, and one that Portland must work harder to achieve — but not by destroying its pioneering neighborhood involvement system.

The City of Portland’s “organization chart” for the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. Is the top-down format inadvertently revealing something about ONI’s muddled priorities?

Last week brought an excellent piece (below) by Allan Classen, editor of the Northwest Examiner, making a crucial point about the current dysfunction within the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (as we have written about before).  That agency seems to have forgotten that there is a major distinction between neighborhood involvement via the grass-roots neighborhood association system, and the project of urban equity and justice.   And muddling up these two essential but distinct goals is a very bad idea.

Classen reminds us of the key role of neighborhood associations in securing Portland’s great urban legacy — a role that lately seems to have been forgotten, as some have sought to make them new scapegoats for NIMBYism, racism and worse.

This divisiveness is unwise and unnecessary. More to the point, it discounts the considerable value of neighborhoods in helping to actually meet our future urban challenges — as we discussed previously, after considering some recent wise words of advice from London.

Of course neighborhoods need to be more inclusive and representative of their residents; that’s unquestionably a fundamental principle of democracy.  But that won’t happen if neighborhoods are merely marginalized within ONI, in favor of other “non-geographic communities.”  The larger goal of urban equity and justice — a crucial one, as we have written —  requires involvement of many other communities, which in turn requires a distinct process with distinct oversight.  Especially given Portland’s racist development history, it probably deserves a separate agency altogether.

Cobbling that separate non-geographic function onto the neighborhood involvement system — and the Office of Neighborhood Involvement — is only likely to cause further dysfunction within ONI.  The result will continue to undermine and suppress, rather than respect and empower, Portland’s landmark neighborhood involvement system.


Prerequisites to Community
Allan Classen, Northwest Examiner

Communities are built by individuals committed to the proposition that what people have in common is more important than what divides them.

Neighborhoods and neighborhood associations are not necessarily synonymous with communities, but at their best, they embody a sense of improving lives and environs by cooperating on matters beneficial to all. It may manifest in matters as basic as the need for a stop sign or to remove litter— goals that may not save lives but which are welcomed by all regardless of political leanings or demographic identities.

Strong neighborhood associations hold elected officials and the local bureaucracy accountable, sometimes preventing colossal mistakes having multigenerational consequences.

Are you glad that the Northwest District is not divided by a freeway between Thurman and Vaughn streets, or that the center of the neighborhood is not a 15-square block hospital campus? Then you have the Northwest District Association to thank.

Portland’s neighborhood system was crafted by people who knew what neighborhood associations were about and why they were central to the vision of a vibrant city. That system has been weakened over the years and is now being redirected toward another purpose: incorporating those who have been socially excluded by reason of disabilities, immigrant status, race, ethnicity or sexual identity.

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and the new director of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement are making the new priorities clear. At her first public meeting, Executive Director Suk Rhee wrote out her top priorities—which she declared to be nonnegotiable—“disability, new Portlanders and race/ethnicity.”

Those goals are unassailable, and no neighborhood association should discriminate against members of marginalized groups. Righting these wrongs, however, should not become the primary mission of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement.

Organizations addressing discrimination today take a very different approach than those doing geographic-based community building. One seeks to unravel things from the beginning, while the other starts with the here and now. Employing both philosophies simultaneously would fracture an organization.

In the diversity-first framework, establishing community involves prerequisites. Before we can work together, there must be an acknowledgment of past sins. Until the dispossessed feel prejudice and bias are conquered, they cannot be expected to trust the broader geographic community.

Nations at war often extend the conflict by demanding preconditions before peace talks can begin. Only when both sides agree that peace is preferable to war can a settlement be reached.

At the Portland neighborhood level, inclusion-first is demanded by those who put the advancement of their subgroup above the success of the community as a whole.

This is not to say full acceptance of all members of society is less important than community building. They are different realms operating by contradictory norms, and they cannot be effectively addressed by the same people and organizations at the same time. Saddling the neighborhood system with the responsibility of first fighting discrimination will tend to weaken neighborhood associations and frustrate what they do best.

While it’s not their primary purpose, neighborhood associations can also break down social barriers. When people of different backgrounds come together for mutual benefit—particularly if progress is made—they become friends, build trust and in time share more of their personal stories.

I believe gay Americans won the battle over bigotry primarily by sharing their own stories and maintaining authentic friendships with straight people rather than by proving past discrimination was inexcusable. That may not be the only way to overcome, but it is one way.

When we emphasize our differences, there is no end to the differences we can find. Portland bars wanting to promote a night for lesbians last year ran afoul for not specifically including bisexuals, transgenders and a list of identity groups so specific it took 10 letters to refer to each one. Reed College protested a speaking engagement by “a cis white bitch” filmmaker considered unworthy of depicting a subculture she was not a member of.

When we create boxes, we can never create enough to satisfy everyone.

In the words of Rodney King, “Can we all [just] get along?”