“I’m wondering where the heroes went. Gosh, I don’t know how long ago they left. Heroes are not giant statues framed against a red sky. They are people who say: This is my community, and it is my responsibility to make it better.” — Tom McCall
I am a native Californian — a third-generation Mexican-American. My grandparents were migrant farm workers in the Central Valley of California where much of our nation’s produce is grown. They had plenty of work for minimum pay and a substandard work environment. My family is made up of hard-working, smart, resilient and determined people. None of my grandparents went to college. My Grandpa Bonilla on my dad’s side had an eighth grade education and eventually became a journeyman carpenter. He was the first of his four sisters and one brother to be born in the US. He left school to work and help support his family. My grandparents on my mom’s side of the family have a similar story. My grandma was the youngest of twelve and remembered being in the fields from the time she was a little girl, picking fruit in the triple digit summer heat of California’s Central Valley. My Grandma Urrutia’s family eventually left California to go back to Austin, TX to be with the rest of their family. My Grandma worked in a factory for over 30 years before retiring when she was nearly 70. I am the descendant of hard working minorities and I am proud to be a Mexican-American.
I was raised by a single mother. My dad died when I had just turned six years old and my brother was just 16 months old. My mother was a widow at 24 years old with two small children and we lived paycheck to paycheck. We lived in rented apartments with the occasional rented house my entire life; my mother has never been a homeowner. As I entered adulthood, I worked two jobs to pay for college and eventually found success in a career that I loved. I always knew that nothing in life would be handed to me and that I would have to fight and work hard for things that were important to me. First it was getting an education, then it was finding success in a career that is predominantly male, and eventually it was earning enough income to buy a home in a neighborhood that I loved where I could raise a family and build a life. Just as my grandparents worked hard to give better opportunity to my parents, and my mom worked hard to give me a better opportunity than she had, I work hard to give my children a better childhood and life than I had.
In 2005, my husband and I made the decision to leave California and move to Portland. Born and raised a California girl, I had never considered leaving California… ever. My husband and I lived in the Bay Area and we both worked high stress jobs that required long hours. We were both commuting long distances to get to work and while I loved California, we didn’t have much of a quality of life. We were at a point in our life when we wanted to start a family and didn’t know how we could make that happen and balance our careers. In May of 2005, Derek and I flew to Portland for a weekend and, like many people do when they visit Oregon, we fell in love. Six weeks later, I had transferred jobs with my company and spent all of my free time driving around Portland with a real estate agent who showed me all of Portland’s beautiful neighborhoods and their distinctive character.
Some of the first places my real estate agent took me were West Linn and Lake Oswego. I think she figured that Bay Area transplants would want to live in a more affluent suburban community. While the homes were big and beautiful, the neighborhoods did not speak to us. As I spoke to her of our love of older homes, my agent took me to Alameda, Irvington, Alberta, Laurelhurst and eventually Eastmoreland. I still remember the day in August that she drove me through the neighborhood. We turned down Reed College Place off of Woodstock and my heart skipped a beat. The grassy median reminded me of someplace — home. Derek and I are originally from Fresno, California. Although I have met many a California transplant in Portland that claims to be from San Francisco or Los Angeles, the whole population of California doesn’t live in those two cities. I’m not ashamed to admit that Fresno is where we both spent the first 18 years of our lives. Reed College Place’s beautiful grassy median reminded me of Historic Huntington Boulevard in Fresno, which I’ve always found to be beautiful. It was also the street where Derek’s grandparents built a home in 1927. When my agent drove me down Reed College Place for the first time and then as we explored the different streets of the neighborhood, I fell in love. This beautiful historic, single family neighborhood with it’s abundant green space, huge old trees, sidewalks for walking and for kids riding their bikes, with a distinctive old elementary school felt like a dream come true. In 2005, the real estate market was quite different than it is today. Derek and I had just spent five years owning a home in the Bay Area that we purchased at the height of the real estate market. When our Eastmoreland home was listed for sale we jumped at the chance to buy it like we had just hit the lottery. That is the way I have felt about our home ever since.
For twelve years we have lived in our home in Eastmoreland. We got our first dog, had two babies, and built a community with our neighbors. In the beginning we noticed little changes here and there that seemed sad, such as an old home being dismantled board by board in 2008 to be replaced with a home that didn’t quite seem to fit with the character and architecture around the neighborhood. As the years have passed, we have seen more homes changing in ways that do not seem to enhance the neighborhood. Around six years ago we heard the first rumblings of a Historic District. We got our newsletters from the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association Board about efforts they were making to protect our neighborhood from being polluted by the encroaching railroad and home demolitions under lax City regulations. We started to hear about the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association Board’s efforts to work with the City. These efforts included the proposal of stricter building code and rezoning Eastmoreland to protect the historic integrity and character of our single family neighborhood and prevention of the growing number of demolitions.
