Christian Smith and Erica Bjerning are deeply committed to the Foster Powell neighborhood. They’ve devoted nearly a decade to it, and have no intention of stopping any time soon. We sat down this month to talk to this powerhouse couple about their projects and experiences.
How did each of you originally get involved with the Foster Powell Neighborhood Association? What inspired you to start attending NA meetings and eventually become board members?
Christian Smith (CS): We bought our house in the Foster Powell Neighborhood in 2005 and one of the first things we did when we got our internet connection was look up the Neighborhood Association. I sent them an email about how to get involved and within minutes Tracy Grotto called me back and was really excited to have two people with new energy. We’ve always had a sense of civic pride and social responsibility but at the time didn’t know much about the neighborhood system.It turned out to be a great opportunity to take a bit of ownership, find out what our neighborhood was doing and what we could do to help it be a better place.
How has the Foster Powell Neighborhood changed since you’ve lived there? What do you most appreciate about these changes and what, if any, changes concern you and why?
Erica Bjerning (EB): I think it has changed a moderate amount. A lot of the older people in the neighborhood have sold their houses or have passed away and the houses have changed hands, so there are tons and tons of younger families. We see so many people walking around with baby strollers. It seems to grow every year and as a result a lot of the houses have gotten cleaned up. We continue to have some issues with drug houses, but there are also more people becoming aware that they can do something to combat the problem.
CS: We hold a National Night Out party every year in Kern Park and each year we see more and more kids, and this last one was the first time where the small kids outnumbered the adults (laughs). It’s a really good sign because they’re families that are really enthusiastic about putting a little bit of effort into the communities they want to raise their kids in.
EB: One concern is gentrification. We have a pretty racially diverse neighborhood for this side of 82nd, and it’s also socio-economically diverse, so it’s always a question of how to improve the neighborhood, have it be safer, more aesthetically pleasing, and yet not force people out.
CS: It’s still marginally affordable; you can get a decent amount of house on a regular salary, it hasn’t been priced out like a lot of other neighborhoods that have gentrified really rapidly.
EB: It is super disconcerting though. Any two-bedroom or smaller home for sale, that hasn’t been majorly overhauled, immediately gets bought and torn down and has a house built in its place that costs well over $300,000…
CS: …So that’s going to be a challenge; keeping the neighborhood affordable and maintaining its identity.
What would you say are the greatest opportunities for the Foster-Powell Neighborhood?
CS: One of the best things we have going for us is the people. We’ve never really felt like we’ve had a shortage of volunteers or enthusiastic activists to take on leadership positions or volunteer to do things like starting community gardens, art projects, and neighborhood blogs – or cheerlead for the neighborhood.
Foster Road is one of our greatest opportunities. It’s the key to our future; to re-vitalize Foster road, to turn that into our main street. It’s been a major focus of our efforts for the last eight years or so.
EB:The Portland Mercado opening up on 72nd and Foster is also really fantastic. I think that could be interesting, complementing what the city is trying to create with the Jade District along 82nd.
This next one is for Christian. First, congratulations on the unanimous vote by the City Council to adopt the new Foster Streetscape Plan! Second, what was your experience working on this project? How did it influence your thinking on the value, or the importance, or the role of Neighborhood Associations?
CS: The Neighborhood Association was crucial. Without it and without collaboration with the other Neighborhood Associations that we partnered with, it wouldn’t have happened. This plan was one of the first things I took on after I joined the Neighborhood Association back in 2005. I kind of got drafted to be the Transportation Chair and became guardian of the Foster Streetscape Plan. It’s frustrating how long it took; you look at other neighborhoods like Division and how fast that street plan went from the drawing board to design, build, and implementation, while we still couldn’t get sidewalks fixed or new paint on the streets. But I also appreciate how politically sensitive it was; you have lots of neighborhoods that use Foster Road for lots of different things and you have to try and negotiate that.
As much as I’d like to think the Streetscape Plan is done, I know that once it comes time for the design and build there will be struggles over limited funds and what projects get prioritized, so we are going to need to keep on top of it until it’s all done. Getting it passed was one of many steps, but we’re definitely at the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s going to transform the whole neighborhood.
This next question is for Erica. As the Communications Chair, you were the major force behind the “I Heart FOPO” branding. What were the keys to successfully launching this branding effort and how has it helped develop a positive image for the neighborhood?
EB: I think it’s been successful because we’ve been able to develop a fairly cohesive look and feel. First we came up with those “I Heart FOPO” bumper stickers and decided as an association not to use them as fundraisers but instead to give them to local businesses to give away for free. I think we’ve printed over 3000 of them now.
They really have made the rounds, and it’s cool because the longer I’ve been doing this, the more places I’ve seen the stickers. All over town! Seeing that they had gotten some recognition, we decided to base our entire identity system off of them. We’ve got a unified color palette now and it all ties together.
CS: Giving things out for free to get it out there and spread the word helped.
EB: We have little buttons, but the bumper stickers have definitely been the most popular. We also had them printed at the specific size they are so they could fit on a bicycle.
CS: And it’s all thanks to Southeast Uplift’s neighborhood communication funds; those got us those bumper stickers.
Word on the street is that you removed fences between your home and your neighbors to create a shared garden and hang-out space. Seems like fostering friendships between neighbors is something you take to heart with both your personal life and your volunteer life. Was that your motivation for this, and how has it worked out?
EB: We bought the house next to us to rent out when it went into foreclosure and we tore down the fence between our house and it pretty much right away because the whole time we’ve been living here we looked at that backyard and… (laughs)
CS: We coveted it. There was nothing in it.
EB: There was nothing in the backyard. There wasn’t a tree, a bush, there was nothing. So we tore that fence down and we started working on the house and the yard and the fence between our rental house and the house next to it, which was in rough shape. So we were talking to our neighbor-
CS: – They had just bought their house around the same time. I was just starting to dig up the grass behind the place we bought, and I said to him, “Hey, this fence is looking a little rough and we might have to take it down… Want to just leave it down?”
EB: “We could build another one and split the costs, oooor we could just tear it down!”
CS: And he was very enthusiastic about tearing it down and leaving it down. So directly behind our house is a nice landscaped hang-out area. We have the neighbors over. We do movie nights in the summer where I hang a sheet against the shed and project old drive-in movies like Animal House or Caddy Shack. And behind the rental house – which, if we hadn’t bought it, a developer would’ve bought it, knocked it down, and built some giant infill house; instead of that, we have fantastic neighbors living next to us that we share food with and campfires and all that – is the farm, that’s where we grow our food. I built a greenhouse out of the old fence and our neighbor’s old windows. So where the fence used to be – between the rental house and our neighbors – we planted some blueberries and raspberries and some cherries so there’s a little delineation between the property lines, but everybody wanders back and forth and hangs out with each other. It’s pretty great. All the neighborhood kids invite themselves over on the weekends and play in the hammocks.