"When I first started coming here, this neighborhood was more or less a meth capital. Methamphetamines were rampant, especially on 65th and Foster.
"Right here, you could get meth," Kenny Sadler said as he straddled his mountain bike and gestured to the intersection a few feet away. "You could get whatever you needed. It was just a mess. Dealers would come down the street and sell you drugs. There were five, six drug houses here not more than two, three years ago. They were just rampant."
Sadler has been a daily visitor to the Southeast Portland neighborhood for five years—now for the daily Narcotics Anonymous recovery sessions in the nondescript Foster Meeting Hall on SE 65th.
"Sometimes it was really hard for people to stay clean and come to this meeting," he recalled.
Describing himself as "retired from cooking," Sadler's take on the recent history of SE 65th Avenue is shared by many others with deeper stakes in this neighborhood, becoming known in some circles as SoFoPo (South Foster-Powell). The community has significantly improved since its worst days as the gateway to Felony Flats—but nothing has been forgotten.
AN UNSAFE HARBOR
Pointing out the structures one by one to the south of his home, Steve Winney gave a sweeping rundown of the street: "From down there to here were at least half a dozen serious drug houses," remarked the jovial husband and father, who operates a modern custom blacksmith shop. Winney lives in a well-landscaped, 2,500-square-foot house he shares with wife Debi, a futures trader, and their three young children.
Turning his attention up the block to the north, Winney continued, "This house—it was kind of an issue house. The duplex was filled with drugs, and had a tent city in the yard. And that place across the street was filled with drugs, too."
He wasn't finished pointing: "But the biggest problem has always been that huge place—the Harbor House."
Only two doors to the north at 4824 SE 65th, the multi-unit single-room occupancy building now doing business as the Sunrise Lodge has until recently been a major focus of attention.
"It's kind of been a mecca for drugs. People would get kicked out and move right into a duplex in the area, because it was all connected," Winney noted. "They'd be selling or buying or giving each other signals. People living in the duplex whistling, and people come running out picking something back up, and going back up into the Harbor House. Oh, I saw open-air deals out in front of the Harbor House many, many times."
The malaise on the street was oppressive.
"There were dead cars all over the place," Winney recalled. "We'd call and get these cars towed away, but there was a van out in front of our house with people living there—throwing their needles out on the ground."
One neighbor even threatened to shoot him, though no gun was brandished: "He told me he was going to pop a cap in my ass."
"There was no fear," Winney said of this former meth focal point. "There were kids dealing on the corner of Foster and 65th—standing there, dealing drugs. Openly. Now I believe that, in hindsight, this area was a central meth operation. At the time, I was a little blind and naïve."
NEVER EVEN CLOSE TO A NORMAL STREET
Crime statistics (supplied by Portland Neighborhood Associations as reported by the Portland Police Bureau) fortunately show a decrease in crime overall in the Mt. Scott-Arleta neighborhood (where SE 65th is located) since a high-water mark in 2002. From a major crime peak of 95.3 year-to-date incidents per 1,000 population in 2002, that number then decreased each year to a rate of 70.2 in 2006. The corresponding numbers of reported major crimes fell from 689 in 2002 to 510 in 2006, a 26 percent dive. Major crimes include murder, rape/sodomy, molesting, robbery, aggravated assault, residential/commercial burglary, arson, motor vehicle/bike theft, and vandalism.
Some of the economic roots of recent problems go back for decades. Eileen Edmonds has lived near the south end of the street for 36 years. She put it this way: "No, it was never even close to a normal street, because almost everything were rental [houses] in those days. And people would come and go, and come and go."
A retired waitress, Edmonds does not shy away from describing her surroundings.
"We had drug houses, all right. Two were across the street." And the former Harbor House always loomed large. "Oh my gosh," she said, eyes widening. "Cops would be down there on average five, six times a week." Edmonds said problems at the former Harbor House go back to when it was called the Watkins House, which served as a halfway residence for addicts.
Mick McPartland of Portland, the owner of the former Harbor House—and now doing business as the Sunrise Lodge—does not disagree with most of what's been said about his facility. But he also faults meth's popularity in the neighborhood for past problems at his 24-unit single-occupancy building, which he's owned for about four years.
"The neighborhood had two or three meth houses," he said. "There were abandoned cars on the street, and people walking up and down the street from Foster and in the back alleys all night long."
McPartland continued, "My place was a problem that had to be solved. I was continually having my residents—who were very vulnerable—get a hit of meth from someone in the neighborhood. And then they'd go nuts. They could step out the front door and find it, between Foster and the Arleta School. A couple houses on the corner (across from my building where Schiller meets 65th) were meth houses.
"The street was a dingy place. There were a lot of police calls, and the cops were coming to my place because we were calling 'em. Our managers were trying to get these [drug users] out of the building."
Explaining the difficulties associated with evicting drug-related renters in Portland, McPartland said it took nearly three years to finally rid the building of drug users and find the right live-in manager. It can take from 30 to 90 days to evict drug users, and at least one former manager was a drug user himself, McPartland noted.
"I was probably evicting two people a month," he said. "There's a lot of trial and error."
Things did not really turn around until the owner found current live-in manager Evelyn Powell.
