Wilkes activist Alice Blatt remembered

Learn more about this remarkable woman, who contributed to much to Columbia Slough preservation and outer East Portland parks …

Seated between Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, and then Columbia Slough Watershed Council Director Jane Van Dyke at their 2012 awards banquet is long-time Wilkes Community Group neighbor Alice Blatt, credited by many as a driving force of the organization.

Story and archive photos by David F. Ashton

Anyone who’d attended  an event hosted by the Wilkes Community Group (WCG)  neighborhood association, or by the Columbia Slough Watershed Council (CSWC), had certainly met Alice Blatt.

Born in upstate New York in 1932, Alice passed away peacefully at her home on February 6, 2019. Longtime friends knew that Alice was a pediatrician who had retired from practice to raise her four children – and took to volunteering with a passion.

Current WCG Chair Richard Mohle welcomed neighbors to the 2017 “National Night Out” in Wilkes Park in this archival photo.

“She was active in our Wilkes neighborhood, but was proudest of her work to transform the Columbia Slough from being a clogged backwater to a place of beauty, with thriving wildlife,” reflected current WCG Chair Richard Mohle, upon learning of her passing. “Because of her passion for restoring the Columbia Slough, she was twice awarded the ‘Spirit of Portland award’ for her efforts.”

Additionally, Alice also organized efforts to create Wilkes Park, Mohle pointed out, and she worked to protect the Wilkes Creek headwaters.

“Always defending people and the environment, she once sued the State of Oregon to protect a natural area off Sandy Boulevard,” Mohle recalled. “At the Supreme Court, she won the case, and now ‘Alice Springs’ bears her name.”

At Alice’s memorial service, held at her faith congregation – the First Unitarian Church – on February 23, hundreds of people came to pay their respects. The service included music played in her honor by the church’s Bell Choir, of which she had been a member for three decades.

Although since retired, at the time of this photo Susan Barthel was the Environmental Program Coordinator with Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, who focused on the Columbia Slough. She is seen here with then-CSWC-Chair Ulysses Cooley, at the 13th Annual “Slough Celebration”.

“I met Alice in late 1993 or early 1994, at the very beginning of my work with the ‘watersheds’ section of the Bureau of Environmental Services,” began Susan Barthel, as she eulogized Alice Blatt at the memorial service.

How did Alice get the response she desired from elected officials an others?  “It was as if her motto could have been ‘Poke and Prod, Gently’,” Barthel told the attendees.

“After plowing through massive reports, thick as chocolate mousse,” Barthel recalled, “Alice often asked, usually with a characteristic hesitation, ‘What does that mean?’; or ‘Will this help the waterways and wetlands, and birds and fish, and people?

“Alice believed in paddling on a waterway: In a canoe, kayak, raft – whatever,” Barthel continued. “She was the first person to get me onto the slough in outer East Portland. She pointed out how culverts held back the slough’s water flow, and she effectively advocated for bridges in the industrial district at NE 138th, 148th and 158th Avenues – allowing anyone to easily float under them.”

Thanks to the efforts of Alice Blatt, thousands have enjoyed visiting the Columbia Slough during annual regattas.

“Alice the Baptist”
On her paddling excursions, Barthel shared that Alice became famous for another reason. “Alice seemed to ‘baptize’ people during canoe trips in the slough. . .  And, she believed that magic happens when one gets on the water and sees neighborhoods from the waterway.

“Alice was a friend who taught me about the wisdom that resides in our community; about the necessity to speak up, to ask gentle but necessary questions, and to seek protection for our health and our hearts and our joy,” Barthel concluded.

After receiving the “Spirit of Portland” award in 2008 from Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, long time parks advocate and friend of Alice Blatt, Linda Robinson tells those in Council chambers of her passion for Portland’s parks and natural areas.

“Some people just find preserving natural areas in their soul,” Linda Robinson began her eulogy – quoting Alice talking about another parks advocate, Jane Baker, a friend who passed away in 2002.

“Yes, this sentiment certainly applies to Alice as well,” Robinson said.

Some of the quotes about Alice Robinson shared at the Memorial Service included:

“She always had a smile and encouraging word.”
“A persuasively pleasant soul.”
“A source of information and inspiration.”
“A stalwart supporter of the Columbia Slough.”
“She loved some of the most neglected and unloved landscapes, always seeing their potential.”

Robinson recalled how, over 30 years, Alice led various slough cleanup events, in addition to her other community involvement.

At the 2006 CSWC Regatta, Alice Blatt indicates the path to the outer East Portland boat launch.

Alice successfully challenged several provisions of the City of Portland’s 1990 Columbia South Shore Natural Resource Management Plan, advocating for a wider buffer along the banks of the Slough – and for a continuous pedestrian trail within that buffer.

“Throughout the 1990s, I traipsed after Alice, exploring nearly every feature of the Slough east of NE 92nd Avenue – on foot, and by canoe, visiting some magical places – like observing spring water bubbling up from the bottom,” Robinson recalled.

Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish conceded that the City had “fallen short” when it came to making improvements to outer East Portland parks – as Wilkes Community Group’s Alice Blatt listened intently, at a 2007 East Portland Parks Coalition meeting

“This exploration was fun – but it was useful, too,” commented Robinson.

Before and during the time Metro was readying their “Open Spaces” bond in 1996, she and Alice identified properties – leading to the largest acquisition, the 115-acre parcel known as “Big Four Corners”, near NE 174th and Airport Way – as well as others, such as Johnson Lake, Prison Pond, Wilkes Park, and the Wilkes Creek Headwaters, Robinson recalled.

“Finally, I want to add that Alice had the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. She stood up for what she believed in. She could be serious and stern, but always thoughtful and kind. She was always persistent – but she did all this without alienating others,” concluded Robinson.

© 2019 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News™


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