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Photo Project Seeks To Bring Neighborhoods Together

A lot of Oregon neighborhoods are changing drastically.  An influx of new blood isn't necessarily a bad thing, but losing the camaraderie of knowing who lives next door can be unsettling.

One Portland photographer set out to create an art project for middle schoolers to help them connect with the people in their neighborhoods.  It's called "Hello Neighbor" and more than  100 larger than life posters are up across the state.

As Andrew Theen reports, some of those photos may already be showing at a corner near you.

Portland photographer Julie Keefe has seen lots of changes in the 20 years she's lived in her NE Portland neighborhood.

SEIKeefe said she came up with the idea for "Hello Neighhor" after talking with Charles Ford, a longtime Portland activist.

Julie Keefe: "Charles Ford said I don't mind the businesses returning, I don't mind the streets being safer, I don't mind the houses being restored.  What I mind is that nobody says hello anymore."

That's what "Hello Neighbor" aims to correct.  More than 100 five by seven foot photo posters are up in neighborhoods in Portland and Central Oregon. They show a variety of people, young and old — with personal quotes.

Israel Clark: "I think that it's a good project for a lot of people to stay focused and not be in a lot of trouble."

Israel Clark goes to Ockley Green Middle School.  She and her fellow students are participating thanks to the the nonprofit Caldera Arts.  It teaches photography and art to  under-served kids in 10 middle schools in Portland and Central Oregon.

Clark and her fellow Caldera students gathered at Ockley Green's library recently to show off their work.

60 of the posters are already up on buildings across Portland.  The students take the photo of their neighbor, and Julie Keefe photographs the students.

The quotes included with each striking black and white photo are taken from the conversations kids had about their neighborhoods.  Israel Clark's quote is revealing.

Israel Clark: "I think that my community is safer now that the drug dealers are gone."

Clark's photo hangs on Mississippi Avenue next to a photo of her favorite neighbor, Tommy Washington.

Washington is wearing  a friendly smile, along with an argyle sweater and  stylish hat.

Tommy Washington: "That's who I am.  [Laughs]  They caught me on a day when I was just being me."

Washington admitted to being surprised when his neighbor randomly dropped by with a dozen other middle schoolers.  He said the line of questioning was interesting and the experience was terrific.  Washington says his picture conveys his love for summer barbecues.

Tommy Washington: "I told them like to fire up the barbecue pit and send up smoke signals which draws neighbors and friends back to the backyard and just have a good time.  A lot of times we don't even have to invite anyone, just fire up that barbecue pit and throw a few onions on the side. [laughs]"

Washington has lived in Northeast Portland his whole life. And he's seen his community change.

Tommy Washington: "We don't really know a lot of the neighbors anymore.  There's a few old-timers still there.  But for the most part, most of the neighbors are new now."

Israel Clark beams just talking about her neighbor.  She said she wanted her friends to see what he's like.

Israel Clark: "On holidays he gives us chicken, and we give him pies and stuff.  Yes, he's patient understanding and kind."

Photographer Julie Keefe says one of the more poignant interviews was with three high school-aged neighbors.

The three agreed that just making it through high school was their greatest accompishment.

One of those kids, African-American Jonathan Cordeta was asked what people should know about him.  He said he's smart, honest and trustworthy, but he feels people in his neighborhood judge him on his appearance.

Jonathan Cordeta: "A lot of people look at me and don't see that.  Or it seems like they don't see that.  Because I got people that see me and they would rather walk by than speak or say hi or something like that."

Another Northeast Portlander said the project was tremendous, and taught kids how to interact with adults.

Caroline Smith

Caroline Smith: "I like meeting people myself, I enjoy people, and the kids?  They was terrific!  I enjoyed it, I really really enjoyed that."

That's Caroline Smith.  She says the changing demographics in her neighborhood don't bother her much, and as for folks not saying hello….

Caroline Smith "I'll go over and introduce myself to them.  I let them know I am the granny of the neighborhood, and everybody in the neighborhood calls me granny."

As Portland continues to grow, the fabric of neighborhoods will undoubtedly change too.

But the kids who made the "Hello Neighbor" posters have shown that generational divide can be closed:  with a simple snapshot and an even simpler hello.