In a few weeks, the grass will die at the St. Johns Woods apartments in North Portland. Without a budget for sprinklers or summertime watering, a brown moat will spread around each of the two-story buildings, where about 350 residents live. All of them qualify for federal Section 8 housing assistance.
There is also a chain-link fence surrounding the apartments, a more significant symbol of the Woods' unfortunate distinction. If you went in search of the most dangerous place to live in Portland, this might be it.
According to Portland Police Bureau statistics, the 8550 block of North Columbia Boulevard, which encompasses St. Johns Woods and the neighboring Pier Park Apartments, accounts for the largest number of violent crimes of any residential location in Portland.
Statistics are not necessarily the best way to measure danger. Portland police say the residential areas along Southeast 82nd Avenue or Northeast Killingsworth Street, which rank lower on the list, see as much disruption and trauma as the 8550 block of North Columbia.
And compared to the housing projects of Chicago or New York, St. Johns Woods and Pier Park hardly measure up to stereotypes of crime associated with urban poverty and segregation. This tree-dotted expanse of well-kept brown buildings and sticky blacktop sits near Pier Park, just blocks from the quaint shops of downtown St. Johns. Tucked behind the browning lawns, three gardens produce enough strawberries, zucchini and kale to stock the kitchens of 30 families and 50 children who till the soil.
There have been no homicides here in the past three years. Police say crime here has begun to decline.
With the approach of summer, a time when calls to police usually rise, WW spent a week talking to residents about crime. Some families arm themselves, and many refuse to go outside at night. Others speak openly of racial tension. Children have incorporated the fear of crime into their imaginations.
But people here do not feel unsafe all of the time.
During the day, parents let young children, barely out of diapers, wander around unsupervised. People often told us that safety has a lot to do with whether you let fear take over. Teenagers and young men said the police exaggerate what happens in the Woods. "Ain't nothing big going on down here," one said.
We asked six residents and an apartment manager the same questions: What do you like about living here? Do you feel safe? How does crime affect the way you live?
Here are their answers:
Asha Gebibo 56 (she thinks) St. Johns Woods
Gebibo is the manager of the apartment complex's urban gardening program. Most afternoons, she can be found on her hands and knees in the garden, her hennaed toes peeking out from leather sandals.
Gebibo moved to Portland in 1999. Before that, she lived in a refugee camp in Kenya. She had served several months in an Ethiopian prison because of her political organizing among her ethnic group, the Oromo. If she could live anywhere, it would be in a changed Ethiopia. But within the confines of the current political reality, she says, there is no better place than St. Johns Woods.
"My country no good," she says. "I no come America, I no living life."
Asked about her personal experience with crime in St. Johns Woods, Gebibo says she feels very safe.
"I'm living here five years and nothing," she says, adding that she occasionally hears things, like a ripple of gunshots in the night. She rolls her R's dramatically to replicate the sound.
Tera Couchman, from the gardening program, is standing nearby, and interjects that Gebibo was in the garden last year when a man ran through the complex, firing a gun behind him without looking.
Paul Watson 29 St. Johns Woods
Inside Apartment 19, Watson is packing. He and his girlfriend, her two daughters, and his little girl are moving out. Next week, they'll load clothes, toys and furniture into his van and relocate to New Columbia Villa, another subsidized Portland housing project that, they hope, will be less dangerous. Watson quit his job in medical transportation last year after complications from back surgery left him with chronic pain.
He found a shell casing in the lot where the girls play last week. The week before that, someone scratched "fuck" on the side of his minivan. The incidents left Watson feeling vindicated for his decision last January to put his name on the waiting list for New Columbia.
Of everyone we interviewed, Watson seemed the most driven by fear.
Almost everything is packed into boxes that line the living-room walls. Everything except the loaded .32-caliber Beretta on top of the fridge and the vacuum cleaner in the hallway.
"Last year, they had a security guard who'd come between 10 and 2 or 3," he says. "I haven't seen him yet this year. I hear gunshots every night."
Watson pulls the girls onto his lap to pose for a photograph. Each of their faces is smudged with dirt from playing outside, but they pout and cock their heads for the camera.
