Won't back down 

How Bob Oaks helped the Northside live again

Page 2 of 4

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."

click to enlarge The Missoula Community Food Co-op - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

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.

click to enlarge The Clark Fork Commons, made up of affordable condos - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

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.

click to enlarge The Lowell School playground, one of Oaks’s first projects - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"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.

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