Ideas from away

Forget Yankee independence — try imported ingenuity
January 3, 2007 2:48:18 PM

There is plenty of energy in Portland to make this a better place to live, work, and create. Groups from neighborhood associations to local businesses to city leaders are dreaming up schemes that, while untested, seem — at least to their supporters — like they might be good ideas.

But we don’t need to make these efforts entirely on our own, despite New England’s leave-me-alone-I’ll-do-it-myself tradition. Other communities face problems similar to ours, and have come up with ways to solve them that could work as well here.


PICK ME UP: A way to help people + beautify the city.


Homeless cleaners
There are plenty of folks who could use some on-and-off work around Portland. Some of them are panhandlers (some are even the regulars, like the guy whose car seems to be forever out of gas on the other side of the Casco Bay Bridge, or any of the folks who ask you for some cash despite the fact that they asked you — and you gave — just an hour ago). Others have various physical or mental problems that make getting or keeping a job difficult or impossible.

And there’s plenty of litter lying around, from cigarette butts to food wrappers, broken glass, or winter clothing cast off in our “mid-winter” heat wave.

Palo Alto, California, has put these problems together in ways that combat both. The city’s downtown-business promotion association (their equivalent of Portland’s Downtown District) has hired a person (a formerly homeless man) to find and train homeless people to sweep the sidewalks, pick up trash, and weed and plant in public gardens, in exchange for housing, food, and job-skills training. The group, called the DOWNTOWN STREETS TEAM, has been going since May 2005, and has already contracted with the city’s public works department to maintain athletic fields on weekends.

After several months in the program, participants — who are selected based on their expressed desire to find permanent housing and work — are “certified” by the program as job-ready. Eighteen former team members have landed jobs, and several downtown Palo Alto businesses (as well as the usual government and nonprofit agencies) are actively involved in funding the effort.

Prima Vera
The all-ages “scene” in Portland is a sad joke. For years, youth-targeted concerts have been relegated to Sunday afternoon shows at the Big Easy and the odd punk/metal gig at the Station or Asylum. Outside of that, young bands and fans need to get their rock off in ugly halls intended for banquets and church meetings or give in to the only other reliable late-night option: Denny’s. This eternal shortcoming of Portland’s arts community not only breeds boredom and discontent, but the aimless loitering that gives kids a bad rap with their elders. It’s a depressing cycle of mutual resentment, and the blame lies squarely on a town that offers these kids no worthwhile venue to release their creative energy.

This isn’t merely a local concern, but one that’s repeated in small towns and booming metropolises across the country. At least one major city came up with something to do about it: the Vera Project was founded in Seattle in 2000, inspired by a legendary ALL-AGES VENUE of the same name in Holland. Vera’s dual purpose is to provide consistent and positive nightlife for city youth, and, more importantly, foster a creative, cooperative environment for young people. Aside from hosting all-ages concerts every weekend, the Vera Project is also home to punk-rock yoga and break-dancing classes, a screen-printing studio, an art gallery, and open classroom space. The Project is close to raising the $1.8 million needed to build a new home for these events and more, including a recording studio for young bands to record demos and albums.

More than merely a noble idea, the Vera Project has been well received and well supported by Seattle’s youth. More than 17,000 kids attend Vera Project events each year, and more than a thousand have used its other programs and facilities. Portland has an empty Public Market complex and more empty storefronts popping up by the month. It’s time to pony up, put one of those new condos on hold, and give the kids something to do. The next generation of Portland’s arts community will thank you.


MIXED MEDIA: Artists collaborate at Portland Artist's Co-op.


Street art, for real
The People’s Republic of Cambridge, Massachusetts, inspired by an effort from the Other Portland, has put art out on the street in an apparently successful effort to slow traffic at a dangerous intersection. Though you’d think those yellow and red lights would be enough, they’re clearly not, for us or for Mass-holes. A MURAL IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD at High and Congress streets could slow cars down, helping out the cyclists and pedestrians trying to make their pilgrimages around the Arts District.

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