In a former freight train warehouse in Missoula's Westside neighborhood not long ago, a hundred people had just finished eating spaghetti when Mayor John Engen got up to speak. Engen thanked everyone in the room and then motioned to a man in the corner. "Thank you, Bob Oaks, for being a pain in many of my parts," he said to a wave of knowing laughter.
This was at the 15th anniversary party for the North Missoula Community Development Corporation, a non-profit that funds neighborhood projects on the north and west sides of the city. In the sunny room next to the Missoula Community Food Co-op, past and present members of the NMCDC's board, a few city council members, architects, city planners, and neighborhood residents sat together drinking Big Sky IPAs and ales. And then there was Oaks, executive director of NMCDC, who'd come to the party riding his recumbent tricycle and had planted himself at the far end of one of the tables without any fanfare.
Some people fake modesty. Some people love the spotlight. Oaks is one of those people who really doesn't see himself as a big deal—even though everyone else seems to.
For the last 20 years Oaks has pushed for and funded projects that have improved Northside and Westside neighborhoods. He's helped salvage historic sites such as the Moon-Randolph Homestead in the Rattlesnake foothills. He's worked on connecting trail systems from his neighborhoods to other parts of town. He's created parks and playgrounds. He helped start a summer Outdoor Cinema where people can watch movies projected on a schoolyard wall under the stars. He's written grants to build affordable homes for young families—not shoddy condos in the middle of nowhere but buildings with charming detail in places where people can get coffee and pastries and walk to an Osprey game. These neighborhood efforts are collaborative; they're often generated by residents and supported by NMCDC partnerships. Yet all roads seem to lead back to Oaks.
He's a community servant. His weekends are often spent cleaning graffiti off the pedestrian bridge he helped get built. He doesn't take vacations. He's championed small neighborhood businesses that support the arts, such as the Zootown Arts Community Center and the Clay Studio of Missoula, and projects based on people's dreams rather than what might make the most money.
Oaks has butted heads with the city, including with three of its mayors. He's pushed for change that has been inconvenient for other leaders, particularly in his radical contention that the people who live in a place should be the ones who plan its future.
The results, he says, have been "incremental...It always seems like there's something important to be done. We hear from people in the neighborhood that this would be important to do, and that would be important to do..."
Oaks, who is 63, is a large man with the long fingers of a piano player. He has graying hair, a salt-and-pepper beard, big glasses that tint in the sunlight, and a poker face that breaks into a mild grimace when he's irked and a giant laugh when he's delighted. If you catch him at Al's and Vic's, drinking a pint of IPA and a whiskey at the end of the bar, you might mistake him for any one of the many other regulars there, but while they're talking about the weather or healthcare or the game on TV, Oaks seems to be quietly listening.
I met Oaks one recent morning at the food co-op, on the Westside. He was there to help the staff get more products into the co-op, which is a member-run, volunteer-based market that's been expanding since 2005. He'd brought a small block of Black Diamond cheddar cheese, pulled out a pocketknife, and sliced it for the others to share. "I used to eat this as a kid," he said. "Maybe we can get this into the co-op."
Then he handed me a product list and asked if I knew people in town who might be able to locate more local products for the co-op. I'd come there to write a story about Oaks but suddenly he had me pitching in to help. This is how Oaks works.
The working-class backbone
When the Northern Pacific Railroad built its tracks through Missoula in 1883, it stationed a depot about where the Northside Kettlehouse sits now, above the Orange Street underpass. Hotels—the Brunswick, the Smith, the Helena, the Montana, and the Coeur d'Alene, whose ghostly signatures still mark the area's old buildings—sprang up to host visitors. The large warehouses along the tracks held fruits and vegetables imported and exported by train. Northside and Evaro Hill orchards spurred an apple festival downtown each year. At Madison crossing, the Garden City Brewery served up Highlander Beer. Near the depot, a dairy provided milk, cottage cheese, and ice cream. William Randolph, the owner of the North Hills homestead, would come into town with a wagon full of fruits and vegetables to pass out to the neighborhood, stopping by the food warehouses for exotics like lemons and bananas.
The Northside was a hub neighborhood, the working-class backbone of Missoula, composed of immigrants—Irish, German, Chinese, and others, as well as American Indians—who cohered because they lived together and did the same kinds of work at the railroad, the brewery, the lumber mills, and the wholesale grocers. When they had to, they fought back. In 1909, frustrated by labor practices in the mills, union members from the neighborhoods stood on platforms and protested, which led to some violent arrests and the famous arrest of labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. The Northside and Westside were feisty and proud.
In 1939, the Northern Pacific closed all the grade-level train crossings joining the Northside and Westside to downtown. They created a single underpass for pedestrians and cars, essentially cutting off the working class neighborhoods from the rest of the city save for that one corridor. And then, in 1965, everything changed again. The interstate was built, which required razing the brewery and 80 houses near Madison crossing. Wholesale foods were transported by truck instead of train, and the Northside warehouses emptied. After an apple blight came through the valley, the orchards were never replanted. And without the economic activity surrounding the neighborhoods, they became less desirable places to live. Buildings stayed vacant for years on end. Northside machine shops closed, laying off hundreds of workers. The depot was decommissioned when Amtrak ended its rail service to Missoula. By the 1970s, the Northside-Westside neighborhoods were left with little more than an area of contamination from railroad activity that was eventually designated as a state superfund site.