Photo by Ted Hornick

Maine’s Portland Housing Authority works with police inside Riverton Park to quell issues stemming from poor design and fear of gangs.

At the entrance to Riverton Park, a Public Housing community on Forest Avenue, a seventeen-year-old in blue athletic shorts and a large white t-shirt shoots hoops with three friends.  The basketball court is situated at the bottom of a hill near the road leading into the park and the boy is happy in Riverton.  “Living here is good,” he says on the sidelines from the game.  He and his eight-member family have been in the public housing community since 2000.  The Portland Housing Authority subsidizes their rent – “They help out with all that stuff,” he explains.  “My family pays two hundred dollars for a nice neighborhood.”

Further back, away from the court and in one of the parking lots surrounded by apartments, a group of younger children play with a black mini-soccer ball.  A mannequin’s head sitting near an apartment stoop is the only spectator to their loose scrimmage.  One of the boys, a small seven-year-old with a toothy smile and tanned skin, gets clipped in the ear by an accidental volley and screams “You bitch!” at his friends.  No one wants to step up and apologize.  After a moment, he’s all right and rushes to rejoin the group.  After a few more moments of playing, he tells his friends that he wishes there could be “no more gangsters” in the Park.  His friends understand what he’s talking about and they seem too young to be criminals themselves, but they silence him with glares and hisses.

All residents in Riverton Park pay 30 % of their income for residency.  The average stay at the premises is seven years – many leave to enter Section 8, or private rental agreements with landlords in which Portland Housing will pay their rent.  Riverton is deceptively quiet despite the traffic from busy roads nearby.   About a half mile past the main hub of offices near the park’s entrance, the road splits to separate lots where townhouses are clustered at parking spaces.  The isolated area, with its substantial units, resembles a series of college dormitories.  An enclosure of forest, scattered with trash, is fenced off near the back.  Up the road from the basketball court, at the foot of a hill of residences, a bright jungle gym sits unused.

Photo by Ted Hornick

Inside the offices of the Portland Housing Authority, the program’s Acting Executive Director Mark Adelson, explains his work.  P.H.A. collaborates with Catholic Charities, Immigration Services and the Refugee Resettlement Community to house between 60-65 % of immigrants and refugees in Portland.  The soft-spoken yet energetic Adelson feels Riverton Park is probably the toughest to manage of the communities operating in and around Portland, due to poor design.  “You basically have a cul-de-sac.  One road in and 141 units of very large family housing at the end . . . That does not allow for a very easy flow into the community at all. I don’t think it would ever be designed like that again.”

Click here to listen to an interview the Portland Housing Authority’s Acting Executive Director, Mark Adelson.

At the September “Community Concerns” meeting in Riverton, a monthly event where neighbors come together to voice issues, a diverse neighborhood mix comes out to talk.  Somali immigrants account for almost 33 % of Riverton’s 672 occupants, while people born in the United States represent about 36 %. Annette Rogers, the property manager for Riverton, is anxious before the meeting, as the Portland police will be on-site to (hopefully) dispel apprehensions about their work.  Rogers has said that her residents, “police themselves.  They don’t want anyone to know what they’ve done, because back where they come from . . . they’re just not treated properly . . . We hold meeting after meeting to try and explain.”  Community members, Rogers explains, take issues to “Elders,” who settle disputes through discussion at weekly meetings.

Rogers, whose vibrant fashion sense and social concerns recall a mixture of Carrie Bradshaw and Erin Brockovich, works between 60 and 70 hours per week and insists her tenants are more afraid of her than the police, as she can evict them and keep them from future low-income housing opportunities.

According to research compiled by the Portland Housing Authority, of the 2,550 Portland residents in public housing, the greatest of those not born in the United States are Somalians, who represent 465 residents, or 18.24 %, or of the housing population.  According to the 2006 census, the black population in Maine doubled during the first half of the decade, primarily due to immigrants from Somalia and Sudan resettling in Portland.  The Housing Authority loses about fifteen residents a year who move on to Section 8 throughout Maine.  Comparatively, the communities only lose one tenant per year due to fears about neighborhood safety.

