Whatever you call the city’s oldest neighborhood – Historic Fairview, or Old Town, or the short-lived and unfortunate “Mature Fairview” handle – it feels forsaken.
Most streets do not have sidewalks. A couple streets, and most of the old alleys, are unpaved. Crosswalks are few and far between. There are no charming hanging flower baskets or street lamps or sweeping entry signs announcing you’ve just entered Fairview’s historic heart, which once held farmhouses and berry fields. It also once held the post office and city hall, until they were moved across Halsey Street.
Walking through Historic Fairview, a walkway to someone’s door or a sidewalk or a driveway will inexplicably end, giving the place an unfinished feel. It’s also the most crazy-quilt neighborhood in Fairview. You have homes built in the 1880s and 1980s, and they’re of every vintage – farmhouses to bungalows to ranches to a modern chalet, complete with a peaked blue metal roof. Commercial vehicles folks use to make a living – a big rig cab, a landscaping truck, a painter’s van – line the wide sidewalk-less streets that stretch flat into the horizon.
There is real history here. The Union Pacific train rattles through the northern edge of the neighborhood as it has since 1880, and the old city jail – built in 1915 – still stands next to Heslin House, a local history museum. There’s more recent history to see in the Pittsburgh Steelers yard flags and door mats, signs that people here made metal, too, when the Reynolds plant hummed down the road in Troutdale until it shut down in 2002.
I spent a few days in Historic Fairview dragging around my wagon and dropping fliers. The neighborhood can feel guarded, even hostile. Lots of gates and “no trespassing” signs and I spotted not one but two garden gnome statues with a middle finger raised along with the command “Go Away!” I was chased off someone’s property for being a Democrat. Along 223rd Avenue, a homeless man tried to steal my wagon. I had to chase him down the street.
There are real gems in this part of town – Heslin House, and the beautiful new Fairview Elementary School, and Park Cleone, a big, gorgeous place with a boardwalk, gazebo, and community gardens and a kid-designed play structure. At the eastern edge of the neighborhood is Divine Mocha, a sweet coffee shop located in the old general store run by Barb Sellers, who at 85, may be the world’s oldest barista.
There was a plan to revive this part of town, called the Renaissance Plan, that was created by the city in 1997. It was written with neighborhood input and arrived at a vision to make the neighborhood safer to walk and play in, as well as finding ways to build community pride and giving kids more things to do. The plan called for street improvements like sidewalks, tree plantings, street lights. It also called for alley improvements, “statement” signs at three main entries, stricter parking rules, and interventions to slow down traffic, like speed bumps and traffic circles. Finally, if called for programs, like planting the city Christmas tree and creating a neighborhood clean-up day.
Some of this work was done. The old city hall was renovated into a community center, Park Cleone was improved, and there have been a series of storm water improvements and some sidewalk work. New “Historic Fairview” street signs went up on main streets. But the plan never had funding, and most of the work was never completed. What has been done has largely been paid for with grants.
One man I met, James, is moving away with his partner and his four-year old. They’re going all the way to Ecuador. They never found the intentional community they were looking for around Portland, and it’s hard to safely walk places with their daughter. Sidewalks and street calming measures, I’m learning, really matter to people. They offer safety and freedom.
I wound up liking Historic Fairview and the people who live here. I met a guy, Frank, who has lived here for 45 years and was full of complaints about years of inaction on sidewalks and parking enforcement. I have come to understand that complaints are a kind of love in disguise. People who don’t care don’t complain. Frank loves Fairview.
And there is optimism here. I got a call from Claudia, who lives near Park Cleone, who saw my flier. She would love to see more community gardens – she has two plots – and would love to see Halsey become a walkable main street and would love more community events to attend. Her voice was full of enthusiasm. A retired social worker, she moved here from Portland a couple of years ago and would like more things to do with her neighbors, events or celebrations that bring Fairview together. She thought there’d be more of this in a small town.
I will work hard to improve Historic Fairview, and support and create events that bring residents together. People want to feel safe where they live and feel good about their community. With our small size, and committed leadership, we can do that in Fairview – and do it for everyone, no matter where they live.