I’m one of many neighbors that will readily admit that I was content to let our Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association Board volunteers deal with the details of how to protect our neighborhood. However, I started to notice that homes were being demolished with more frequency. It became alarming to drive down a street and find that a home that was standing a week before was suddenly gone. That’s when I started paying attention. I started paying attention to the Board’s newsletter talking about what they were trying to accomplish. I started paying attention to how they were struggling to get the City of Portland to work with our neighborhood stewards to protect Eastmoreland. I started seeing articles in the Oregonian that seemed to indicate that Eastmoreland wasn’t worthy of protecting. I started seeing comments by City officials that they thought that Eastmoreland was wealthy and entitled and didn’t deserve to have our concerns considered. I was and am still confused by this. How does the City of Portland determine which residents should have a voice and which should not? Why was my neighborhood deemed unworthy of having a voice?
In 2015, I finally heard the rumblings of Historic District grow louder after the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association Board had exhausted every avenue of conversation with the City of Portland. In 2016 I heard they would finally pursue a National Historic District designation for Eastmoreland. I was sure our neighborhood would breathe a collective sigh of relief from this information — finally something to protect our neighborhood from the rampant and unchecked demolitions. So, I was surprised to see grumblings from neighbors that were against protecting Eastmoreland. The first time I heard from someone against the HD was in an email forwarded to me from a friend who had received the email and wanted to share the information with me, this was in July of 2016. The person that had written the original email was already laying the groundwork as a leader of the opposition effort to the HD. I responded to my friend and, looking back at my response, it makes me feel good to know that even then I understood what the HD meant to Eastmoreland and that I was already pointing out the flaws in the arguments this person was making in their email.
I sent the following in response “I don’t know this person, but they speak a lot of having the freedom to renovate your home. There is no freedom in that. It still has to go through the City, permits must be obtained and the City can arbitrarily deny designs if they choose. As a neighbor who is pro historic district, I don’t think this is a “misguided” attempt to block home demolition and lot splitting. What do they propose is a better alternative from protecting the hood from demo/lot splitting? And how many of us have plans to completely change the front exterior of our homes? Interior renovations are unaffected by a historic district. I don’t see any other neighbors stepping up with solutions or wanting to take charge of this fight.
One final thing, my friend in Ladd’s bought their home knowing it was in a historic district and they would be constrained by those rules and it didn’t stop them from buying the home. If resale is a concern, plenty of people would love to live in the charm of our neighborhood even with the restrictions. That’s a fact.”
From that first email in July, I saw the hostility and animosity grow. At times, the nastiness and personal attacks directed at neighbors was shocking. I couldn’t understand why people who simply want to preserve our community would be so publicly attacked. It was then I decided to take a stand of my own. I thought about how hard so many generations of my family had worked to give me the opportunity to buy a home in a neighborhood like ours. To stand by and allow others to destroy Eastmoreland would be a betrayal of my own heritage.
Since January 5, 2017 I have worked day and night to preserve and protect the historic character of Eastmoreland today and for my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. It is important to me to do that with love and respect for my neighbors. I don’t think anything is gained by tearing people down, or running a campaign on negativity and personal attacks. I believe if we treat each other with decency and respect that we can disagree and not make things personal. Through respect, kindness and understanding I am being a role model to my children and showing them that we can stand up for something that is important to us without tearing others down.
Now those who oppose the HD have made this personal. They are claiming that the reason we support the HD is because we are racists, elitists and that we are trying to keep affordable housing out of our neighborhood. We have seen flyers distributed throughout our neighborhood with accusations of racism directed at HEART neighbors. The Portland Tribune made baseless and reckless claims of racism, elitism and “red-lining” that was then marketed heavily by the neighbors who oppose the HD on social media and our community neighborhood forum Nextdoor. Given my personal history, I find these claims particularly offensive. But at the base of it, our own neighbors are questioning our character, morals, values, and integrity simply because we support Historic Preservation and believe that Eastmoreland should be preserved and protected from demolitions.
Last month I flew to Arizona to celebrate my Grandma Bonilla’s 85th Birthday. She told me how proud she was of me. She told me how smart and beautiful my kids were. I spent time with my Aunt, Uncle and cousins. I didn’t realize how much I needed to be in the warmth and love of my family until I was there. My Grandpa Bonilla died in 2000. He did not get to see me get married, he did not get to meet my two little boys who are his great-grandsons. However, he was my hero and the lessons I learned from him stay with me. He taught me by his example how to be strong, how to be resilient and that no one should ever mistake our kindness for weakness. I don’t consider myself a hero, but Eastmoreland is my neighborhood and my community and I will continue to stand with my HEART neighbors to protect our neighborhood and make it better.
*Header photo: Example of migrant farm workers. Photo Credit: Family picking tomatoes in the San Fernando Valley, ca. 1937 | Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.