"It all has to do with having an in-house manager who likes their job. And Evelyn is that person."
WE'RE NOT GONNA TAKE IT
Portland Police Officer Todd Teats from the Southeast Precinct said this block of SE 65th Avenue probably reached its low point "where it was really bad" during a five-year stretch that ended about five years ago. "It started improving a lot in the last three years, with noticeable improvement in the last year."
Teats, the neighborhood response team officer for the area, credits the transformation of SE 65th to "people moving in that cared and wanted to make a difference.
"Rather than step back and watch things happen, these people actually organized," Teats said. "The neighborhood association would meet with owners of places, make certain demands, and get the police involved. They finally took a stand and said 'We're not going to put up with it anymore.' New neighbors kept moving in, fixing up their houses and people saw improvement. Those people weren't going to put up with it anymore."
The improvement on the street really took off after a core of neighbors started combining their efforts, Teats explained. There was never a code of silence among residents on the street—simply a lack of coordination and follow-through.
"Oh, they called," Teats said, "but nobody organized. They'd put out the spot fire: Call, tell us what was going on, have the police come in, and we'd deal with it for the night. But nothing permanent would get accomplished."
That approach started to change for the better within the last few years, Teats recalled, crediting five or so local residents with the bulk of the efforts. He agreed with the description of the overall push to improve SE 65th as a genuine grassroots effort that was determined to no longer tolerate the parade of drug-related activities.
NO SEX OFFENDERS, PLEASE
Shawna Fuller, president of the Mt. Scott-Arleta Neighborhood Association, credits most of the turnaround on SE 65th to the neighbors themselves.
"There's a lot of good, cohesive neighbors over there," said Fuller, now in her fourth year of neighborhood association leadership. "I think everyone realized they can get a lot more accomplished if everyone's working together."
The most important neighborhood success to date is a direct result of those combined efforts. Fuller explained that the Mt. Scott-Arleta Neighborhood Association played an instrumental role in developing a formal neighborhood agreement between the association and the Sunrise Lodge. Some of the major provisions of the agreement included new fencing, security cameras, no active drug use by residents, and no resident sex offenders at the Sunrise Lodge.
About two years ago neighbors notified each other that predatory child sex offenders were apparently living at the Sunrise Lodge.
"The economics of the area have changed. We have a lot of homeowners living here who are very concerned about the safety of their children," Winney said, recalling the neighborhood gathering. "So when we rounded the neighbors up for a meeting, all of a sudden you had 50 people sitting in a room on your side—along with the police liaison and the chief of police."
Winney says the people in question were soon evicted.
In addition to the residents themselves, Fuller also gives much of the credit for the area's rejuvenation to rising property values, claiming prices have more than doubled in the 10 years she's resided on SE 64th, just about two blocks from the south end of that stretch of SE 65th.
"The whole neighborhood... the whole area is improving. People are putting a lot more time and money into their houses. There's a lot of small houses that are getting spruced up, and many lots are being divided and built on. We were sort of slow to catch up, I think, with the rest of the development going on across Portland."
AN OPEN-DOOR POLICY
Back at the Sunrise Lodge, McPartland said he has invested at least $50,000 in the facility and continues to work on improvements such as landscaping, handicap accessibilities in the bathrooms, and interior decorations. All potential residents are subject to background checks, along with a more restrictive check of any recent activity with the Portland Police Bureau.
The Lodge owner visits his facility three to four times weekly.
"I'm really aware of any unusual activity," McPartland said, "because I don't want my people being blamed. It used to be that anything going on in the neighborhood sort of defaulted to 'It must be Harbor House'—which wasn't even the name anymore. But that's no longer the case. There's nothing going on there. We have an open-door policy for the neighborhood and the police. Just come over, knock on the door, and come in. Take a look at what we've got going on here."
The upgrades have been getting attention.
"You won't believe how much this neighborhood has changed (during my 36 years here)," Edmonds offered. "There was robberies, there was break-ins. No one was safe from nothing. Now even the Sunrise Lodge is so much better. I can see the improvements [manager] Evelyn has done, just by driving past."
Officer Teats agrees that the police calls to the Lodge have dramatically decreased. He credits McPartland with being very responsive and on top of things.
"Every time I called him with an issue, he already knew about it," Teats noted.
A NICE PLACE TO LIVE
Having gone through so much drama on SE 65th, Winney is glad for many reasons he and his family have remained. At one time early on he considered moving his family due to neighborhood troubles—but realized his home's asking price (about $160,000) wouldn't allow him to break even.
Things have obviously changed. His property was recently appraised at nearly $325,000. Even Winney gives credit to McPartland for his efforts at turning around the Sunrise Lodge.
"Before there was an attitude that this place was Felony Flats—especially among the absentee landlords," Winney said. "It's not called that anymore, because you can see normal, nice, manicured lawns. A lot of gardening going on. A lot of people are concerned about the way their places look. That's what it is now.
"I'm happy we stuck it out," he said, looking around his street. "I'm really happy we stayed here. It's also one of the friendliest neighborhoods you'll find. Everybody's out front all the time chatting. We all know each other really, really well. Almost too well."