Cool for the Summer

A Volunteer-Built ‘Summer Park’ Sprouts in St. Johns

Hay bales, a movie screen, and a silent disco transform a gravel patch while it waits in construction limbo.

By Margaret Seiler August 15, 2020

Instead of a pile of gravel, the lot that was once home to the Central Hotel and Dad’s bar is now a temporary park.

When the old Dad’s/Brad’s/John’s/Central Hotel on N Lombard Street was demolished last summer, it seemed some progress was being made toward the four-story, 30-unit building that had long been planned for the space. But, as with many projects around town, a slowing economy and a global pandemic have stretched the process indefinitely. For passersby, the delays meant a fenced-off patch of gravel overtaking the plaza in the heart of the downtown St. Johns, right next to a bustling Saturday farmers market and a stone’s throw from the picturesque St. Johns Bridge.

“My friend and I would always walk by it and fantasize about all the cool stuff you could do with that space,” says Lauren Everett, who lives a few miles east.

“It feels very much like how in Latin American city planning or village layout the zocalo—the plaza—is always right in the middle, so it has a corporeal kind of feeling. I thought this should be something better than what it is,” she says. “St. Johns already has incredible parks, but they’re on the outskirts of the community. It doesn’t really have anywhere to hang out in the middle of town if you buy food to go other than the plaza, and there’s like one bench in the plaza right now.”

Everett, an artist, filmmaker, and urban studies student at Portland State University, reached out to the lot’s property manager last September about making the space, at the corner of N Lombard Street and Philadelphia Avenue, available for community use, but at the time there were expectations that construction might start soon. “Then in early June I just thought I’d give it a shot again, especially with COVID, because we need so many more outdoor spaces for people to be,” Everett says.

A silent disco in the St. Johns Summer Park

This time, she was given the green light, and the St. Johns Summer Park was born. Everett found volunteers through Facebook (“It’s hard, because I hate Facebook, but it is so useful sometimes it’s impossible to get off of,” she says with a laugh), and they coordinated to smooth out the gravel and bring in seating and build a shade structure. The St. Johns Boosters Association agreed to help with insurance, Ace Hardware and Metro donated paint, Linnton Feed & Seed contributed hay bales for seating, and Javier Patino, who owns an adjacent building, offered up a wall as both mural space and movie screen. There’s also a nonworking piano, cornhole boards and bags, and headphones offering a silent disco. For the elements that will be touched, Everett is hoping people make good choices, sanitizing hands before and after contact, and wearing a mask. Most interactions she’s witnessed in Portland give her hope people will be careful. “Going to the protests, I’m just so used to that being a given—like, if you’re not wearing a mask people will look at you, and then just give you one,” she says.

A grand opening is set for 5 p.m. Saturday, August 15, with a mariachi band and, after dusk, a screening of The Muppet Movie (the 1979 original). After that, Everett says, the space is simply available. She hopes neighboring restaurants, including Thai Cottage and Taqueria and Tienda Santa Cruz, will consider an extension of their own spaces.

“I hope that people feel like they can come and play music or come and have whatever event, poetry readings, Black Lives Matter rallies, anything. The only rule is just to respect the space, clean up after yourself, and, you know, not break things,” she says. “People are so used to asking for permission, which makes sense, because we live in a private property society where that’s very central and ingrained in us.

“It’s a matter of just empowering people to feel like they can use public space, I think definitely I’ve been inspired by what I’ve seen from the protest movement this summer in terms of ‘We’re just gonna set this thing up here. We’re just gonna be here.’ Obviously there’s a different intention there, but that feeling of  ‘Hey, this is our space, actually’ is really, really inspirational.”

Feathered friends at the DIY St. Johns Summer Park

While Everett says she pursued the park “just as a community member in the peninsula,” it dovetails with her work at PSU. “What I study is the relationship between people and places they live and use, so this is a practical, hands-on way to be in that.” She stresses, though, that anyone can do what she and her partners and fellow volunteers pulled off in St. Johns.

“It’s totally doable. Just knowing that is the first step,” she says. “If you can get together a group of really dedicated people, it’s totally doable.”

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