Meetings in Riverton Park happen at a designated community building, part of a small stretch of residential offices near the asphalt path to the homes.  In addition to the manager’s office, this stretch includes a branch of the Boys and Girls Club, a study center (the Portland Housing Authority provides the space) and a small police auxiliary station. Police Commander Tim Farris, the senior lead officer for police sector 5 (the area surrounding Riverton), says that of all Portland’s Housing communities, “based on complaints, I would say Riverton is the area of focus right now.”  Most crime calls, Farris says, stem from gang violence and criminal trespasses, or people who have already been ejected from the Park sneaking back in.

Staged inside a small white room, the community discussion recalls lunch at a high school cafeteria with its diverse crowd and constant clamor. Mark Adelson, Annette Rogers, Police and Housing Community Services Coordinator Shauna Ohm, a uniformed officer and a translator sit at a table near the front.  Before them, some 70 people are packed into chairs.  Others stand.  The majority are women, in colorful hijabs.  Some push strollers into the crowded space.  A small crowd of Caucasians and Asian residents are scattered among the crowd.  Adelson stands and implores the audience: “The safety of our residents is always a priority – we need your help as well.”  The translator recites his message and it echoes and changes as it is repeated in different dialects and languages to others throughout the room.  After the meeting begins, residents keep crowding into the room.

Tensions mount at the meeting as the event’s special guest, Police Chief James Craig, is running late.  He arrives, immediately apologizing and attempting to clarify that he was at a police athletic league meeting.  But everyone is confused before it’s explained that he needs to wait for the translator.  Chief Craig, who wears a dark suit with a purple tie, laughs and launches into his hope of a new “police academy” that will educate immigrants in Maine about the police’s responsibilities to them and, Craig explains, “allow you to be our partners in our fight against crime.”

The focus of the group’s concerns switches to the possibility of a neighborhood watch and the urgency of residents committing to monthly meetings – without consistent commitment, the watch will flounder.  A woman near the front hopes that more young people get involved, saying: “The kids know more than we do.  They see everything, they hear everything.”  Someone comments on the ineffectiveness of the video cameras installed on the site – either criminals are aware of their locations and able to hide from them, or they’re operating closer and closer to residences where the cameras aren’t located.  Later, Adelson will voice concerns about the reliance on technology: “Video cameras aren’t easy to install . . . people tend to view them as a panacea.”  He continues, “No matter how many you put up, it’s not in the right place at the right time.”

The Chief asks the crowd who would be interested in the volunteer watch – there are a few scattered hands.  A smiling young boy, no more than thirteen, wearing over-sized sneakers and a camouflage-patterned baseball cap, waves.  Amidst laughter from kids and adults alike, Chief Craig immediately locks his eyes on him and asks, “What would you like to see?”

“I don’t know,” the boy replies, seeming a bit bored but uneager to back down as the people watch.  A little girl, whose sneakers dangle from her seat above the ground, jokes, “He’s not a young person.”  Craig thanks the boy for his attention and asks why he came to the meeting.  The boy repeats, “I don’t know.”  It’s a quarter past six now, and people are starting to stand up and leave.  Craig tells the boy he wants to nominate him “to be my contact . . . spread the news.  I’ll be back.  Just like the guy Arnold.”  The Chief reassures the boy that he can “wait until nobody’s watching” to give him his phone number.  “It’s all good,” he tries to reassure him.  The boy seems uncertain and tired of the pitch and after Craig finishes speaking, he runs outside.

As people keep trickling out of the meeting room, someone in the crowd says something that gets a few laughs.  Chief Craig asks for a translation, and she tells him that they hope this will be the safest night in the community in years.

* * *

Officer Tim Farris’ biggest concern in Riverton Park is the neighborhood’s kids, who he believes need more substantial role models.  “People have this misnomer that people who live in public housing aren’t good people . . . we have a lieutenant who came from [Sagamore] and he grew up here when it was bad.”  The Sagamore Village housing area was said to be so dangerous in the 1980s that neither police officers nor paramedics would enter without back up.  Now concerns are focused on Riverton and its residents’ safety.

The differences between the two neighborhoods begin with the superficial.  Riverton appears more industrial, with houses situated on an asphalt driveways and only one clear entrance.  The houses themselves are all grey and white with brick foundations.  A “NO LOITERING” sign hangs on the study center wall. Annette Rogers serves as Housing Director for both sites (she is the only Housing Director responsible for two properties in Portland) and says the biggest difference is spacing.

