I moved to the Woodlawn area in 1992 a year or so after my father died. I had entered the 40-something zone and decided that I should become an adult and a homeowner if not necessarily in that order.
As a single person, with a barely-above-minimum wage salary, I didn’t have a lot of choices of areas I could live. At the time I was working at Jefferson High School as a costume assistant in the dance department. Part of my reason for considering Woodlawn was that I would be close to work. I didn’t have a car at the time and thought it would be nice to walk or have short bus ride to work.
I contacted a friend of mine who sold real estate and he hooked me up with an associate who handled the “lower profile” cases such as mine. (i.e. not much commission).
Veda was great and understood my situation. On our first day, she had about 10 houses for us to drive by and take a look at. We concentrated on the NE area including St. Johns. The first house we looked at was in Woodlawn on Buffalo St. A plain white house in the ranch/bungalow style built in 1927. You have seen dozens of them all around the area. A diamond in the rough, two bedrooms and a bath, unfinished basement and average yard with very little landscaping; an apple tree, an old lilac and a few sickly rose bushes. But I saw the potential.
We were able to see inside the house the same day and even though we went on to look at other houses, we came back to the one on Buffalo.
I made a bid on the house the same day. They were asking $33,000, I offered $31,500 and the owners accepted. Friends cautioned me against such a hasty decision. What was I thinking moving into THAT area? Gangs and crime. Houses LOSE value in that area.
I really didn’t have much choice. Like others, I had been priced out of more “desirable” areas.
However, I was excited about having my own home and as soon as I moved in I set about planting trees and shrubs and had visions of a lovely English garden in back. This dream was somewhat side-tracked by two dogs who didn’t understand the difference between a dandelion and a delphinium.
I must say in the first months and even the first couple of years, I had doubts about my decision. Woodlawn at that time was rather dismal. There was nothing of what you might call a core to our neighborhood,only run down buildings with boarded up windows and graffiti. A corner store that was a haven for drug dealers.
Even then, I had an active fantasy life. I saw the old firehouse and envisioned a live theater or art studio. I saw the old storefronts where we now have a bakery and pizza place and I hoped for a little cafe where you could walk to for a morning cup of coffee and the paper. Even then, who could envision the transformation of our street in just a few short years.
During my first years in Woodlawn, I heard gun shots almost daily or some reported shooting in area. And at one time I determined there was about 8-10 households within a block radius of my house that had suspicious activity. (high traffic if you know what I mean)
Gradually, I noticed that more and more houses became owner occupied. People started to fix up their homes. I saw gardens sprouting all around.
I joined the community garden at a time when we only had about 5 gardeners with 16 spaces available. Now we having a waiting list.
From my neighbors I learned some of the history of our area. My neighbors next door at the time I moved in, were Lydia and Ed Potter. They had lived in the neighborhood since the early 50s. They had been newlyweds when they lost everything including their wedding photos in the Vanport Flood. They moved to Woodlawn shortly after. Lydia told me that she remembered when Woodlawn had stores, pharmacies and all the normal neighborhood businesses that make a neighborhood. She remembered the rioting in the 60s and saw business after business shut their doors.
My other neighbors, were the Nickleberrys. They had also lived in the area for over 40 years. Their children attended Woodlawn and Jefferson. Mr. Nickleberry had worked for the shipyards but was retired when I moved to the area. For the first decade that I lived here, both of them sat on their front porch during the nice weather and we always had a nice chat as I walked by with my dogs. Mr. N was always working on some car that he was trying to sell or maintaining the yard with precision. Sadly, Mrs. Nickleberry passed away and Mr. N sold the home. I miss them. Sweet, gentle people who preached the Lord to me.
I discovered hidden trails near the Columbia Slough behind the humane society. I walked my dogs in Woodlawn Park. The parks department made a major renovation of the park creating a more natural looking area. Instead of drug dealers and dead bodies, families were using the park more and more.
I met Mr. Marbott of Marbott’s Nursery on Columbia who told me stories about growing up in Woodlawn and attending Woodlawn school. Of the Victory Garden that was next to the school during the war. He told me about the Japanese and Italian farmers who grew their crops along the slough and sold them at stands along Columbia Ave. He remembered fishing in the lake that used to be behind the Oregon Humane Society.
Woodlawn has blossomed and partly because, its time had come. We all want a pleasant, safe place to live. We all want to get to know our neighbors.
I have enjoyed the transformation. The new businesses, the concerts in the park, Trek in the Park, Earth Day, National Night Out. I love our community garden and the fact that we have one of few children’s gardening programs in the city. I love all the “Portlandia” types that live here with their outrageous ideas such a using bicycles and buying local.
I no longer feel a stranger here but I have have a sense of place.