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.
Wrong side of the tracks
When Bob Oaks arrived in Missoula in the 1980s, houses on the Northside and Westside were bought cheaply and rented, with high turnover. People were out of work. One neighborhood school, Whittier, was shut down in 1985 to save the school district money. Some families still hung on. There were affordable places to buy and rent, but services and opportunities dissipated. The cohesive neighborhood spirit seemed to have been snuffed.
"When they shut down Whittier, no one really fought it," Oaks says. "That building was a mirror image of Paxon and Willard schools. And, of course, the Northside gets closed and Paxon gets rebuilt. It's not because other neighborhoods are exploding with kids, it's that they have more clout with the school district. They have more affluent homes."
In 1989, Montana Rail Link, which was now leasing the rails, built a 10-block chain link fence on the south side of the tracks. The idea was to keep people from unsafely crossing the tracks but also to protect the rail yard from sabotage. The Northside community paid the price: It was now fenced off from everywhere else with just the underpass corridor—a dark concrete tunnel—as a way in or out. The physical barrier enhanced negative perceptions about the neighborhood. "It became the wrong side of the tracks," says Oaks, "the shit-end of the stick, really. Things—like contamination and school shut-downs—that you couldn't do any other place, you could get away with there. It was the neighborhood of least resistance."
But it was actually the construction of the 10-block fence that awoke the sleeping lion of the neighborhood. In 1992, two years after the fence was erected, a group of Northside residents began to meet in each other's homes. They called themselves the Northside Neighborhood Association. Their first newsletter proposed that two pedestrian-bike crossings be built so that people on the Northside could easily and safely cross the tracks to get to other parts of town. Kathi Olson and Mary Barton made lapel buttons that said "Free the Northside 2000"—a reference to the neighborhood's roughly 2,000 residents, not, as some joked, to the year they would actually get their crossing. The newly incorporated NNA brought their proposal to city council. And they took another fateful step: they elected Bob Oaks as their president.
Oaks was new to neighborhood activism. He'd grown up in New York and did his graduate studies in anthropology at the New School in New York City. After marrying, he moved to Seattle, where his kids were born. It was at the tail end of the Boeing bust, not an easy time to find a job in anthropology or anything else, and so, in 1986, he and his then-wife moved to Missoula, where her family lived. "We figured we might as well be broke in Missoula as be broke in Seattle," he says.
Oaks wanted to live in an older neighborhood, he says, but their realtor directed them away from the Northside. "I said, 'What's wrong with the Northside?' And she said, 'I don't think you want to live there.' She finally showed us, and we eventually bought there. It had a bad reputation, but it really was exaggerated."
For about five years, Oaks worked for Mayflower, driving trucks full of furniture. Then he started a home remodeling business. But when the railroad put up the fence, he saw a different kind of opportunity. "I've always been interested in how community happens," he says. "That has to do with anthropology. The access issue became a real cause, so I dove into that."
Oaks and the Northside Neighborhood group began meeting with the city, the Missoula Redevelopment Association, and Montana Rail Link to figure out how to get a pedestrian railroad crossing. But Oaks was also thinking about the future: If and when the neighborhood got its crossing, he thought, that would be it, end of story. And Oaks didn't want to go back to business-as-usual. If they kept the momentum, he thought, they could do more for the neighborhood. So while the NNA negotiated the crossing, Oaks started working with Missoula historian Allan Mathews to make the Northside a historic district.
While many people in Missoula still thought of the Northside as a slum, Mathews and the NNA got the historic designation in 1995, putting the 20-block North Missoula Railroad Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. "A lot of that was just a chip on my shoulder," Oaks says now, laughing. "I was looking at old drawings of the city and there wasn't even anything built on the Southside when the Northside had been there for 20 years. It was like, 'Why do they have historic designation and we don't?"
By the mid-1990s, the last of the factory jobs moved out of the neighborhood—60 sewing jobs went to China and a window and door manufacturer, Missoula White Pine Sash, closed, taking with it 80 jobs. It also left behind contamination, gifting the neighborhood with its second superfund site.
As the pedestrian bridge negotiations continued, St. Patrick's Hospital started looking for community projects they could invest in. Chris Siegler, director of St. Patrick's community services at the time, says it seemed logical to start with the hospital's surrounding neighborhoods. In 1996, they hired Oaks to spearhead their Healthy Neighborhoods Project.
With money at his disposal, Oaks could widen his scope.
