Hands Across the Interstate
Bridges are supposed to bring people together, but a North Portland freeway overpass is rekindling a neighborhood feud.














"Opponents of the Pedestrian Bridge cite fears of a deluge of criminals flowing from the Boise neighborhood," Boise resident Marcia Gwynne wrote in
a letter to state transportation officials. "The residents of Boise are offended and amused by this demonization of our citizens."


The footbridge is a small part of a larger undertaking: the I-5 paving-preservation project, which involves repaving the freeway from Northeast Hassalo Street to the Interstate Bridge.


The Oregon Department of Transportation expects to spend $25-30 million on the I-5 paving

As well as the Failing footbridge, ODOT plans to raise the Portland Boulevard, Ainsworth, Alberta and Lombard street structures in order to accommodate the new coat of asphalt on I-5.


Divided by the concrete wall of Interstate 5, the two Portland neighborhoods of Overlook and Boise lie just a stone's throw from each other, but they are, in many ways, worlds apart.

Overlook, on the west side of the freeway, enjoys higher property values, lower crime rates and spectacular views of the river. Boise, to the east, while making great strides in the last decade, remains one of Portland's poorer neighborhoods.

Now a massive project to improve the freeway has fired up an old feud between the two neighborhoods. At issue, ironically, is a padlocked structure originally designed to bring them closer together: the Failing Street pedestrian bridge.

Overlook wants the footbridge torn down. Boise wants it reopened. As both sides marshal allies to support their positions, the Oregon Department of Transportation, which is poised to decide the fate of the span, is stuck in the middle. "It's a poignant neighborhood issue," says Christie Holmgren, who is coordinating ODOT's public outreach on the project.

The footbridge hasn't been used since October 1991, when it was closed off as a result of complaints about criminal activity. It remained a mute monument to urban neglect until last year, when ODOT set in motion a major project to repave I-5 between Hassalo Street and the Interstate Bridge. The new coat of asphalt will raise the freeway by about four inches--enough, unfortunately, to reduce the clearance of five overpasses to a critical level. As a result, ODOT will have to jack up the spans in order to meet state and federal height standards.

For the other overpasses, this poses no particular controversy. But the agency is unwilling to spend $300,000 to raise a padlocked footbridge. So ODOT began seeking public input on whether to raise and reopen the bridge or to demolish it.

Overlook residents are "absolutely" opposed to reopening the bridge, according to Bob Peterson, chairman of the Overlook Neighborhood Association. They fear criminals will use the bridge as a springboard to the neighborhood's fat wallets and late-model cars. Neighbors trade horror stories about the muggings, break-ins and burglaries that took place when the bridge was open. After the footbridge was closed, "it was like day and night," says Overlook resident Terry Vanderkooy, who lives three blocks away from the span's west end.

ODOT initially tried to address these concerns with police statistics showing that crime in the area around the bridge had actually increased since the structure's closure. But Overlook residents weren't convinced. They asked for a separate tally of crimes on the east and west sides of the bridge. Sure enough, more detailed reports showed a slight decline on the west side after the bridge was closed--and a surge on the east side.

Although an elevated footbridge might seem an unlikely incubator of crime, Overlook neighbors say the bridge created a bizarre scenario reminiscent of the Keystone Cops. Miscreants would commit crimes on one side of the freeway, then dash across the bridge, where police cars could not follow. Officers were reluctant to pursue on foot for the chance that the suspects would hop into a getaway car on the other side, leaving the cops panting in the dust. Instead, officers would drive three blocks north, cross the freeway at Skidmore, and head back down to Failing. "By the time [the police] got to the other side, [the suspects] were long gone," says Vanderkooy.

Officer Cheryl Kanzler, spokeswoman for the Portland Police Bureau, agrees that the bridge created a "conduit for criminal activity." As a result, the bureau opposes reopening the bridge.

Beyond the crime factor, Overlook sees little benefit in improving its connections to Boise. In November the Overlook Neighborhood Association voted unanimously to ask ODOT to demolish the bridge. "It seems that the little use [the bridge] has for our neighborhood residents is largely overshadowed by its attraction to a negative criminal element," association chairman Peterson later wrote in a letter to City Commissioner Charlie Hales.

The view is a little different on the other side of the freeway. Boise residents yearn for the tall trees and lush grass of Overlook Park, with its glorious view of the river. "We have no place for our kids to run and play," says light-bulb vendor Kay Newell, who lives two blocks from the bridge's east end. In addition, Boise residents would like better access to the Kaiser Medical Center and the No. 5 bus. As things stand, pedestrians in Boise who want to venture west of the freeway have to detour north to Skidmore or south to Stanton--a 30-minute hike. Boise residents acknowledge the potential crime problems but feel they could be addressed by installing cameras or simply locking the bridge after dark.

There is, in addition, a suspicion among Boise residents that they are viewed as second-class citizens. "There's a kind of a wall the freeway makes that the Overlook people are quite comfortable with," says Tod Lundy, co-chair of the Boise Neighborhood Association. "We are a poor neighborhood, and they think it's fine there's a barrier." This concern is aggravated by the racial composition of the two neighborhoods; historically, Overlook has been predominantly white and Boise black.

Recent census figures show differences between the two neighborhoods diminishing. "The people over here are the same as the people over there," says Newell. In 1990, 81 percent of Overlook residents were white, compared with 26 percent in Boise. By 1996, the figure dropped to 76 percent in Overlook and rose to 44 percent in Boise. At the same time, crime rates in both neighborhoods have dropped dramatically in the last 10 years.

For the record, Overlook residents contacted by WW vigorously deny any prejudice against their neighbors to the east. "It's not the folks in Boise--that's not the issue at all," says Vanderkooy, who says the criminals worked both sides of the bridge. "It's more the location of the bridge itself than [a matter of] Boise versus Overlook," agrees Peterson.

Whatever the genesis of their concerns, both sides are trying to enlist allies. The Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, located in Overlook right next to the footbridge's west end, has not yet made an official statement. On the other hand, Commissioner Hales last week weighed in on the side of raising and reopening the bridge. Time is running short, however. ODOT expects to decide the bridge's fate by the first week of April.

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Willamette Week | originally published March 31, 1999



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