Terah Beth Baltzer Varga looked out across her street one day last summer and didn't like what she saw.
The 17,000 sq. ft. parking lot owned by the Calvary Lutheran Church, located between SE 80th and SE 82nd Ave. and SE Woodstock Blvd and SE Martin St., attracted "some unsavory things," says Baltzer Varga, 32.
"Some guy walked across there, and he definitely did a drug deal," she remembers.
She also witnessed people doing doughnuts in the parking lot, and others driving through the lot at high speeds to bypass the traffic signal at SE 82nd Ave. and SE Woodstock. She also learned that the parking lot attracted prostitution.
"You didn't feel like you were going to walk out the door and get attacked, but it didn't have a good community vibe," Balzter Varga says.
She decided to act to make her community more livable and vibrant.
She began attending Mt. Scott-Arleta community meetings, and she worked to create a Neighborhood Watch team. Out of that came the Our Happy Block initiative, which Baltzer Varga created to begin transforming the parking lot into an area that is safe, livable, sustainable, and adds to the surrounding Mt. Scott-Arleta, Foster-Powell and Lents neighborhoods.
"I want it to be a place where people care," Baltzer Varga says.
The parking lot's entrance and exit on Martin St. has been closed, stopping people from cutting through, and trees have been planted with help from Friends of Trees along Woodstock Blvd. and Martin St. to "beautify our streets, reduce traffic noise and improve air quality," says Our Happy Block's website.
Most recently, almost 70 native plants were planted on Saturday, February 19 in a 1,000 sq. ft. area that had previously been covered with sod. Baltzer Varga and a half dozen volunteers removed the sod the previous Saturday.
"It was a really fun project," Baltzer Varga says.
The native plants were picked up earlier that day at the East Multnomah County Soil and Water Conservation District's annual Bare-root Native Plant Sale. Nine volunteers, including neighbors and people not from the area, came to plant the natives, which Balzter Varga says are "tiny."
"It looks really bare," she says. "I can't wait to see how they do. We're still going to get some bigger plants in there."
Eventually, it will be a learning garden with a pathway and informational plaques.
Improvements to the parking lot continue. A portion of the lot will be removed by DePave this summer. Rain gardens will be installed, and native plants will continue to be planted in the learning garden. A mural is also planned for the wall of McCollum Automotive facing the parking lot.
Baltzer Varga is still working to raise money for the mural.The project has received funding from Portland Development Commission (PDC), SE Uplift, and the East Multnomah County Soil and Water Conservation District, as well as in-kind donations.
She also says that Our Happy Block seeks donations to help pay for lighting for the mural, paint, more native plants, signs and plaques for the learning garden.
Baltzer Varga has plenty of advice to Portlanders who see potential for a similar project in their neighborhood. "There are so many open spaces you could change," Baltzer Varga thinks. Time is essential, she says, although she admits that one reason she has time for Our Happy Block is that she is unemployed.
She thinks neighbors have to act on whatever feelings of dissatisfaction they may feel toward a situation. "I wasn't happy with what I saw was going on," she says. She figured that her only two options were to do something, or move.
Getting to know her neighbors also proved crucial, as did attending Mt. Scott-Arleta and neighborhood watch meetings. "We've made some friends we probably wouldn't have known," Baltzer Varga says. "It's just trying to meet your neighbors. You can talk about what you've seen, what's going on."
And from there, opportunities can abound.
UPDATE 6/21/2011: "Our Happy Block: Southeast Portland Neighbors Depave Parking Lot"
By Natalie St. John, NeighborhoodNotes.com