“Sagamore was built for Navy housing, so they’re townhouses, two houses, spread out . . . Space has a lot to do with it.” She explains, “[In Riverton,] Families with ten and twelve kids in these units, next door to another unit with ten or twelve kids, you’ll see it can be quite challenging . . . the units aren’t that big.”   The confined spacing creates a segregated community, Rogers worries.

According to Officer Farris, the major gang in the park calls themselves the “Bloods,” but there’s a “controversy as to whether they’re true Bloods,” or affiliated with an infamous California street gang.  On an afternoon drive through Riverton he passes a teenager in a bright red jacket, a sign of possible criminal sympathies.  More damning, Farris explains, is the red bandanna wrapped around the boy’s jeans leg, a sure sign that he is or hopes to be “down” with the criminal contingent.

“Kids need to belong,” Farris notes.  He worries that Riverton’s distance from Portland and language difficulties for the adults in the community make it more appealing for youths to become involved in criminal activities.  Additionally, he is an active tutor at explorer post programs that serve as outreach to young people interested in joining the police force.  He points out that one of the program’s star pupils was raised in Riverton and was unanimously voted to “Chief,” or a supervisory position.  Farris is convinced that the boy could one day be Portland’s police chief.  He is also quick to dismiss any allegations about the Park’s issues based on race.  “Americanized conflict has always been there [in public housing]” and sees it as part of the historical immigrant experience in America.  He encourages young people to get involved in police programs, as he feels they need diversity to keep involved with communities.  However, Farris recalls one case in which a young man stopped working with the police following intimidation.  “We respect his decision.”

While Riverton residents are apprehensive about voicing their anxieties about crime (and the majority of outreach organizations repeat that the community keeps to itself), one Sudanese refugee, who left the park in 2009, believes that the gang threat has been blown out of proportion.  “Riverton kids . . . [have] been living together for so long that they want to be in the same place.  Not all the time . . . [to] do anything bad.”  He explains, “During the day, you would have kids playing basketball but when it gets dark they wanna have the same social time as they did during the day . . . but at night they don’t have that basketball [and] the police take issue with that.”

An equally sympathetic ear to Riverton Park’s youth is Shauna Ohm, a woman who has worked with the police in various positions since 1988.  Today, she serves as a liaison between Portland P.D. and the Housing Authority, where she keeps an office in the building’s basement.  Ohm has an exceptional tie to the residents she serves, as she immigrated to the States from Cambodia and lived in Maine public housing as a teenager.  She feels able to empathize with the hardships others face as she and her family faced discrimination.  “I encourage them to call,” she says.  “We can find interpreters.”  Ohm knows all of the kids in Riverton and encourages them to talk with her, but is already overworked.  “I’d love to be there five days a week, believe me,” she says of Riverton’s Boys and Girls Club, where she volunteers.  Her primary responsibility for the Housing Authority is performing background checks on prospective renters, and the economy has seen rental applicants spike.  It peaked in the summer – this year, she had to review 62 potential tenants in three months alone.

Shauna Ohm

Ohm is optimistic about Riverton Park’s future.  “We just want to communicate, that’s all,” she says, characterizing both the community and the people she serves.

Beyond Riverton Park, Mark Adelson is curious as to what the future will hold for individual neighborhoods and the organizations in place to support them.  “We’re not building any more public housing . . . we’re seeing how we can help people buy homes.”  Adelson believes 2010 will be essential for subsidized housing, particularly as the Obama administration will need to announce its latest subsidies for Section 8.  “I’m interested to see what the Obama administration will do,” he says.  “The next big subsidy . . . is particularly important,” he says.  Additionally, more young people are attending the youth outreach programs and bringing their parents, but Adelson sees an odd benefit in that even the young people who don’t participate spend more time hanging out and goofing off outside the clubs “being a nuisance, rather than [causing] criminal activity.”  More importantly, he is confident that Riverton Park’s organizers have “No qualms at all about calling up the parents and dealing with . . . [a problem] the way a neighborhood deals with it.”

The basketball court sits at the bottom of a hill across from "service row."


One Response to “Strides and strife in a shared space”

  1. […] Strides and strife in a shared space […]

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