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A New Feel at New Columbia

by Pat Dooris

Bio | Email | Follow: @PatDoorisKGW

Posted on August 3, 2006 at 11:16 AM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 2:40 PM


The grass is green and the young trees with their green leaves are stretching toward the sun at the "New Columbia" development in North Portland.

At Mccoy Park a few handfuls of kids play on swings or sit under the shelter...or stand near the dancing water fountain with parents.

Across the street bare plywood with white strips of Tyvek paper around windows shows the building here is not finished.

People walk the sidewalks past the nicely kept lawns. Kids in front of one unit dance to the beat of a radio.

It looks like suburbia...its anything but that.

This is the rebirth of an area that was once a blight on north Portland.

"New Columbia" spreads over roughly 70 acres. 150-million dollars of tax money helped tear down the disaster that once covered this land...and is building it up fresh and safe again.

As a reporter I remember coming to the old development..called Columbia Villa. It was filled with run down buildings and poor, frightened residents.

It scared me too. Hardly anybody smiled...if they did it made me wonder why? Did they have a buddy hiding near by with a gun pointed our way?

I felt on edge every second I was at the old Columbia Villa...and I tried to limit those seconds as much as possible.

Columbia Villa was originally built in 1942 to house ship workers who moved to the area during world war two.

In the 1980's...crack cocaine and gang violence led the community down a whirlpool from which it never returned.

Police recall running gun battles here, a place filled with gang members, sexual assaults, drugs, crime, despair.

In April of 2003 the housing authority tore the place down 462 units scattered over 80 acres...demolished.

Now the Housing Authority of Portland is overseeing the building of 852 brand new units on the same site.

The difference in the feeling is amazing. Where mom's used to hide in doorways or not answer a knock at all, now they sit on front porch steps and watch toddlers in diapers play in the grass.

At the first sign of trouble 32 different folks from police and the parks department and the district attorney's office and social service agencies met to talk about protecting the community.

It didnt get in to my story today, but one of my favorite quotes of the entire meeting came from veteran district attorney Jim Hayden. He personally prosecutes crimes in the Portsmouth neighborhood which is where New Columbia is located.

He described how "exclusion" or "no trespass" orders originated with the old Columbia Villa and held up under a challenge that ended at the US Supreme Court.

And so he said, "when the knuckle heads are at the park being knuckle heads, police can exclude them."

The only troubling comments came from John Canda who spent years dealing with gangs for the Portland Police Bureau. As various agency members brainstormed how to keep the park safe by setting up programs for teens who might otherwise be attracted to gangs, Canda warned them they were missing a segment of the youth.

There is an entire group, he told them, who are not interested in your programs. You have to go find them and help them. If you do not they will keep the two police officers you are assigning here...very busy, he said.

A troubling thought for a new beginning at New Columbia.