November 24, 2019
We all know humans have a great ability to screw up nature. Perhaps that is why it feels so good when we collectively take action to undo these wrongs – “unscrewing” nature up a little and seeing humans and nature respond in positive ways.
The tide is turning. Many people in Portland are starting to care about the Willamette River – to participate, feel empowered, and affect change. It’s a slow, incremental process and at times very hard work.
But it’s also rewarding to dream big, get traction on ideas that were once deemed fanciful, and witness the resulting culture change and community building around HAP’s mission: Transforming Portland’s Relationship with the Willamette River.
In recent years, we’ve demonstrated our ability to get things done by receiving approval from Parks and Recreation, Department of State Lands, and others to privately fundraise and pull permits to add art and improve access to Poet’s Beach on the west bank. We demonstrated broader public support by growing The Big Float and the HAP River Hugger Swim Team. We were covered in the news more and more, developing a reputation as being good partners.
After our work at Poet’s Beach, Mayor Hales invited us to give a presentation on creating a beach park at the Audrey McCall Beach site. That meeting went well and led to Mayor Hales championing a community process to design a beach park. A year and a half later, this planning process was completed.
We continued to remove concrete and pilings from the beach and river at the AMB site, and by 2017 had carried away 19 tons of it. Then, just like magic, people started discovering the beach and swimming! There was no signage, very limited access, and no promotion of it outside of the HAP website and social media. But people saw it was a lovely river space (the concrete removal also improved shallow water habitat). Its location along the esplanade, near the popular swimming dock adjacent to the Hawthorne Bridge, was easy to get to by bike, transit or car. In short, it became an ideal recreational spot.
Despite the completed plan for AMB and new use by people, momentum stalled on the beach park. In my 20ish years of living in Portland I have witnessed many planning efforts get completed, only to collect dust on a shelf and die. We were determined to not let that happen. To keep the energy alive, in the summer of 2017 we hosted “splash mob” events with a floating food cart at the beach. In 2018 we partnered with Sunday Parkways to host a “Sunday Splashways” at Audrey McCall Beach, privately fundraising for lifeguards and a barge stage where a band provided live music to beach goers.
This past spring we took it up a notch with the idea of adding lifeguards to the beach. It was difficult timing due to a surprise $7 million deficit in the Parks budget. This is where our nine years of hard work and relationship building paid off. By now we had earned some benefit of the doubt with a broad array of partners. Parks and Recreation cooperated by giving HAP permission to privately fundraise for a summer lifeguard program. We did it, writing grants and filling the financial gap through proceeds from The Big Float. We were able to fully fund a $30,000 lifeguard program.
Parks also allowed us to work in partnership to pull all necessary Federal, State, and City permits to facilitate the lifeguard program (which Parks did not have the resources to do). We even teamed up with an organization called Ground Score to hire homeless people to clean the park over the summer.
It was a lot of work but very satisfying to see people loving their river in a new way. The most fun surprise of the summer was partnering with Grant High School’s Water Polo Team to hold the first official high school water polo match in a river in Oregon. Our river. The Willamette. Expect to see a full season of Grant High School water polo matches next summer.
OMSI is a strong supporter of this beach’s development, which will be split between recreational use and habitat restoration. OMSI views it as an asset for kids programming and an amenity to the neighborhood. As does Central Eastside Industrial Council and Hosford-Abernethy Neighborhood Association. What’s more, the City has a new Parks Director who has managed beach programs in New York City and a Parks staff that is becoming more savvy on how to manage these beach spaces.
Change can happen. Instead of complaining how things should be different, consider doing something to impact the change you want to see, big or small. Dig in, grab some friends and jump in - you can do it! Or consider lending a little people power to a cause you think is worthy, cool, fun or all the above. It’s worked for us!
More information on HAP and Audrey McCall Beach can be found at humanaccessproject.com.
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