Sunday, June 15, 2008

R. Gerard Lester


I met up with Gerard on Thursday the 12th of June at about 9:00am at a great little coffee shop called Common Grounds Coffeehouse off SE Hawthorne in Portland. We had set up a meeting time earlier that week on Tuesday but he was so busy he had to reschedule. I met with him because of a socially driven Portland State University senior capstone class in which we explored the NE Alberta area. The point of the class was to find out how gentrification had changed this once high crime area into one that is be revitalized today. I knew I had to create a documentary about a person involved in the NE Alberta community but didn’t want it to be a question and answer session. I prepared no prefabricated questions or themes for the meeting, as I wanted to create a more friendly organic experience. I’ve always been good at talking with people, and even getting at some underlying things people are hesitant to talk about at first. Basically I wanted to be myself and friendly as I could to get some very real stories about the area and how he felt about it. I was also lucky that Gerard himself is a very easygoing conversational guy, as I really enjoy talking to open people.

Gentrification in the NE Alberta area

Initially I didn’t meet Gerard first, one of my class mates and good design buddy Graham Barey hooked me up with his contact info. The NE Alberta Portland area used to be a mostly black populated area after the destruction of Vanport Oregon by a flash flood caused by a dike collapsing on May the 30th 1948. Vanport was the largest housing project in the United States at the time, and in one night it was gone. Gerard moved to the NE Alberta area about 8 years ago after seeing his house with his wife and falling in love with it. He told me he had taken a lot of flak from his father and mother for it since he had been raised in SW Portland as a kid. He laughed as he told me when his father had first come over to see the house, not liking the neighborhood much, walked out into the middle of the street and using a very loud tone said "I like the house, but I sure don’t like the neighborhood." Gerard loves the area and enjoys the sense of community but has some issues with how gentrification has changed the area in just the past few years. I got the sense through all his stories that while he sees himself as part of the specific community he has reservations about how he might be changing the community even today with his presence there. Gerard talked about how this one house a few doors down from him had been flipped numerous times in the time he has lived in the area. He led in to how this was happening all over the area and couldn’t help wonder if he himself was somehow feeling the effects of a further wave of gentrification. He really feels he is "rooted" to the community and that people moving in recently are pushing more and more people like him out of the area.

I asked him about how gentrification had effected the black community and culture in the area. We talked about this for about a good 15 minuets, and he told stories about things he didn’t want me to repeat as well as a few of his experiences. Before I start talking about the personal stories he told here is the summary of what gentrification is for those that don’t know, straight off of good old

Gentrification, or urban gentrification, encompasses a number of processes of change in demographics, land uses and building conditions in an area, accompanied by rapid increase in a neighborhood's property prices and influx of investment and physical remodeling and renovation. In many cases, the lower-income residents who originally lived in the neighborhood have to move out of the neighborhood because they can no longer afford to live there.

Later on I’ll talk about how Gerard is involved in community learning programs, but this led from that discussion as a side bar of sorts. He talked about how these young black kids, when he first moved in, had stopped him on the street or came to his door every year asking for donations for their basketball team. Being interested in helping youth out he gave a little money the first few times. However after that he got curious and started asking about practices and times they played to see if he could come and watch, the kids didn’t have many details to share. Now he was explicit to say that he didn’t want to pass judgement on them but really only wanted to see them play basketball if he was giving them money for it. What does this say about how the NE Alberta area is being effected by the influx of more wealthy residents, that is up to you to judge. But I thought it was an interesting situation for a possible "hussle" to go down, preying on the newer residents of the area.

I also asked him if he had seen or been involved with any crime or drug related activity in his time there and he told me one story I remember quite well. He did a little complaining about the drug deals he’s seen and the prostitute issues that happen as you get closer to MLK Blvd. After chatting about that for a few he went on about a story of him walking his dog and holding his young daughter near his house. At first he saw this thuggy-looking guy walking his pit bull, he had seen this guy and his dog before and complained about how he just let his dog poop all over the neighborhood and not clean up after it. But as he was about ready to confront the guy after he watch the dog poop and then start to walk off he noticed a parked car with a male and female sitting in it. He didn’t go into explicit details about what he saw happening in the car. He was hold his little girl and walking his dog and could only confront the guy about leaving the dog waste all over. Luckily he had walked in view to where the people in the car could see him and they took off rather quickly. Gerard also talked about crime he’s seen covered on the local news in his area and I think it makes him more aware of the still present crime problem. He talked about thing being fine during the day but at night he wasn’t as comfortable about going out and about.

