By Andrew Arehart of Portland, Oregon. Andrew is a freelance journalist currently residing the Pacific Northwest.
A crowd had been steadily growing as the sun pushed away the mid-June morning's early clouds, and by eleven, the greetings and chitchat among gathering friends, acquaintances and strangers, volunteers and organizers alike had been fixed and focused into a chant: What do we want? Free soil! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? FREE SOIL! When do we want it? NOW!
Volunteers, led by work team leaders, and with musical accompaniment, were directed onto the lot at the corner of Williams and Northeast Fargo where they got down to the business of turning it from a parking lot into a little piece of paradise. This was the joint vision of the people at Depave, a Portland organization dedicated to the removal of unnecessarily paved surfaces in an attempt to combat pollution from stormwater runoff, and the lot's owner, Ms. Angela Goldsmith.
Thanks to the City of Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services, City Repair, of which Depave is a member organization, numerous local food vendors and construction outfits, not to mention the hundred and forty seven laborers who showed up to work, that vision was now becoming a reality.
The lot itself had previously been cut up into a checkerboard pattern with a concrete saw into sections about a foot and a half square, to facilitate removal of the pavement. Beyond that, workers were to rely on various digging and prying implements, including flat and pointnosed shovels, crowbars and prybars, the sweat of their brows and all the muscle they could muster. Broken and busted into manageable bits, the asphalt was hauled by hand, bucket, bin or wheelbarrow, including a rare two-wheeled specimen, to large metal containers, which were quickly filled to the brims and trucked away to be recycled.
Organizers ensured a steady flow of materials off the lot, and were quick to encourage, praise and remind people to pace themselves, drink lots of water, to wear sunscreen and take advantage of the gloves and safety glasses provided. By three o'clock, the pavement had all been disposed of in the haulaway bins, and everyone gathered for a photo together to commemorate the first step towards replacing it with a community garden which will include fruit trees of various description, berries, vines and vegetables.
The day's phenomenal success could not have been achieved without a great deal of organization on the front end. After all, when asked, most people want to "make the world a better place". Turning those good intentions into an efficient workforce calls for considerable resourcefulness, and thorough planning, and it was on this stage that Depave's talents shined the brightest. Portland City Council candidate Amanda Fritz, who helped at the registration table, has participated in over a hundred volunteer projects in eighty eight neighborhoods in the last few years, so she has the credentials to comment "The organization of the depaving event today was simply outstanding. Plenty for everyone to do, but not too much for any one. Healthy food and donuts. Entertainment and art...a safety talk that was inclusive without being tedious or belittling. Even sunscreen! If I were one of the visitors from Mexico, Brazil, Australia or Europe...I'd already be thinking Portland is Paradise."
This international involvement comes in part from Portland's participation in the Towards Carfree Cities Conference series, whose goal is to bring together people from around the world who are promoting practical alternatives to car dependence. Past conferences have been held in Lyon, Timisoara, Prague, Berlin, Budapest, Bogota and Istanbul. Next year it will take place in Brussels, Belgium. Documentarians Eduardo Green and Thiago Benicchio from Brazil and Toronto's Andrew Munger were among the many who came to record the day's events. This was an important part of the day's success story, as Depave seeks not only to execute depaving projects, but to educate and inspire other communities to do the same.
All told, the day was a beautiful example of cooperation and coordination, of a good idea well on its way to fruition. Asked about her long-term vision, Angela, the owner of the site, said, "If I live to be ninety, I'll get to see a fifty year old cherry tree here." That's something we can all look forward to.