The North Missoula Community Development Corporation was born, stationed at a house donated by the Missoula Housing Authority on the Northside, with Oaks at the helm. It was 1996, and one of the most obvious issues was housing: prices for homes had risen even in historically cheap neighborhoods like the North and West sides. In response, NMCDC and its partners created the North Missoula Housing Partnership, to make homes more affordable.
They also began working on problems affecting school children, focusing on Lowell School and its high rate of turnover for students. One thought was that they could update the playground equipment, which had badly deteriorated. Oaks and NMCDC were dismayed to find out that even minimal, ready-made playground equipment was about $20,000. "We said, 'Couldn't we do it if we built it ourselves?'" says Oaks. "Well, just to get the lumber we needed was going to cost $30,000."
St. Pat's offered $30,000 and NMCDC raised $70,000 more. Over the course of several days, 3,000 volunteers built log play structures, a large sandbox, and a splash park. The National Guard put up tents at the playground site where volunteer chefs cooked meals all day long for the builders.
It was a neighborhood victory. The people had asked for the playground and then, there it was. The improvement burnished the reputation of St. Pat's, and of Oaks.
"I think one of the most interesting things about Bob is he has an ability to blend research and local socio-economic issues in a way that the hospital board could understand," says Siegler. "They could see how neighborhood improvement helped the whole community's health."
In 1999, Oaks left his position with St. Pat's and delved into his work as executive director of NMCDC. It was the same year the city and Montana Rail Link finally constructed a bridge across the tracks.
After 10 years of community activism, the Northside was free.
Lost in the supermarket
One of the most high-profile moments for the NMCDC happened early on, in 2001, when Safeway proposed its new superstore on Broadway at the edge of the Westside. St. Pat's applied for rezoning on a two-block area just west of the hospital for Safeway to rebuild its supermarket, which would be double its original size.
Oaks and other activists had been trying to make West Broadway a more pedestrian friendly, mixed-use area that would connect to bike paths. It could be another place for people to live and garden, with smaller shops—even a grocery store like Safeway—that had a neighborhood feel rather than destination, stop-and-go supercenters.
A year earlier, the Northside and Westside had submitted their joint neighborhood plan, which had been included in the Missoula Urban Comprehensive Plan. "It took four years to get the plan done and as soon as it was done, the controversy arose," Oaks recalls. "The neighbors who worked hard on it were suddenly feeling like they were sitting at the kids table at Thanksgiving dinner and the adults were in the other room."
A citizen-advocate group sued the city, but the state supreme court upheld Safeway's deal. The neighborhood did get some concessions: Safeway reduced some parking and put in windows (the original plan had a windowless cinderblock wall facing Broadway) and an asphalt path that could help connect the trail system. Standing in front of the Safeway now, you can see how it could have been worse. The front entrance sports brick arching and slanted roofs. Still, the large parking lot and gas station rule it out as a neighborhood store.
A year after the Broadway battle, Maxine Jacobson, a social work professor at the University of Montana, asked Oaks if students from her Community Organizing class could help him. Jacobson recalls that Oaks was skeptical of outsiders coming in to start a project and then, inevitably, leaving. "It wasn't easy because he had a general distrust of academia, and probably rightfully so," she says. "He's a tough house to play, and he had no problem challenging me about anything, which I always liked."
They started looking for a site for a food co-op. The idea was based around turn-of-the-19th-century settlement homes like the famous Chicago Hull House, run by Jane Addams. It was a Progressive Era idea, where people of means set up places the poor could find food, shelter, and education, and meet as a community. "So we had this vision—Bob, the class, and myself—about recreating this kind of a settlement house," Jacobson continues. "And a food co-op, commercial shared-use kitchen, and café were paramount in Bob's mind."
One potential location, St. Joseph's School, fell through; it was eventually made into a parking lot. But in 2006, Oaks and Jacobson's class found a home on a one-and-a-half-acre lot in an area of trailer homes. They built the co-op in an old freight building, put up 17 land-trust homes, and started working on the community kitchen and café.
Jacobson and Oaks have continued to work on projects over the years, bringing in students to join forces with residents and improve areas piece by piece. "Other groups may say that they're all about collaboration and participation, but Bob does give everyone a voice in the neighborhood to contribute to the project, for real," Jacobson says. "It's not just, 'Oh we're going to have a token poor person from the Northside tell us what they think.' No. It's probably the most labor intensive, most time consuming part of those processes, but he's always been about getting people's input. He has an incredible knack for keeping people on board. He recognizes people's strengths." But, she adds, he's no pushover. "He won't compromise on some things. If he thinks that it's going to hurt people who have less of a voice, then he's going to come right out and say it. That's the Advocacy Bob, saying exactly what he means and making people uncomfortable. And I'm glad; I'm glad there's somebody in this world who can do that."
