Riverton residents partner to put a new face on challenged Portland neighborhood

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PORTLAND — Riverton residents are working to change the image of their neighborhood and build community at the same time.

The neighborhood, a mix of houses, condominiums and apartments, is perhaps known best for its low-income housing off Forest Avenue, which has been plagued by drug use and other illicit activities for decades.

But, with the help of the Community Partnerships for Protecting Children and other groups, residents are now partnering to create safe spaces for children and to open the lines of communication.

“Really, if it wasn’t for the CPPC coming to me (and asking to join) the group, the changes, both good and bad, wouldn’t be happening,” said Shannon Roy, property manager for Wellesley Estates, a property of Foreside Real Estate Management.

Roy has been helping to organize the neighborhood and has encouraged partnerships between tenants and groups like CPPC and the Riverton Boys and Girls Club after-school program.

“I’ve been introduced to so many people and programs through (CPPC). There’s been such a huge difference in the property from when we first took it over three years ago,” Roy said.

“People have this stigma from 20 years ago about the (Riverton) ‘project,'” she added. “But I hate the word project, because it’s not a project. These are homes.”

Tonya DiMillo, a community builder at CPPC, has been central to organizing the Riverton neighborhood and bringing in other partners, including funding from banks, and services from the Riverton Library.

“What we do is listen to (residents’) hopes. We listen to them about things they want to see changed,” DiMillo said.

The community has also partnered with various community groups, the city and Riverton Elementary School to make connections and raise visibility for social programs that help to bring neighbors together.

One of those programs is a “Resource Hub”at Riverton Elementary School, where students and family can go to find help and information on a variety of issues.

Neighbors at the Wellesley Estates said they have noticed a significant change since CPPC helped form Riverton Community Planning Committee in May 2012 and a tenant council a few months ago.

Amanda McRae, who has lived at Wellesley Estates for about four years and is on the council, said there has been a marked change in the community in recent months.

“I’ve learned more people’s names (in the past few months) than the four years that I’ve lived here,” she said.

McRae, who has two kids, said organizing the community has created new opportunities for her kids that they didn’t know existed before, such as the Boys and Girls Club.

Although the club was just around the corner from their apartment, she didn’t know it was there, partly because the connecting path was strewn with trash and was a haven for drug dealing, which deterred parents from letting their kids use it.

But as part of the recent efforts, the path was cleaned up and is now used regularly by kids.

“We all have safety concerns,” McRae said, “but now that the path has opened up, kids can safely walk through there.”

The pathway connects to Riverton Park, a Public Housing Authority housing project, which has a community center that offers classes and health services.

McRae said residents at neighboring Wellesley Estates had no idea the Boys and Girls Club was there before they cleaned up the pathway. Now, she said, participation has grown significantly.

Tiffanie Panagakos, director of the Riverton Boys and Girls Club for six years, said membership has swelled and that 50 new families from the area have joined since the CPPC became involved in the neighborhood about a year ago.

“They started to realize there’s a lot going on at the club and we started doing a lot of projects together,” she said.

Panagakos said the area has improved, along with the kids’ behavior.

“Six years ago the manners (of the kids) were way different than they are now,” she said. “Kids are using ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ They’re not pushing and shoving, although all kids can be like that at some times. But in six years there’s been such a change.”

The club has partnered with Riverton Elementary to offer counseling and help with academics through the Resource Hub, allowing school staff and community members to partner with students.

Kids have also been cleaning up trash in their neighborhood in addition to projects like the trail. The path will be named through a contest in the next few weeks, Panagakos said.

The residents are also looking to continue taking steps to improve their neighborhood by possibly installing lights along the path, starting a community garden and making improvements to a playground.

“We really want people to know we’re all one community,” Panagakos said. “Just because you live in Riverton or live on Forest Avenue doesn’t mean we’re all still not one community. With the CPPC we’re one.”

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.