Storied neighborhood association looks to history for reboot
By Allan Classen
The Northwest District Association used to be the Portland neighborhood association, the one most studied by national scholars and held up as a beacon to grass-roots progressivism. NWDA stopped a freeway, killed a slum-clearance urban renewal project and birthed a notable neighborhood newspaper*. Its leaders went on to become pillars in city and state politics.
Lately, NWDA has become the weak link among a cluster of five adjacent neighborhood associations coalescing to address Portland’s homelessness and trash crisis now driving the city’s agenda. As public safety/livability committees in the Pearl, Downtown, Goose Hollow and Old Town come together in an unprecedented call to action, it is not even clear if the Northwest District Association has such a committee and who might be its chair.
How has the organization fallen so far, and what might it take to revive it?
The man elected NWDA president three years ago thought he had the answers. A partner in a major downtown law firm who was active in the Chapman School PTA, Ciaran Connelly pledged to build membership, boost outreach and attract a younger generation through social media.
Instead, a series of efforts to update the organization’s website and media presence foundered, and Connelly’s unflinching advocacy for initiatives generated by City Hall divided the board of directors, which has six of its 15 seats vacant after a series of resignations, most recently his own.
“I am not willing to volunteer my time to oppose initiatives that I wholeheartedly support,” Connelly wrote on his way out.
The initiative that broke the camel’s back was NW in Motion, a city program of 17 traffic diverters that his board supported only to a degree; it wanted three of the diverters delayed to test the impact of the initial round of installations.
Connelly had become accustomed to a role as dissenter-in-chief. Over his three years at the helm, he twice stood alone against his board on major motions. Helping his board find common ground was not his aim.
With that chapter behind it, the board is mining its history in pursuit of renewal.
Forty years ago, another NWDA president could not stomach his board’s failure to support his fight against a motel in a residential zone at Northwest 20th and Northrup streets. When the board voted for compromise in a close vote, Chuck Duffy resigned.
“A president must advocate for the position of an organization, otherwise he should quit,” said Duffy, who faults Connelly for dragging the organization down before at last doing the right thing.
After a nearly 40-year hiatus, Duffy is again on the NWDA board, and he is taking a hands-on role in reviving the once-renowned organization.
“We need to speak for the neighborhood and its people,” he said.
“The NWDA needs to do some boots-on-the-ground door knocking and talking to our neighbors about all the changes proposed for Northwest. If we energize the people that live in our neighborhood and can unite them in a cause, then City Council will listen.”
In the 1980s, Duffy worked for Mayor Bud Clark, one of the many Northwest District activists who later shaped the city. From that vantage point, he saw how neighborhood associations could set their own course and move City Hall.
“We are not powerless,” he said. “Former Commissioner Chloe Eudaly was removed from City Council by the collective power of the neighborhood associations. Without our standing up to her proposals, she would have been reelected.”
Portland neighborhood associations not only helped oust Eudaly, they united behind her opponent, Mingus Mapps, who won election while vowing to reform the city’s neighborhood program that Eudaly renamed and redirected to other purposes.
Duffy takes a lesson from the 1960s fights against urban renewal in New York City that destroyed neighborhoods: The progressive goals of government leaders can have unintended consequences that are best ameliorated when grass-roots organizations have a healthy adversarial relationship with the city.
NWDA’s interim president, Parker McNulty, will stand for election in May. He agrees with many of Duffy’s views though he is not a member of an old guard. He joined the board four years ago and is 35, younger than his predecessor by eight years.
“We have a guiding star and that is to support the community,” McNulty told the NW Examiner.
If a majority of the board takes a position different from his own, he will advocate for the majority.
“There is no monarchy here,” he said. “We are stewards of the neighborhood.”
McNulty believes the opportunity to help shape the future of their neighborhood, to influence development decisions and government policies, will attract good people to the organization.
“That’s the same passion that drew me to the neighborhood,” he said. “I think a lot of people will be interested in short order.”
McNulty offers a new look for NWDA in another way; he is a developer, making it hard to sustain the association’s reputation as tough on development. His latest project, a mixed-use building on Northwest 23rd between Thurman and Vaughn streets, is nearing completion.
McNulty believes the association needs to reach out to the people. He is contemplating creating a drop-in space where neighbors can have coffee, hang out and talk about common interests, perhaps even in his newest building.
Steve Pinger, who has been active in first the Pearl and then the Northwest District neighborhood associations for the past two decades, does not believe NWDA’s problems are as great as they appear.
“The NWDA doesn’t really need too much rejuvenation, but it does need to move past the recent distractions it’s been subjected to and get back to its longtime role of monitoring development activity and city policy,” Pinger said.
That process involves deliberation, compromise and advocating for positions on behalf of its residents, steps NWDA “has been almost consistently good at this over the last 45 years,” he said.
What went wrong, in his opinion, was that positions hardened abruptly, often salted with reckless rhetoric.
“A lay neighborhood organization is not a platform for absolute viewpoints,” Pinger said. “By nature it relies on everyone who participates to know that the person next to you is, in fact, your neighbor and like you is there to find and further a common good.”
The path for 21st century Portland neighborhoods may not seem as elevated as those of yore, but they still have a role.
“City administrations seem to have become less and less interested in what the neighborhoods, and the people that live in them, have to say,” he concluded. “But this is Portland, and I imagine that neighbors will continue to figure out how to lock arms and have their voices heard.”
*The Neighbor, where I got my start in neighborhood journalism, was founded in 1975 by future mayor Bud Clark.