Story and photos by Diana Higgins
Trainsong Park is calm on a Friday afternoon. Fenced backyards follow a bike path around the edge and a still blue cargo train covered in graffiti lines the western side. A boy skates alone on the ramps. Tom Musselwhite sits at one of the many benches drowned in sunlight, recalling the changes the Trainsong neighborhood has gone through in the past 30 years. Moving between Trainsong and other parts of Eugene many times has allowed him to observe the neighborhood and its growth. Two children run down the path and explore the playground gleefully.
Musselwhite has lived in and around Trainsong for decades. He was inspired to get more involved when he noticed an increase in gang activity. He says that more and more youth, aged between 15 and 20, were tagging public property, mugging people and getting into other violent activities. In 2008 Musselwhite became the first president of the recently reinstated neighborhood association. He switched positions a year later, but is now president once again.
According to the City of Eugene website, there were many reported crimes in the Trainsong neighborhood in the first three months of 2011. These crimes include 3 rapes, 11 simple assaults and 16 instances of drug abuse. Similar to the number of crimes in the area in recent years, the neighborhood only hosts a small percentage of the total crimes in Eugene, but to those who live there safety is a serious concern. Neighborhood residents are taking matters into their own hands and working with the city to improve the safety problems, as well as other issues like youth activities, which is resident Nicole Sharette’s top priority.
With a newly functioning neighborhood association and issues to be addressed, the Trainsong neighborhood was chosen as the pilot for the Strategic Neighborhood Assessment and Planning (SNAP) program. SNAP is a city-funded program that allows city planners and neighborhood association members to work together to figure out the most pressing issues in the neighborhood and create goals in addressing these issues. It is then up to Trainsong to determine what it will take to accomplish these goals. The city will fund up to $5000 worth of projects, but the project ideas must be submitted to and approved by the city planners before any funding can be given. The neighborhood has until February 2012 to use the SNAP funding.
Rene Kane, a City of Eugene neighborhood planner, says she likes to let the neighborhood association grow stronger by helping itself and its neighborhood, rather than the city intervening. “As a rule we work with neighborhood associations mostly at their request,” she says.
The Trainsong neighborhood is outlined to the west by Hwy 99 and on the other three sides by train tracks, hence the name. “I found that a lot of people who live in this neighborhood really do love the sound of the trains,” Katie Amondson, a Looking Glass Station 7 employee, says.
The Trainsong neighborhood had many successes before SNAP. As reported by Molly Blancett of KVAL News in April 2010, Trainsong Park is becoming more of a place for kids to go and have fun, compared to the violent and scary place it often was a few years ago, where muggings were frequent. Musselwhite says that the neighborhood has started having community events to bring people together. One such event is the annual “Celebrate Trainsong” day, when the neighborhood works together with Eugene Tree Foundation to create a fun and educational atmosphere with music and prizes. Trainsong has also worked with Health Policy Research Northwest to have forums allowing residents to gather at the local Red Cross and discuss social and health issues in the area.
“From day one our biggest question has been how do we engage the youth and provide them with opportunities that look more inviting to them than teaming up with the [gangs],” Musselwhite says. Every train that passes by bears gang markings. Musselwhite describes there being two main gangs, both of which recruit local youth, as well as one biker gang.
Amondson says she definitely notices the gang presence. The Trainsong area is littered with graffiti representing gangs. However, she says, “I go on walks in this neighborhood and feel safe.”
While the area has improved in the last few years, some danger still lurks. Amondson even describes the neighborhood and the drug users as “in a battle for Trainsong Park.”
Several SNAP meetings were held in the last nine months at the Red Cross or Bethel Community Church, both located in Trainsong, to start the process. According to Amondson, the meetings were filled with people who lived in Trainsong, worked there, or both. Musselwhite says everyone was given small round stickers and told to stick them by what they thought were the most important issues in the neighborhood. The residents and city planners had listed many options on boards all around the room. When people were done sticking, by far the top five issues were about safety.
Musselwhite acknowledges the safety concerns in Trainsong, and says, “I think if you deny there are risks in the world you leave yourself open to walk right into one.” However, he says he hopes it will not become too big of an issue because a large increase in police presence will negatively affect the feel of the neighborhood.
Since the meetings ended and the SNAP memorandum of understanding was signed in February, progress has been slow, in Musselwhite and Sharette’s opinions. There are a lot of people involved in the decision-making process and, as Musselwhite says, “communication takes time.”
Members of the neighborhood association have had several ideas about how to use the SNAP grant, Musselwhite says. Sharette and resident Susie Backes, for example, want to create a neighborhood youth council. To start it off they were planning an event for local kids to build longboards which would give the youth something to do and address access issues, a goal of the SNAP work plan. Another idea was to pay locals to maintain the bike path along Bethel Drive. Musselwhite says the neighborhood wants to remove the blackberries that take over where the path ends as well as plant trees along it. Both of these ideas, along with others, did not make the cut when presented to the city, and therefore received no funding from the SNAP grant.
Sharette is confused by the disconnect between what the neighborhood wants and what the city will fund. With regards to the longboard plan, she says, “to be honest, I can’t figure out why that idea was shot down.”
“Since the city pays a lot for planning, I suspect they have ideas about what they would like to see happen. So do the neighbors with any interest in ‘what the neighborhood needs,’” Musselwhite said in an email. He says it has been hard for the neighborhood and the city to come to an agreement on what projects should be funded. “The city has not shown support for any of the ideas we have had yet,” he says.
Kane sees the situation differently. She says that the ideas Trainsong presented did not have a large enough outreach. She says she feels very open to working with the neighborhood association, and she adds, “We’d love to hear about the youth council.”
