City Repair, the local nonprofit organization best known for its painting of intersections in portland neighborhoods, began as an act of transgression.
Mark Lakeman and a bunch of friends got together and asked the City of Portland if they could turn Sellwood’s SE 9th and Sherrett St. into a public gathering space.
It’s public land, said the City, so no one can use it.
Lakeman and company did it anyway. They gathered the neighbors, broke out the paint and the cob building materials and the makings of a miniature library and a self-serve tea station and took a dull and nondescript neighborhood intersection and made a place (now known as “placemaking”) where people hold neighborhood barbeques, birthday parties, even weddings. The city council saw everyone coming together for a good time, and made it legal for people to reclaim public space (intersections) for public use.
This is an old story, told by dozens of journalists and anchorpeople. This process of public art installation as placemaking has been adopted by handfuls of people in cities across North America.
All of our cities have something in common, too: they were all created with the Roman Grid, an ancient device of urban planning applied to every city and town in the United States that helped make for efficient commerce (it also made things like surveying and real estate really easy).
While it helps semi trucks and commuters, the grid system also creates a monotony of long, flat, and straight (pun intended) roadways, which, Mark Lakeman (one of City Repair’s co-founders) says, block in housing in order to provide an efficient throughway between neighborhoods and business districts.
A graphic from Lakeman’s 2014 TEDx talk illustrates an outline of a typical Portland neighborhood. Each housebox was labelled with the occupation of those who lived there: a programmer here; in the next house a construction worker; on the next block an acupuncturist, arborist, and so on. A crayon spiderweb emerged: a network of people who live right next to each other.
“But what if we could meet our needs in our neighborhood?” asks Sara-Hope Smith, City Repair’s Placemaking Coordinator.
Part of Smith’s extensive work with City Repair (distinct from her day job) is to take people through a process of understanding what their resources are, and ask, what are your needs as a community?
“It’s taking local to the next level,” she says.
City Repair is currently gearing up for their annual placemaking festival, Village Building Convergence, celebrating its 15th year. During ten days in late May and early June, up to forty intersections around Portland are getting makeovers from their local communities. Who, working together with City Repair, have gathered funding and support (like a sweet 50% discount from Miller Paint) for the installation of permanent art, like the cob benches, public tea stations, and kids’ clubhouse at Share It Square.
For VBC’s evening events, communities will converge at St. David of Wales (located at 2800 SE Harrison) for dinner, talks on subjects like permaculture and radical mycology; panels and workshops from the likes of famed mythologist and author Michael Meade, and internationally recognized urban planner and author of Tactical Urbanism, Mike Lydon.
At night, people dance. Community activist The Polish Ambassador and Desert Dwellers will drop bass; sharing the VBC stage with reggae’s Clinton Fearon and beatfunky Joe and Sekou. Local acts like Entheo, Sol Nectar, and Johnathan Brinkley round out the music.
In the midst of Portland’s bubbling, rapid growth infrastructure (PDX was recently estimated to grow to 3 million by 2035). One could ask, what role does City Repair play in gentrification?[/half][half]“It’s confusing,” says Kirk Rea, Volunteer Coordinator and Placemaking Organizer (himself volunteering 20-40 hours a week), “because some neighbors of a site say the work we do is ugly.”
“Others have critiqued that if we install a cob bench at an intersection, a homeless person is going to come and sleep on it.
“They say, it’ll drive property values down!”
On the other hand, VBC will feature panels on Green Loop, an upcoming major overhaul to inner Portland.
The consensus is… well, you decide.
“City Repair comes on all subtle like,” says Smith, “we say, let’s paint intersections! but when you have fun together, it brings out another side of people that our culture doesn’t allow us access to. People bond and begin to trust each other, in a different way than work or school life.”
She turns her head away and smiles, as if she’s revealing a secret.
“It’s very subtly culturally subversive in this way of inviting people out for this fun thing, but creating an opportunity to provide people personal empowerment…it’s about cultivating an activated citizenry.”
City Repair, in infrastructure and action, embodies the commonly held belief that land is the root of all wealth.
“In place of official reports,” Lakeman says, “we’re about action. When we reclaim space, we reclaim power.”
Power dynamics is touchy subject, usually meant for the likes of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Arundhati Roy (not to mention conspiracy theorists), but Lakeman has a different perspective:
“We keep saying that if we can just reach and educate [the ruling class, the .001%], things will change!”
“Well actually,” Lakeman says, “the ruling class is sitting up there saying, ‘if the working class ever finds out what we did to them…'”
“If we ever find out what they’d done to us, we’d eat them.”
Lakeman understands that his views may not be shared by all. One mistake he’d made, he admits, is having projected his worldview on others, thinking they feel the same way.
“I’m always acting from a place of trusting people,” he says, “but it’s been a mistake to assume they trust me.”
In terms of acting against the system, he says, “we don’t need to break the rules so much anymore, because people inside City Hall actually identify with what we’re doing.”
“Indigenous people,” he adds, “are always engaged with their environment. Their powers of abstract thinking and social skills are highly developed because they’re always doing stuff with their hands, and other people.”
It may sound funny. (Go ahead; chuckle.)
“Native Americans,” says Sara-Hope Smith, “have a laugh at the white people who “discovered” America. It goes – ‘you’ve come, you’ve conquered, you’ve built-on and decimated this land, but actually discovering a place means being there over the course of seasons.’”
“Permaculture,” she says, “teaches you to observe where the sun and water flow; when things bloom, and the relationship between when things are blooming and the animals that come, and who feeds off this.”
“Who would ever know that the century plant blooms only once a century, unless you’re there that long?”
It’s tempting right now for many Portland homeowners to build an ADU in their backyard, and hope for a Californian computer programmer to snatch up the property sight unseen for some unprecedented amount.
“City Repair,” Smith says, “is about inviting people to invest in the place they live, to give it meaning. To ask, what’s the story of how people connect here? What happened before you came here?”
“Placemaking connects people to a larger rhythm of life; it grounds us. People end up staying in their neighborhoods where placemaking has been going on. Where before maybe they wanted to move. But they say, ‘where could I find this someplace else?’”
“When you really know the value of community, you know how important it is to stay where you’re connected with people like that.”
It would seem that the hot topics of gentrification, skyrocketing property values, and rapid growth begin not in City Hall, or in droughty California, but, hippie as it sounds, within our Selves</> and, incidentally, in our streets.