Conventional wisdom holds that people who rent are less likely to set down roots and build deep community than people who own their homes. The thought is that rentals are temporary, and renters more transient, so people do not bother to get to know their neighbors and build friendships. A community in East Portland proves this assumption to be wrong.
“People have lived here for a really long time,” says Amanda Leigh Evans, a resident and one of the organizers of a project there called the Living School of Art. “The turnover is low, because this is an affordable housing building, so people have lived alongside each other for a really long time.”
The Living School of Art, an alternative art project based in a large affordable housing community in East Portland was one of the recipients of Metro’s Community Placemaking Grants in 2019. Metro’s placemaking grants program exists to invest in communities that are tackling challenges across greater Portland, helping them build stronger connections to each other and the neighborhoods they call home. The projects funded by this program take an arts-based, equity-focused approach to bring about the changes community members want to see in their neighborhoods.
Programming at the Living School of Art includes an artist residency for artists of color and a lecture program featuring BIPOC professionals in leadership positions in our region. It also involves building active coalitions between the apartment community, guest speakers, and cultural/nonprofit organizations in the neighborhood. But at its heart, it is the fact that all activities are organized by and for neighbors, that has made this project a success.
“Our life together is what makes this work what it is,” says Evans. “And that is a strength that’s really intangible, and I think it often looks overlooked when we talk about housing and what I think housing is.”
The Living School of Art provides neighbors with an after-school program, in which most of the 40 kids living in the complex participate, and it organizes a women’s group that meets regularly – or at least did before the pandemic. The neighbors also came together to build a community garden in a former swimming pool at the center of the apartment complex. And they have brought beauty to their shared spaces by organizing art exhibitions in common areas such as laundry rooms.
Prior to the pandemic, the after school program met three days a week. Through it, kids study various contemporary artists and create projects of their own inspired by those artists’ work. Early in 2020, for example, a group of girls organized a sleepover arts project in which they met for several months to create an art installation in a common room where the sleep over would take place. It was designed as an immersive, real-time art event that would take place during the sleepover.
It is those kinds of events that have fostered a deep sense of community in the building. This, Evans says, has been a unique experience. “I’ve lived in neighborhoods in houses throughout my life, and I honestly felt more isolated then than now that I live in an apartment building. I love living in a place where I’m always connected to my neighbors and I feel a really strong sense of community identity.”
Read about the latest projects to receive funding through Metro's Community Placemaking Grants by visiting the 2020 cycle page here.
These kinds of connections, points out Evans, do not happen out of thin air. She credits the strong sense of neighborliness in her community to the fact that various events have been intentionally planned for a long time. “For a decade, even before the Living School of Art existed, there has been a person here organizing community events throughout the year,” she says. “These events include dinners and various gatherings for people to just come hang out.”
She also points out the importance of having comfortable and inviting common areas that encourage neighbors to spend time together. “Another big reason is this big green space we have between the buildings, where the kids play, and then the kids help connect their parents.”
The pandemic has, of course, changed things. Gatherings are no longer taking place, and even programming such as the after school program has had to be paused. But it is especially in times such as these that the strength of the community has become vital.
“Quite a few neighbors in our community have lost their jobs,” says Evans, “so it has been financially very difficult for a lot of people here.” In sight of that, the Living School of Art has now shifted into supporting neighbors who are going through hard times to find emergency funding and helping people connect to resources that might help them survive. And with kids being forced to be cooped up at home, art has become an even more important outlet for them. They have managed to continue to create projects even at a safe distance.
The neighbors did not set out to disprove assumptions about apartment buildings when they organized to create the Living School of Art, but through their connections, they show us that art can be a powerful tool to build community and neighborliness.