The varying opinions of the Trainsong neighborhood association and the City of Eugene neighborhood planners may be hindering progress as the SNAP grant money lasts only another nine months. “Attempting to work with the city is always a bit of an adventure,” Musselwhite says.
A red Obsidians baseball cap and black sunglasses guard Musselwhite’s face from the sun in Trainsong Park. His long white beard peaks out from the shade and his sleeveless shirt allows his tan arms to soak in the rays. Although frustrated with the city’s strict idea about what is good enough to warrant funding, he is patient. “It’s important to me to work with everybody else that is willing to work together.”
Sidebar: The Trainsong SNAP Goals
S1. Develop a viable Neighborhood Watch Program
S2. Enhance and Maintain a positive relationship with Eugene Police Department
S3. Increase home and property security
S4. Encourage safe driving, and pedestrian and bicycle safety on neighborhood streets
S5. Reduce high risk behavior in youth, teen and young adults
S6. Increase neighborhood participation in Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT)
S7. New Trainsong neighbors feel welcome to the neighborhood
I1. Beatification of neighborhood entrances and eastern edge
I2. A Healthy, safe and nuisance-free Trainsong environment
I3. Improve neighborhood streets
HEALTHY AND EFFECTIVE TRAINSONG NEIGHBORS
H1. The Trainsong Neighbors board is complete, stable and active
H2. The Trainsong Neighbors board is responsive to neighborhood needs
H3. A diverse and adequate number of Trainsong neighbors are engaged in neighborhood activities
H4. Trainsong Neighbors has adequate resources to meet its needs; information about the neighborhood’s financial resources is regularly communicated to Trainsong residents
BIKING AND WALKING
BW1. Trainsong is a safe and enjoyable place to walk and ride bicycles
ACCESS TO SERVICS
A1. Work with community partners, existing programs and businesses to explore how to increase access to healthy food, recreational opportunities, services and other amenities
Sidebar: A Q&A With Resident Nicole Sharette
Q: What is your involvement in the neighborhood association?
A: I served as Vp in 2009 and as President in 2010 I am currently not on the board but volunteer for events etc.
Q: How did Trainsong go about getting the SNAP grant?
A: We applied along with four other neighborhoods to be the pilot program for the SNAP. We worked as a board on the application and it was submitted and then chosen by City of Eugene Neighborhood Services Department
Q: What would you say is the most important issue to address out of the objectives outlined in the SNAP work plan?
Q: What progress has there been so far toward using the SNAP funding to make neighborhood improvements?
A: Ugh not sure I want to answer this one. Lots of guidelines to using it, the City has final say and they tend to have no suggestions as to how to use the money but they didn’t like my idea of having youth in the neighborhood build their own longboards (in sponsorship with Cascadia Longboards) thereby addressing idle hands and access issues for youth in Trainsong. I became a little frustrated by the fact that we did a lot of hard work and then were not allowed to choose how to use the money. I decided to step back from the Neighborhood Association primarily based on this fact and other frustrations with bureaucracy and red tape.
Q: I have been told by the current neighborhood association president that no ideas have been chosen to be funded yet. What ideas have been presented and why do you think they didn’t work for SNAP funding?
A: Well the idea I stated above and to be honest I can’t figure out why that idea was shot down. There was also an idea to hire neighbors who are out of work, on a temp basis to help convert our ditch into a bioswale. This was also shot down right away. When we tried to modify the idea to just include ways of converting the ditch with volunteer help and to use the money for materials and refreshments for volunteers we were also shut down. It seems like a bit of guessing game with the City. They want you to figure out what they want but they will not disclose what they want to hear. I felt this a lot while working them .
Q: What is it like working with the city?
A: For the most part it was enjoyable, the folks who work for the City are dedicated and well intentioned, if not a little idealistic in handcuffs. I just struggled with all the indirect messages and insinuations. I felt like more was invested in process than in results and that there was a lot of waste in the SNAP process that was not needed. Tons of paper work and process and not a lot in the way of actual tangible results. As an association we expressed initially that we did not see the need to evaluate need anymore, we had just finished a nine month process with HPRN that did that very thing. We were assured that it would be a solution building piece not just an evaluation and I feel like that was misleading, intentionally or not I can’t say. We have a hundred trees worth of paper to show that we spent good City money in a process that was redundant and nothing to really use in moving toward solutions. I think SNAP has a lot of pottential but it basically useless in the hands of Government. It is fair to say that I am all about small government, with small, dedicated budgets and do not support spending for the sake of spending. I am at the core of me, an anarchist and would rather see small groups of individuals doing this work, leaving Government out of it all together.
Q: What is your favorite thing about living in the Trainsong neighborhood?
A: So many things I can’t really say them all but here is a try. It is colorful, not like a rainbow but like an oil slick in a puddle. Trainsong has character, it has a smell, a shape and sense of community. We have rednecks, bikers, hippies, gangstas (pronounces jankster cause the “g” is soft) folks of all shapes and sizes, young and old people and everything in between. We have big old houses and new small apartment complexes. We have our own little church, a growing local brewery, lots of great locally owned businesses. The sound of kids playing, motorcycles roaring, bands practicing and dogs barking at all the stray cats fill the air here.
Trainsong park is cute and quaint with stuff for the whole family to enjoy. We are tucked away (or cut off from access depending on how you want to look at it). People in Trainsong are real and loyal and they look out for each other. The crime you hear about is not from our neighborhod it is targeted at our neighborhood. Trainsong is alive and kickin and I love it, bad reputation and all. I like that we call it Trainsong instead of train-noise, it is a perfect expample of the yummy lemonade we make from lemons everyday.