The biggest challenge
On a cloudy spring day, Oaks takes me on a tour of the Northside and Westside neighborhoods. We hop in his tan Winstar van in the parking lot of the Missoula Food Co-op and head to his house to pick up Gus, his Olde Boston bulldog. Oaks's neighbor is outside shooting arrows at target, and he waves to Oaks, yelling merrily "You're right in my line of fire."
Oaks lives in a modest copper-colored house on the edge of an alley, the kind of house that realtors optimistically call a bungalow. "I live in an alley house," he says. "That's one of the great shibboleths of some folks on city council: 'Alley house? Ugh.' Well, it's worked for me since 1988. And when I bought, it was $35,000."
We drive along the north side of the railroad tracks, where Oaks points out one of NMCDC's earliest projects, The Greenway, an eight-block trail built in 2002 along the railroad fence. It leads to two pocket parks. Old Man Ballard Park is a little green space with a picnic table. "There was actually a house there that had burned, and the debris had never been cleared," Oaks says. "There was still an old kitchen floor and the linoleum was out there covered with trash and weeds, and people had dumped couches and stoves. We did a clean-up and made a park."
At the corner of the park is NMCDC's first housing project, Whittier Court—a cluster of five houses, each a different color, that was built in 2002 and seamlessly blends in with the other houses nearby. Two of the original owners are still there and one newer owner recently added a bedroom and deck. Though high-density house clusters are a historical pattern for the neighborhood, it's a model NMCDC can no longer use: They're illegal to build now.
"I don't find that sensible," Oaks says. "You could build a four-plex with the same number of bedrooms, but you can't build dense, detached houses anymore. When there's been an attempt to increase the density, it's fought viciously by a number of city council people and the homeowners associations. They're afraid if any neighborhood is densified, it'll breed undesirable density in their neighborhood. I think it was the best development tool in the city."
Housing has been the biggest challenge for NMCDC—and the one it's embraced most fervently. In the mid 1990s, NMCDC was able to get 30 households into homeownership with a program that offered $2,000 in down payment assistance and a 2 percent mortgage. By the late 1990s, housing prices on the Northside rose to the point that the assistance was no longer enough to get low- and moderate-income families into homes there. They needed to be able to subsidize up to $30,000 or $40,000.
"To justify paying that amount we had to demonstrate that that subsidy stayed long-term and that, if the family sold, that money stayed with the property," Oaks says. "That idea really went with what I wanted to see on the Northside, too, which was increasing first-time homeownership for young families. So we started the community land trust."
Whittier Court was the first housing development in the area based on a community land trust model. In 2000, NMCDC established its Land Stewardship Program. The community land trust allows NMCDC to buy the land where a house is—or they can construct the house—and sell the house itself to low- and moderate-income first-time homebuyers who earn less than 80 percent of the area median income. The homeowners own the house and lease the land for a small fee. Because the land costs are removed from the equation, it's more affordable, but the homeowner still gets tax benefits and builds equity by paying off the mortgage.
Across Broadway, on the Northside, Oaks shows me the second NMCDC housing development, Clark Fork Commons. The mint green condos sit along the Clark Fork River. We walk along the sidewalk past porch nooks full of flower boxes and over a little bridge that crosses a small ditch that runs through the property. Condos like Clark Fork Commons haven't been an easy sell for NMDCD because when people buy a first home in Missoula, they're often looking for a detached structure. "The houses at Whittier Court, when they come up for sale, sell quicker than here," says Oaks. "That's because those fit people's concept of what home ownership should be."
Another hurdle is that housing is still relatively expensive, compared to what it was in the early 1990s, and working-class wages haven't really changed. And NMCDC's housing commons were both built right when the real estate bubble burst. "We were making headway toward getting regular dedicated support for the community land trust," says Oaks. "And that all died. It was like, 'Oh, we've made a big mistake concentrating on homeownership, what we really need is more rentals.' Well, we do need those, but unless you build safeguards so that rentals—or a percentage of them—are permanently affordable, you're not going to solve the problem. Everything flies to market rate."
We drive to a deserted-looking industrial space on Scott Street where there's a small manicured field and another lot full of untamed grasses and weeds. This was White Pine Sash, the former window and door manufacturing facility that closed on Christmas Eve in 1996 and left a superfund site behind in a residential neighborhood. Oaks says the DEQ promised a cleanup in 1999, then 2001, but not much has happened yet. The manicured lot is a playing field, but the land around it—some of it owned by the city—still needs to be cleaned up. Oaks has been pushing for it to be cleaned to residential standards. Housing development efforts have come and gone, often because the city health department has insisted that the whole area be cleaned before any development occurs, and most developers didn't wait around for that to happen. Now, it's being considered for a commercial-grade clean up, which would preclude new housing.
