"I watched my uncle's knee get blown off."
Rob Ingram was describing an incident from his West Fresno childhood over a bowl of chicken gumbo at the A.J. Java café, on the corner of N Rosa Parks Way and Albina last Friday morning, March 28.
Ingram, who has been the director of the mayor's Office of Youth Violence Prevention since December, was telling neighborhood residents Catherine Cole and Casey Rohter about his move to Portland in 1985, when he was 13. Ingram's mother decided he would be safer here, miles away from his uncle, a suit-wearing middle-ranker with the OG Crips Gang.
Ingram now lives on the east side of town, while his mother lives a block north of the café, on N Michigan. He grew up in North Portland in the '80s, just as gang violence started to impact the district, and that's where Ingram says he "watched a lot of my friends get shot."
"My corny little goal is to take Portland back to 1983 [before things got bad]," he jokes.
Cole and Rohter, meanwhile, moved into the neighborhood just three years ago (Cole is a former Mercury staffer). On February 19 they were walking in Peninsula Park when a gunfight broke out on the corner, and two bullets shattered the windows of the café where they're now drinking lattes.
"It was just very real," said Rohter. "Until then, we'd generally think loud noises weren't gun shots. But everyone in the park was scared, and then this group of kids ran into the park and we weren't sure if they had guns. We were really frightened."
The incident followed another shooting on the same corner on January 13, and Cole, who admits the couple "knew what we were getting into" when they moved in, started firing off letters to her house of representatives and city commissioners.
"We just wanted a testimonial to how we're feeling living here," she said. "It gets exhausting and tiresome. It was kind of an experiment to see who'd contact us back."
After hearing directly from Mayor Tom Potter and City Commissioner Randy Leonard, Cole and Rohter got a call from Ingram, who suggested they meet—hence the gumbo and the lattes.
While the subject of gang violence and gentrification might cause unease for some (especially when it's being discussed by new white residents and an African American former resident of the district who has since moved), the meeting was non-confrontational. In fact, the only reference to gentrification was Ingram mentioning the recent "geographic shift" of gang violence in the city, toward the east side.
Ingram answered Cole's questions about how to spot gang members ("a disconnected look combined with the attitude"), their average age (14 to 15), and said he thought the recent spate of shootings has been "a spike," rather than necessarily being "gang-related." He said one of the issues his office is facing is that gangs don't wear colors or organize as they used to—instead, they form "mobs, cliques, or squads," and are more difficult to spot. Then he gave Cole and Rohter the number of their neighborhood crime prevention coordinator, so they could report activity as they see it.
Ingram said he'd chosen to come and meet the couple instead of patting himself on the back and telling them over the phone about all the great initiatives he's been involved with, because "criticism is a part of my job."
"I think it's cool that we're actually meeting with a representative from the city," said Rohter, who seemed reassured by the conversation. "I don't think it's an us-and-them situation. We're all living in this city and we should all be doing the best we can."