Portland needs more gathering places

Portland needs desperately to become revitalized by creating public places where people can gather and relate to each other.

That was the urgent message delivered last Wednesday night by Mark Lakeman, co-director of City Repair. His slide show and talk were hosted by a group of the University Studies faculty.

Human society desperately needs a sense of place, he said. Space is not place.

���Place is where you feel like you belong,���� Lakeman said. The neighborhoods, with their rigid grid system of streets, frustrate any sense of place, he said. He traced the grid system back to the Babylonians and to the Roman demand for control over people. Lakeman said the grid system, laid out in Portland and in every city west of the Ohio river, was inspired by corporate greed.

���The neighborhood is laid out for profit,���� he said. ���People live on square blocks, in square rooms. It all has to do with the economy of building.���� What humans need are more plazas or places, which he said stand for peace.

���No places, no peace,���� Lakeman declared.

He likened the yearning for peace with the circular mandala design explored by the psychologist Carl Jung. This design is found in every culture. The circular design encourages and promotes the harmonious gathering of people and their interactions. He saw the village as the model, where people spontaneously interact. Opposed to that is the neighborhood. People leave and return daily but interact very little.

Lakeman pointed to Dignity Village, the transient camp forced to move from one location to another in the city. Here he saw an example of a community configuring itself in a spontaneous circle. He would like to see the Dignity Village people build their own circular ���transitional village.����

Portland does have some genuine people places, Lakeman said. One is Tom McCall Waterfront Park. In order to construct the park, an entire busy street, Southwest Front Avenue, had to be eliminated. Another is Pioneer Courthouse Square. But these represent less than minimum needs, he emphasized.

���We have to have public spaces to have common ground,���� Lakeman said. ���Portland should have 500 to 1,500 public spaces.���� The neighborhood grid system has produced nothing but broken relationships and broken families, in his opinion. Developers have maximized profit by minimizing public space.

He compared the developers of cities like Portland with the Spaniards who conquered the Aztecs. Both were colonizers, and ���Colonists place no value on human life.����

The City Repair project, he said, is dedicated to restoring communication. The organization promotes the creation of more public spaces through citizen participation.. He was optimistic about this, saying, ���When things are darkest, there is light.����

City Repair already has created one example of the circular gathering place it advocates. The feature was established originally as a community tea house. It has continued to develop into a village-like intersection. Now called Sherrett Square, it is located at Southeast Ninth Avenue and Sherrett Street, four blocks south of the Sellwood bridge.

Lakeman saw Sellwood as a prime example of the futility of the neighborhood concept as contrasted with the village concept. Sellwood has an architect, an artist, an electrician, roofers, doctors and professors. Yet, when the day begins they scatter out of the neighborhood.

���They lack a place to find each other,���� he said. ���We need to facilitate the growth of villages within the city. Places where people can go to hang out and talk. We need to bring people out of their houses to meet each other.����

Lakeman described another promising project which helps children build tree houses. He saw new developments ongoing or showing good prospects in six Portland neighborhoods. This lies still far below the 500 he viewed as real improvement.

���We are redefining what is growth,���� he said. By his consent, that involves above all building relationships at the local level and thereby establishing common ground.