The Neighborhood That Could

by Deborah Bloom

Today, the Trainsong neighborhood bustles with life, clamoring with children’s laughter and the smell of barbecued hot dogs. Families spread out across blankets, setting up lawn chairs and picnic baskets atop grassy planes. Neighbors hug and relax on park benches, asking for updates on each other’s lives. That residents here even know their neighbors’ names is a sign of good faith for resident Tom Musselwhite. Three years ago, he was reluctant to leave his backyard.

“When you’d ask most people what they thought about Trainsong, they’d say ‘oh, that’s full of homeless people and drug dealers,’” he said. “It was really starting to spiral downhill then. Muggings. Crime. Burglary. Drugs. I started getting paranoid. I didn’t want to deal with it.”

Yet, even with 38 percent of residents currently living below the poverty line, Trainsong is now moving beyond the shadow of its reputation. Today, it’s a place with a developing sense of community and empowerment, where people smile and wave to each other — a neighborhood some are proud to call home.

A Dark Past

Thirty years ago, Tom Musselwhite moved into what was then known as the Bethel Triangle, a neighborhood with an active association and a lively social life. On sunny days, residents would barbecue and invite the whole neighborhood onto their front lawns. “It’s gone through changes over the years. It felt like a real community then.”

The Trainsong neighborhood is in one of Eugene's most industrialized areas, bordered by train tracks on all sides

Trainsong, renamed in 1981, began to change once the ‘80s recession hit, spiking down the average income. Quality of life declined. Property values shrank. Pockets of low-income housing sprung up next to the surrounding train tracks, and younger people, searching for temporary housing, began to move into the neighborhood. “A lot of people came who had no way to pay. Don’t have educations. Dropped out of high school. Don’t have skills. Looking for another way to make money,” Musselwhite said. “So that’s become a real problem here.”

In 2003, Trainsong represented 1.1 percent of Eugene’s total population, and 5.4 percent of the city’s criminal offenses. Four years later, after Trainsong witnessed two drive-by murders, a fatal stabbing, and several assaults within one year, Musselwhite decided to take action. He set out to change the neighborhood of Trainsong from the outside in.

Connecting to Town and City

After seeking advice from Eugene’s public safety specialists, Musselwhite created a flier and went door-to-door, inviting his neighbors to come to a barbecue at his home. Neighbors met other neighbors, talking about their mutual concerns of safety. “That was exactly what my intention was,” Musselwhite said. “To get people out and talking, know who their neighbors are.” From this, a neighborhood watch group was born. Phone trees were created. Neighbors began to connect, trust and account for one another.

This led to the revitalization of the Trainsong Neighborhood Association, a group historically known as ineffective and unresponsive to Trainsong’s rising crime rates. The group began meeting regularly, discussing shared concerns regarding their community and planning events: neighborhood clean-ups, barbecues, movie nights, kids’ programs, and public forums.

In 2009, once the city recognized the Association as active, both assistance and public funding for community development programs could more easily be secured. Members of Health Policy Research Northwest, a non-profit that evaluates regional health care needs, were contracted by the city to start holding Healthy Neighbor Forums, where Trainsong residents could assemble and discuss issues of accessibility of healthy food and planning opportunities for safe physical activity.

Later that year, the city surveyed Trainsong residents in order to identify the most commonly shared concerns among residents. Brad Lane, a local pastor and Trainsong Neighborhood Association member, says that this sole effort engaged more residents than ever before. “When there’s this kind of a momentum and people are feeling like their opinion is worth something, it releases a sense of fulfillment and a more positive direction for the area.”

Up, Up, and Away

From then on, Trainsong saw more community involvement than ever.

That year, Operation Clean Sweep was implemented, a day where residents helped each other — at no charge — rid their homes and porches of debris, broken electronics, and old furniture. The event was an enormous success, ridding the neighborhood of several dumpsters worth of debris. It was the first time that residents saw a tangible difference in Trainsong as a result of their efforts.

Trash is often strewn across Trainsong's lawns

Isaac Fornshell, a volunteer for Operation Clean Sweep and a current member of the Trainsong Neighborhood Association, was blown away by the turnout. “It was way above what we had expected,” he said. “We actually had to take a couple days afterward and a couple more trash trucks to gather everything. And we still didn’t get all of the stuff.”

