See how a group of dedicated neighbors worked with local, regional and national public safety organizations to turn a run-down SE Portland eyesore into a community center ‚Ä¶
Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Neighbors thought it was odd ‚Äì the Wake Up drive-through coffee shop at 5633 SE Division St. didn’t seem to serve coffee; the deli didn’t stock much food.
This building isn’t in a seedy part of town. It stands directly across the street from the Atkinson School.
“There was no regular business here,” neighborhood leader Paul Leistner told us, “so neighbors knew there was something shady going on. Eventually police and drug enforcement officers started surveillance, sometimes using the grade school’s teacher’s lounge.”
The police and sheriff’s office did take notice when they observed the owners of the shop selling large amounts of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient of methamphetamine.
Eventually, the shop was raided and closed down, and the property was seized by the US Federal Marshall’s office.
Neighbors conceive take-over plan
In November of 2004, neighbors hatched an idea to turn this property into a community center. That dream came true when the building, renamed Atkinson/Tabor Community Commons, was transferred to the control of Southeast Uplift, the neighborhood coalition for the area on June 6.
“Southeast Uplift is administering this building on behalf on Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association, South Tabor Neighborhood Association, and Atkinson Elementary PTA,” Leistner said, at a clean-up work-party held at the building on July 8.
Pausing a moment from his chore of pulling out a broken sheet glass window, Justin Leonard, newly-elected president of Mt Tabor Neighborhood Association, he said that Leistner is great inspiration. “I’m here to support this effort. I think it is unprecedented how our community has come together behind this project. Collectively, we presented the plan for turning this former drug property into a community center to local, state and federal governmental agencies. With their support, we’ve done it. It’s going to be a community center; a community hub.”
Federal ‘Drug Czar’ gets first-hand look
At their July 20 open house, the old building had been cleaned out, painted and made ready to receive its first guests. With the trash removed, the building seems surprisingly roomy; and, with the walls painted, it is bright and cheery.
Representatives from the community, city, and law enforcement gathered for a community conversation led by Southeast Uplift executive director Cece Hughley Noel, as they welcomed John P. Walters, Director, National Drug Control Policy.
We asked Walters why he’d traveled from Washington D.C. to tour a little building in southeast Portland.
He replied, “This is an important example of what a community, committed to a goal, can do. I’m here to learn lessons of what you think worked well. We’d like to make this project an example of how a former neighborhood problem can be turned into a potential asset. We’ll show what you have done to others, who will benefit by replicating your efforts in a way unique to their community.”
Paul Leistner recounted problems at the site dating back to the 1980s — including drug- dealing, laundering food stamps, incidents of violence, and selling cigarettes to minors. “The most recent owner tried to get a liquor license so he could put in video poker machines, and perhaps nude dancers. When that didn’t work out, he realized he could get pseudoephedrine from Canada, and resell it locally. It was his undoing.”
Neighbors told Walters how happy they were that they could make this former eyesore and crime den into a place that will both help the community and improve the quality of life in the neighborhood.
‘Angel’ helps volunteers raise $45,000
These neighbors didn’t simply get the keys handed to them. Even with the back taxes on the property forgiven, they still needed to raise $45,000 to refund the U.S. Marshall’s costs, to provide insurance, to pay utilities, and to cover other expenses. Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services is working with the group to reduce potential problems created by five large buried tanks that remain on the site from the time the place was a gas station.
Leistner told us Pearl Bakery, New Seasons Market, and Mt. Tabor Realty donated substantially to the project, as did neighbors — but that only raised half of funds required. “Then, Brad Mersereau wrote a check for $24,000 to make up difference.”
At the community meeting, Mersereau told the Walters, “I considered this an opportunity to honor the memory of my sister, who died of alcohol. For the past six years, I’ve been doing a number of matching opportunities that raise awareness of drug and alcohol prevention, sobriety, and resources. We can do a lot to make an impact against something that is pernicious in society: Drugs and alcohol.”
Local leaders laud the community effort
“The federal government did something right here!” exclaimed Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Giusto. “This is a reinvestment that will help the community for years to come.”
Brian Santo, outgoing president of Atkinson’s PTA said, “With the school right across the street, it’s great to have this place for kids.”
Portland’s new Southeast Precinct Commander Derrick Foxworth said, “This is a good example of how community policing works. Working together, community members, businesses and organizations are reducing crime and fear of crime and improving livability.”
“This is the fruition of a public/private partnership,” added Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams. “Together, they not only shut down a meth distribution and stolen property center ‚Äì but also provided for a great community use. I’m really happy for the successful outcome of this project that will help these great Inner Southeast Portland neighborhoods.”
As the community discussion wrapped up, Walters finished by telling the group, “This is an example of how citizens can turn a threat it into an asset. In reality, it isn’t the government that makes us safer in our communities ‚Äì it is each of you here today.”
How you can help
There is still work to be done to finish this new community center. To learn how you can help, contact SE Uplift at (503) 232-0010 or contact Paul Lesitner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
¬© 2006 David F. Ashton ~ East PDX News