Krishaad Cross 15 Pier Park
Cross dribbles a ball outside his apartment, waiting for the boys next door to come out and walk to the basketball courts in the middle of Pier Park. The 86 acres of forest and fields are the setting for much of the juvenile folklore that circulates in the complex. Cross, who has lived here for eight years and will enter his junior year at Grant High School next fall, says he feels safe and hasn't encountered much crime.
But he still doesn't go far beyond his front door after nightfall.
"I've seen, like every now and then, a fight or two," says Cross, a burly boy who talks looking down at the ground. He says he hears gunshots on a regular basis, but he shrugs it off like any other annoyance of adolescence.
Myquiela Johnson 18 St. Johns Woods
Johnson was tired and hot after the bus ride home from her day at the City Corps summer program. She had just missed a call from the manager at Safeway and would have to wait another day to find out if she had a job.
Johnson moved to the Woods two months ago, after she turned 18. She left behind a duplex on Northeast Lombard Street, which she had shared with her grandmother, who raised her, and her father. "I'm 18," she says. "I figured I should be out on my own." She splits the $25 rent and $50 electric bill with a girlfriend from middle school and gets help with bills from her grandma.
Johnson says she didn't move out of a desire to rebel.
"My grandma lets me do what ever I want to," she says, adding with a shrug, "I don't do much. I kinda got self-control. Self-discipline."
She knows there are parties in the complex but says she isn't interested.
Her living room is so immaculate, it seems a little empty. The couch and end table her aunt brought over loom like giants against the blank walls. Her bedroom is more chaotic, with piles of sparkling summer shirts and papers left over from school.
In her short residency, Johnson says she hasn't had any experiences with crime, other than hearing fights and the occasional gunshot, and finding a shell casing on the ground.
Johnson has a way of pointing her chin up in the air, conveying a stoic confidence even though she often speaks in a whisper. Her pride in running her own home overwhelms any doubts she may have about imperfect surroundings.
"It's like my house," she says. "I just don't have to listen to nobody."
In the fall, she will complete the last semester of her high-school career at Open Meadow, an alternative school in North Portland. She hopes to go to college and wants to find a career in writing, maybe even journalism.
Johanna Lisbeth Miranda-Roses 11 Pier Park
Johanna and a friend are sitting on a metal transformer box at the edge of Pier Park. They rarely venture into the park, and definitely not at night. "There are people who kidnap other people. And shootings," Johanna says. "You can see people, but you can't really see them. They are shadows."
Johanna wears faded boot-cut jeans that hug her hips. She moved here two years ago with her mom, dad and brother from Southern California. Two years before that, they had left their home in Tijuana.
Johanna lives with her brother and parents in a two-bedroom apartment filled with bright arrangements of artificial flowers. She sleeps with her mother. Her brother gets a room to himself, and her father, because he snores, spends the night on the couch. Both her parents clean for a living.
Like Cross, she never goes outside after dark. She talks about crime with excitement, as if she gets a little thrill out of the drama. Still, her fear seems genuine.
In January 2005, she says, she came home after a man had been shot near the entrance of the park.
"Everyone was in a circle," she says, tucking a strand of black hair behind her ear. "This guy was bleeding so bad he died."
The incident may have been transformed by Johanna's imagination—police have no record of any homicides here in the past three years.
Johanna complains about the tense relations between African Americans and Mexicans. "They call Mexicans 'beaners,' so the Mexicans use the N-word," she says. The fights, she says, are inevitable. She got into a hair-pulling rumble with a black girl just a few months ago.
Saundra Dockery 39 St. Johns Woods
Dockery and her three boys moved to Portland from California's San Fernando Valley in November 2004. Almost immediately, she put herself on the waiting list for St. Johns Woods. The foursome moved into a three-bedroom apartment abutting a playground six months ago.
Dockery is taking a break from work, subsisting on a monthly check from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal welfare program that will run out by the end of the summer. She's not sure how she will get a job that pays enough to feed her boys, Thai, 8, Giovanni, 12, and Torme, 13.
Dockery hints at the troubles, financial and otherwise, she left behind in California. She calls the Woods her "second beginning." While she's getting her kids ready for school or hurrying to volunteer at the free-lunch program, she dismisses crime as a non-issue. When pushed, she talks about the things that concern her more, like money.