The work in the neighborhood isn't over. It never is. But Oaks says perceptions have evolved: "I don't think we hear people say, 'Oh no, I would never live on the Northside' anymore. There's a positive change. All of a sudden people started craning their necks, saying, 'Oh, there's community happening there. How do we do the same kind of thing in our neighborhood?'"
The Missoula dad
Jerry Petasek was one of the first community land trust homeowners. He and his wife, Leslie Gallant, bought a house at Whittier Court in 2003. "A lot of stuff was out of our price range and what was in our price range was ridiculously run-down," Petasek says. "I realized how fortunate we were to get that home; it changed our lives. I loved the idea of doing that for other people."
Alison Handler, the NMCDC land stewardship coordinator who brought the idea of land trusts to Oaks, was set to move to Portland, Ore., and she introduced Petasek to Oaks in the guise of getting him a job. Petasek had no experience with land trusts other than his experience with buying a house at Whittier Court, but Oaks hired him. On the first day, he handed Petasek the Northside-Westside Neighborhood Plan and a stack of information on community land trusts and told him to start reading.
The first several weeks, Oaks tested him.
"He would say, 'Okay. You're at the bar, on the stool and a guy sits down and asks you what you do for a living. How do you explain it?'" Petasek says. "And then he'd say, 'Okay, you're at a conference in front of 1,000 people who are housing professionals and you have to explain what a community land trust is. How do you explain it?'"
Petasek also wrote emails for Oaks, who would correct them. "It could be really annoying," Petasek says, laughing, "but it's made me a better writer. That's important to him. And he's a phenomenal writer. The number-one reason we get as many grants as we do is because of Bob."
At the Kettlehouse, Oaks listens to young activists, giving some of them the information they need and the opportunity to make things happen. "He's all about empowering other people, not taking every cause and championing it himself," Petasek says.
When I call local activist Molly Moody to talk about Oaks, she refers to him as her "Missoula Dad." Moody, who went on to direct the Montana Organizing Project, was one of the first young activists to work with Oaks as a community organizer, on neighborhood projects including low-income housing and an initiative that helped prevent lice at Lowell School. "Anything that came through the door she was immediately on top of it," says Petasek. "That's the kind of stuff Bob allows us to do."
Hermina Harold, another community organizer under Oaks's tutelage, has been working on getting the Burns Street Community Kitchen at Burns Street Square up and running. The kitchen will be open to people who want to prepare food and there will be a café, the Burns St. Bistro. An afternoon program to serve free meals to low-income kids was launched last week in partnership with the Missoula Food Bank and the Boys and Girls Club. It all happened because Oaks listened to Harold and others.
On the NMCDC website, Oaks talks candidly about the challenge in building healthy neighborhoods. It takes a holistic view, he says. "Sadly," he writes, "we sometimes even find it difficult to explain our perspective to the organizations whose business it is to fund and promote the good work of community building. They don't usually say so, but we fear they may see us as being 'all over the board.'"
Oaks has a new project these days, too—Trust Montana, which is trying to take the community land-trust model statewide. The idea is to build partnerships between sustainable agriculture advocates, real estate developers, and historic and wildlife preservationists to keep land in perpetuity that can include affordable housing and farmland. It's the first time Oaks is really looking beyond individual neighborhoods.
And the old struggles continue. Comment threads on community forums have more than once accused Oaks of being a gentrifier, of pushing out the poor, of wasting money. One such comment irked him enough that he had Petasek track down the commenter through the IP address and Oaks sent him a postcard—just to let him know that you can be critical, Oaks says, but you can't be anonymous.
The gentrifying criticism has two sides. Oaks is committed to building low-income housing and healthy neighborhoods, but once you start improving a neighborhood, everyone else wants in. That's why every neighborhood needs a plan, he says, and the city's growth plan should be the sum of them. That's an uphill battle.
"There've been many times when I was like, 'This isn't worth it.' And then Bob will step in and say, 'No, it is worth it,'" Petasek says. "Sometimes I'll have ideas for how to do things that really aren't necessarily mission-driven, and Bob's always kind of there to say, 'No, we're not gonna do that, even though that might be an easy way out. We have to come back to what the neighborhood needs. It's why we're here.'"