The NE Alberta Community

We switched gears in the conversation as I talked about my class exploring the area, and showed him the Some People website. He was really happy to see a socially driven website that focused on normal everyday individuals and was immediately interested. Out of the blue he saw Kara Larson’s name on the list of documentaries and said, "I know Kara". Apparently he frequents her clothing store and has purchased a few dresses for his wife as well as other little items. He laughed when he mentioned that even though he and his wife have been in the store a few times, and the community is pretty tightly nit, that he wasn’t sure if Kara knew his name. This was kind of a cool revaluation since Graham who had initially introduced me to Gerard interviewed Kara for this same project. You can ready more about Kara on this same website. Maybe by comparing and contrasting these two people profiles we can discover why Gerard thinks Kara doesn’t know his name!?

After I had shown the Some People website to Gerard he stated talking about his run in with the one person assisting my class. Sandy is a graduate student sitting in the class as well as exploring the NE Alberta area with the class every week. Gerard asked me if I knew Sandy and I said sure, she helps our class. He mentioned he had run into her before the class had even started, at the empty lot where the class met every week. He noticed that the people working at the lot were very "gun-hoe" about doing a community project. He talked with them to see what they were up to and noticed they were putting in cement stairs on the incline of the lot. He wanted to tell them how to do it better but instead opted for the sit back and watch approach. He went on to talk about the fact he doesn’t really like to tell people how to do things in a better fashion. He also talked shortly about the NE Alberta area being a "teacher ghetto" in which he seemed to notice there were a large population living in the area.

Great Outdoors Academy

Time was quickly running out at this point as he had to be somewhere else which in total only gave us about an hour to meet. I quickly turned the topic to Gerard’s non-profit youth program, which I had received a pamphlet from Graham with his contact information. I visited his website
Great Outdoors Academy and read through his pamphlet because as a kid I love the outdoors. My family camped just about every year after I was 5 years old until I was in high school. The outdoors and the many adventures I had are still to this day very important to me. Needless to say I was very interested to talk to Gerard about his passion. And he expressed it as so, a very deep passion for the ever shrinking wild spaces.

Gerard is the owner and operator of Great Outdoor Academy which is a not for profit charitable organization established for helping troubled youth with there understanding of the outdoor spaces. Gerard overall goal is to help these kids develop a understanding about these outdoor areas through artistic introspection and expression. I got the feeling talking with Gerard that this wasn’t a selfless act but instead a passion he wants to share with others. He loves the outdoors even talking about his time at Portland State University and that his favorite memory about it was being on the grounds crew. Which is when he met his wife as well. So I really believe that his love for the outdoors and experiencing a more natural world is what drives this Academy. Not only does he operate an ever growing & popular non-profit organization, but he also spends time at local Portland youth centers like the Youth Employment Institute, "a nonprofit organization that provides education, employment, and personal development programs for youth in Portland." As well as the Mt Scott Learning Center which is about a mile down the road from where I live.
I asked him what was the inspirational force besides just loving the outdoors that made him want to create the Great Outdoors Academy. His response was a question if I knew who Jon Muir was. I wasn’t positive but it sounded familiar for some reason. In order to do Jon Muir more justice then I could here is an excerpt from good old

John Muir (April 21, 1838 – December 24, 1914) was one of the first modern preservationists. His letters, essays, and books telling of his adventures in nature, and wildlife, especially in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, were read by millions and are still popular today. His direct activism helped to save the Yosemite Valley and other wildernes areas. The Sierra Club, which he founded, is now one of the most important conservation organizations in the United States. His writings and philosophy strongly influenced the formation of the modern environmental movement.

Gerard said he was inspired at a young age from Muir’s writings and perspective put forth about he experiences traveling the western wilderness. Gerard mentioned that it was something about Jon Muir’s ability to just gather minimal items for survival and explore. He mentioned that he has to carry many items not only for his safety but for the kids he oversees on trips and how its changes the experience for him as opposed to the romanticized version in Muir’s writing. One of the last things Gerard and I talked about was after I asked about how he was able to integrate artistic expression into a camping trip. He mentioned that he encourages the kids to draw, paint, write about anything they with to convey about the trip. He also discussed a excursive he does with the kids called "Still Hunting". Basically, from what he explained, it is standing still in a place you pick for a period of time watching, & listening to your surroundings. It’s a time of reflection and observation you can only achieve by not interrupting your surrounding with your own activities. He mentioned that the kids he works with are typical of the generation and always have to be moving, talking, or doing something to keep their attention. Still hunting helps them calm down and see the natural beauty and the many things going on around them.

That pretty much summed up the conversation at that point as time was already gone. I thanked him for his time and made him an offer that really seemed to excite him. Since I’m a designer by trade and really appreciated him going out on a limb for me in such a short time frame, I offered some pro bono redesign work for his publication and his pamphlet. He was very excited about improving his publication, as I really believe what he is doing with the Great Outdoors Academy is a novel and helpful way to educate people about the outdoors.

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