In May 2010, Trainsong Park’s walking trail was resurfaced, making the park more inhabitable and therefore safer. “It gets more people coming through here so passing through isn’t such a shady experience,” Fornshell said.

After Musselwhite completed his term as Trainsong Neighborhood Association president, resident Nicole Sharette stepped in as leader. Her first plan was to institute a policy of waving in the area. “We decided it would be a nice way to acknowledge people who are in the neighborhood that we might not have seen before,” she said. For a neighborhood dealing with transients and crime that often originates from outside the neighborhood, acknowledging one another with a wave proved to be a good policy, making nefarious strangers intimidated, and friendly strangers feel more welcome.

“We’re not scared of each other anymore,” said Sharette, eyes grazing over Trainsong Park, where jubilant, tree-climbing children slowly replace the influx of troublesome, pot-smoking teenagers. “Now, there’s a community.”

Service and Protection

In 2008, before the Trainsong Neighborhood Association resumed activity, residents requested the city’s help in reducing instances of crime in the area. The Eugene Police Department then began to establish a firmer presence in Trainsong, operating a station directly from the Trainsong Park. According to a 2008 EPD evaluation, this effort received substantially positive feedback from the community.

Police maintain a presence in Trainsong that is sometimes controversial

But even efforts to outreach couldn’t negate Trainsong’s historically tenuous relationship with the EPD. “A lot of people in the neighborhood feel like they are constantly harassed by police – to say the least,” said Sharette. “And then not protected when they need to be.”

According to Sharette, Eugene Police will sometimes issue J-walking tickets in Trainsong — a neighborhood with very few sidewalks or crosswalks. She says EPD officers sometimes stop young adults in Trainsong whom they suspect are gang-members, partially unclothe them, and photograph their tattoos. Sharette once saw a police officer stop to question children while recording them illegally.

But Eugene police office Margaret Mazzotta — who helped organize the first of Trainsong’s Neighborhood Association meetings — attests to the positive influence the EPD has on the Trainsong community. “People seem to appreciate us being here. The law abiding citizens are usually happy that we are here and taking care of problems.” Plus, “when we have a presence, crime tends to go down.”

Sharette acknowledged that having a good relationship with the EPD was essentially to Trainsong’s longevity. “We want to figure out a way where we can not only build some respect for the police department for the neighbors but vice versa — without disrespecting their jobs or saying they are doing them wrong.”

EPD's McGruff the Crime Dog with Trainsong's children

But it’s a delicate relationship, one that Trainsong aims to better through organizing police ride-alongs and question and answer sessions with police officers and the neighborhood’s youth — with the eventual hope of making Trainsong a safer place for families.

Rough Road to Recovery

Despite Trainsong’s development as a cohesive, viable community, the neighborhood still faces many obstacles to becoming a safer, more cohesive environment. Trainsong still accounts for 4.6 percent of crime in Eugene. Median household income is only 63 percent of what is earned on average in greater Eugene. Homelessness is still rampant throughout the area. And drug usage is a major concern to Trainsong residents.

Andrea Ortiz, Trainsong resident and Eugene City Councilor, realizes that lasting progress for the neighborhood of Trainsong means empowering residents and cultivating change from within.

“I don’t think those issues have changed, but the way people deal with them are,” said Ortiz.  “They aren’t talking in the wind. They actually know who to go to talk to about their issues.”

A Bright Future

Pastor and community member Brad Lane socializing with his neighbors

Today, as Trainsong pulsates with change, the city is currently working to put into motion a new planning model for the neighborhood: the Strategic Neighborhood Action Plan. This month, the Association completed a plan that incorporates Trainsong residents’ top priorities and concerns: safety, accessibility, reputation, essential services, and transportation. Although it will take two years to implement, this is the largest, most comprehensive plan Trainsong has ever seen, one that promises a happier, safer future for Trainsong’s residents and families.

With so many positive developments in the area, some residents are optimistic that this is the only the beginning. Ortiz envisions Trainsong becoming a destination spot for Eugene residents. “I feel hopeful. I feel like were on the cusp of really being a cool neighborhood,” she said. “This is going to be the place to be.”

Musselwhite, like Ortiz, is hopeful that these developments indicate a brighter future for the neighborhood is Trainsong. “I think we’ll continue to build and grow and more and more people will take time again to start functioning more like a community,” he said. “I see a brighter light at the end of the tunnel.”

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