Friday, December 28, 2007

Slumfights '07


Originally published in The Oregonian on December 27, 2007. Photo and text by Jason Simms.

Things started to turn ugly on Prescott Drive about seven or eight years ago. Residents along the street in the otherwise well-tended Argay neighborhood in outer Northeast started seeing graffiti, drug deals and prostitution.

Valerie Curry, Argay Neighborhood Association president, says that until recently, she needed only two words to describe the street from 125th to 135th: “Trash everywhere.”

But now the area, characterized by its large lots, is swinging back, thanks to Curry’s determination and hard work. She forged an unlikely partnership between homeowners and the owners, managers and tenants of a row of apartment complexes.

Prescott Drive — parallel to Sandy Boulevard, which lies one block north — became the front lines. Homes and condos with clipped grass and trimmed hedges — much like the other homes in Argay — lie on the south side of Prescott. On the north side are five apartment complexes with a combined 648 units and about one-third of the neighborhood’s roughly 6,000 residents.

Calla Marshall, a 72-year-old retired schoolteacher, has lived in her house near Prescott Drive for 34 years and says the street was desirable for many years after the apartments were built in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

“It was just the nicest, quietest neighborhood, ” she says.

Then graffiti and garbage began to appear, Marshall says. She and other residents blamed what they saw as mismanagement at some of the apartment complexes. Over time, Marshall says, “it became a slum.”

Marshall says she would collect a bagful of garbage — food, diapers, condoms — every day, just in the area around her house.

Others saw worse. Curry describes drug deals. “They see me,” she says, “but they are so brazen that they just go right ahead and do it.”

Diana Brown, a stay-at-home mom with a 10-year-old son, has watched drug dealers wave passing motorists into an alley as though they were running a drive-through. A garage sale last summer also sold prostitutes, she says.

She and her husband, Jim, have lived near Prescott Drive for 12 years but didn’t notice how bad it had become until they bought a Pomeranian/Yorkie last year and began to take him on walks. Diana Brown now walks her son to and from Parkrose Elementary, which she says is the main reason they stay in the neighborhood.

Curry bought a home in Argay after 27 years overseas in the Foreign Service. Within a few months, she became president of the neighborhood association, then on the verge of disbanding. Prescott Drive, she says, was the neighborhood’s most pressing problem.

She sought to keep the area clean, hoping seedy elements would find it less inviting. Talks with apartment complex owners and managers were slow-going. She says one, who has since left, asked: “What do you expect for this kind of neighborhood?”

Tenants were often less than friendly, as well. She asked a man to stop cleaning his car onto the street, she says, and he responded, “The police won’t do anything to me, and you can’t.”

So Curry, Marshall and another neighbor began photographing anything — and anyone — they thought police should know about. They sought to foster cooperation, creating a neighborhood drawing contest and giving cupcakes to children in the apartments.

Over time, Curry convinced property owners that she wanted to work with them to make the neighborhood better, ultimately improving the quality of their tenants. “It was a gradual awakening,” she says.

It took the threat of a lawsuit over declining property values to get a couple of complexes to evict problem tenants and hire more landscapers, but the owners of the Melrose Apartments at 133rd and Prescott were among those who came around on their own.

Owner Livia Jurju brought in Alex Juarez, a 27-year-old single father from Florida, as manager in August. The last guy, Juarez says, “was getting paid, but he wasn’t doing his job.”

Now Curry and Marshall rave about Juarez, who collects garbage around the property each morning. “I care about this place as though it was my place,” he says.

The prostitutes and drug dealers haven’t packed up yet, but Curry is hopeful. Cmdr. Mike Crebs of the Portland Police Bureau’s East Precinct says he’s not surprised the criminals haven’t left, but he believes they will.

“It takes a sustained effort,” he says “to get good citizens out and about and drive out the bad element.”

Original blog post linking to the story before the OregonLive link decayed:

If you live in Portland, your rent or property value has undoubtedly been steadily going up since at least 2003. But one street in town, Northeast Prescott Drive between 125th and 135th Avenues, was actually getting worse.

Can you believe it? As plastic replaces brick throughout the city and prices rise on everything from rent to Tecate, there was a formerly affluent area turning into a slum. Now, as much as I love shitty neighborhoods and hope and pray that a little piece of Portland can stay shitty as long as I live here, Prescott ain’t the place for it.

First of all, the people who own homes there have been there for 30+ years in a lot of cases and there’s nothing worse than giving old people unnecessary stress by keeping them awake and/or trashing their area.

Second, this is not the cool, punk-show, free-love, I-can-smoke-weed-and-drink-in-public kind of shitty neighborhood. It’s the prostitute and tweaker kind of shitty neighborhood. And actually it’s not the whole neighborhood—just the one street.

Anyway, I wrote a story about all this and it was in last Thursday’s O.

Photo: By Argay Neighborhood Association President Valerie Curry. These row houses are located at NE 131st and Prescott and are one of the main centers of crime and mess in the neighborhood. While Valerie was giving me a tour of the area in her car, we were approached by a guy who pretty much looked like a zombie walking out of one of these

1 comment:

  1. Why did the guy who owns the strip mall and "Friendly Village Market" tell the graffiti task force to stop painting out the gang grafiti on the back of his store. He did finally put up a fence, but there's graffiti on the wall that's been there for over a month and his solution is to drape plastic sheeting over it. Why do the property owners of the 3 story dumps on Prescott Dr. allow their tennants to trash our neighborhood, sell dope and run prostitutes a block from my home that I've owned for 25 years. And finally, why was a woman on Shaver allowed to leave gang graffiti up on her fence for months before FINALLY having it removed. Allof these uncaring insensitive asswholes are running my neighborhood and property value down a rathole and I'm sick and tired of it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!