Right now, Thai, her youngest, is nowhere to be seen, and Dockery is trying to get him home and packed into the car so they can all attend a family counseling meeting in Northeast Portland.
Sitting on the front steps, she belts out his name. It takes several tries. Finally, he comes running and, out of breath, asks his mom when they'll get back home, so he can tell his friend. "You can tell your friend we'll be back when the car drives up," she says, sending him inside to wash his face.
Asked whether she worries about letting her son play unsupervised, she says, "Yes, I worry about him. But I have to let him come outside and play. It all just depends on how afraid you're going to be."[listbody]
Jennifer Sauer 51 Manager, St. Johns Woods
Sauer, who does not live at the Woods, is fiercely proud of the good things at the complex: the garden project, free lunches during the summer, weekly visits from a city-run arts program, parental counseling.
She says she has never been the victim of a crime during her six years working at the apartments and often comes to the office at 2 am to work through Section 8 paperwork.
"The day is filled with the demands of human life," she says. "I wear many hats. I was just fixing a lock. I've been known to plunge toilets."
Sauer must also confront most issues of human relations.
"The discipline problems fall to me," she says. "Noise, fights, disturbances, domestic situations, kids 18 to 20 who haven't figured out what they want to do yet."
She believes most of the violence that erupts in her complex is brought in from outside. "The people who cause trouble here don't live here," she says. But Sauer doesn't see every police report from every incident.
Of residents' observations that security has been cut back, she says, "We have security more on than off. It's irregular. We try to stagger the schedule so that it's more discreet."
In reality, the complex can't afford to staff a security guard every day.
Two Friday nights ago, photographer Tom Oliver and I approached a group of men gathered around some cars in the parking lot. They were drinking and joking. Inside a minivan, a guy in a white T-shirt drained a small bottle of Hennessy, and a blunt passed from hand to hand.
They told us they believed most of the crime in the neighborhood involved relatively harmless fights. Punches get thrown, one side or the other fires shots in the air. "It's like New Year's Eve," said one man.
A young father who just moved here from Mississippi offered to let us take a picture of his pet iguana, which was crawling on his arm. As soon as Oliver snapped the shutter, another man rose from the passenger seat of the minivan. "He's been shooting video this whole time!" he said.
We tried to explain that Oliver's Canon only took still shots. Some people stood up for us, others seemed convinced we'd done something wrong. Our accuser didn't wait. He threw a punch and Oliver hit the ground. The man grabbed the camera and hurled it to the ground, then picked up the body of the camera and climbed back into his seat. Very quickly, everyone walked away or peeled out with screeching tires.
As Oliver and I walked back to the car, the man with the iguana apologized.
Oliver now has four chipped teeth, an inchlong gash across his eyebrow and a very sore jaw.
Over the past three years, the complexes on the 8550 block of North Columbia Boulevard have reported 96 violent crimes, 92 of them assaults.
compiled a ranking of Portland locations based on their rates of violent crime. Portland police statistics use units called "block faces," which, in addition to the 8550 block of North Columbia, include the Lloyd Center Mall, ranked No. 1, and all of Waterfront Park, which ranks No. 3 but covers nearly 30 acres.
The garden project, operated by Janus Youth Programs, has expanded to include a half-acre farm project on Sauvie Island, run as a small business by youths from St. Johns Woods, and a new 24,000-square-foot plot at the New Columbia Villa, another subsidized housing complex in North Portland.
The Pier Park Apartments, with 164 units, are owned by the Foundation for Social Resources, a for-profit affordable housing builder based in California. The owners of the apartments, which were built in 1997, receive a tax credit from the Internal Revenue Service for providing low-cost housing. Pier Park residents, who must meet income restrictions, pay a fraction of the market cost. Some residents also receive Section 8 vouchers.
Section 8 is a federal housing assistance program that allows needy families to rent market-rate housing. The subsidy usually comes in the form of vouchers, which renters can take with them when they move.
St. Johns Woods is a project-based Section 8 apartment complex. All residents have to qualify for the subsidy, which can reduce their rent to as little as $25 a month. The property, which was built in 1971, is owned by the Portland Housing Authority and run by Cascade Management.