City Repair Project: Portland Gems and Growing Pains

Originally posted on October 21, 2015 by Hundredgivers (Author: Kathryn Thomsen).

Most people in Portland are somewhat familiar with City Repair Project, the grass roots organization born out of a harmless act of transgression that began with painting a neighborhood intersection. Some may also recall an odd-looking truck with wings called the T-Horse that roved neighborhoods serving free tea and cookies. 

As the story goes (told in numerous news articles and talks around the world) Mark Lakeman, City Repair’s co-founder, and a group of neighbors tried to get permission to create a more friendly gathering place in their intersection but the city refused. Determined to take back their public space, the group did it anyway and the rest is history. The city is now onboard, and reclaiming public spaces with colorful intersection paintings, tea carts, mini libraries, and cob benches are fairly common in Portland.

Years ago I lived within a short walk of Share-It Square, one of Portland’s first painted intersections. I found plenty of excuses to wander over with a friend, have a cup of tea, and enjoy the warm neighborly vibes.

Earlier this summer, I reached out to City Repair using a generic email on their website. An organization run by volunteers, I thought it might take a while to get a response so I went ahead and added a link to show off some of their good work on my community webpage.

I heard back later in the summer from a staffer at City Repair with a short thank you note, apologies for letting the email slip by, and suggestion to meet. Ridhi D’Cruz, an organizer, part-time place-making manager, and volunteer everything else let me know that City Repair was winding down after their busiest time of the year.

Ridhi has been with City Repair organizing events and working with volunteers for the past four years while working on a recently completed graduate degree in anthropology at Portland State University. Ridhi is from Bangalore, India, where she finished her undergraduate degree in psychology, sociology, and English literature.

“I was living on the fringe at a time when it wasn’t the norm and my friends and family thought I was crazy,” said Ridhi. Her idea of fun back home was painting murals on public walls when she could convince the property owners that it was in their best interest. She did this in her free time when she wasn’t busy working with local nonprofits training staff about information technology and communication development or helping sex workers find a better life.

“My father taught me how to learn by breaking things down things step by step, and asking a lot of questions. This really annoyed my teachers.” After persistent encouragement from her very wise father, Ridhi came to the conclusion that he was right. He suggested she leave home and go to graduate school in a place that would feed and support her creative, activist spirit.

Listening to her animated descriptions of what she’s accomplished already in her life, I realized that Ridhi is a driving force for local and global change. She’s a true gem of a person working for the common good and like many of us, trying to figure out how to earn a living this way.

Ridhi is also involved in a community she calls “the homestead” (Ujima Center). Founded on the principles of permaculture and natural building, it’s a demonstration that is part of theVillage Building Convergence (VBC).

Like me, many Portlanders may be unaware that VBC – which is a 10-day urban permaculture and place-making festival occurring every summer for the last 15 years – is the City Repair’s largest program. A lot of events happen during VBC: neighborhood intersection paintings, permaculture and sustainability workshops by day, and live music in the evenings.

It takes all year to prepare VBC’s 42 or more events that happen mostly at the beginning of the summer, with about half as many projects also taking place throughout the summer. Volunteers work closely with City Repair’s core team consisting of an executive director, board of directors, and a few part-time staff (including Ridhi) who earn a small stipend to make all this happen.

“I’m not sure that it’s possible to get a total count of volunteers involved with City Repair,” said Ridhi. “We have roughly 40 committed team leads and team member volunteers who get more active towards VBC launch in the summer. Many more show up at the events. If we had to place a monetary value on the work they do, I’m not sure we could.”

City Repair is dependent on committed individuals like Ridhi, a team of evolving volunteers, and a tiny budget. Although they have received some grants in the past, with such a small team, it’s hard to go after consistent funding sources. A lot rides on an annual fundraising event happening on Halloween weekend called Howl. Other funding comes from speaking engagements, book sales, and small private or in-kind donations from local business partners.

One of the biggest challenges facing City Repair these days is keeping up with the requests for help from cities all over the world. Cities want to replicate the Portland place-making model on shoestring budgets. Often they have a hard time making a business case to get this type of activity included in the budget.To enable the organization to keep up with this increasing demand for services, City Repair is moving towards a consulting model that charges for its time and expertise. Ridhi finds this transition challenging. “We don’t want to discourage cities from following through with this important work.” She looks to executive director, Marc Tobin, to forge this new path.

The team leans on their co-founder, Mark Lakeman (who refers to himself as ‘old growth’) with his visioning and speaking talents, to convince cities around the world that they cannot live without a program for community place-making.

Regarding new directions, Ridhi said the team is spread very thin. Partly due to City Repair’s subculture context, most of the events happen in southeast or northeast neighborhoods. With more funding and staff support, the organization would be able to make services more accessible to communities in need and expand to outlying areas. They hope to generate more interest from wealthier neighborhoods such as northwest and southwest, and more direct involvement from Portland’s business community.