Early in the week of September 14, 2015, an exciting story burst into view within the Reed College bubble. This tale of intrigue was replete with all elements of newsworthiness: a villainous corporation, hungry for money at the expense of the community, heroic neighbors prepared to face dire consequences in order to stand up for what is right, and a clock ticking on impending doom, in the form of a wood chipper poised outside of a lot on 36th and Martins.
The scene is set on the morning of September 16, when people started to gather around the three massive 100 year old sequoias in a lot not far from campus. Some had been there for days, since the first rumblings of a tree-cutting crew were heard through the neighborhood early Monday morning. Squinting into the sun, onlookers could glimpse a man seated 40 feet in the air, on a platform attached to a mighty redwood. Within a few hours, somewhere around 40 police officers crowded the lot, streets were blocked off, and rally cries were heard. News outlets were shepherded around barricades to record the event from adjacent lots. Cue the lights, cameras roll, and the narrator's deep voice booms: Will the residents of Eastmoreland be able to save the trees from the evil corporation?
Before our story continues, let’s meet the cast.
Playing the villain is land development corporation Everett Custom Homes. “They don’t build custom homes, they have five cookie cutter suburban huge mansions that they put on these lots, that they leave no trees, they leave no spaces for gardens. . . it just doesn’t belong in our neighborhoods in Portland,” said Doug Fix [2000–, history] who has been involved in the protests for several months.
Our hero is the Eastmoreland community, a ragtag group who realized the power of collective effort to affect meaningful change. Led in part by Robert McCullough ’72, alumnus and president of the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association, neighbors have been at work since June engaging in manifold methods to save the three sequoias on the lot in question from destruction.
Finally, our damsels in distress. The three redwood trees that have been standing for about 100 years on a residential property in Eastmoreland. Towering over the neighborhood at 150 feet tall, these giants hold special meaning to the surrounding residents.
And now, for some exposition. “Back in April. . . a developer purchased two lots that are close by where I live on Carlton Street. . . the neighbors didn’t realize until June. . . that something was going on,” said Fix. “The neighbors got together with the developer that day in late June and tried to convince him to keep the trees. . . or sell the lot to them, and he wouldn't budge, in fact he gave them an outrageous price — 250,000 more than he got the two lots for,” he continued.
Fix got involved in the efforts to save the tree in late June, when a neighbor alerted him to the issue and solicited a donation, which he happily gave.
For months, the neighbors were involved in negotiations with Everett Custom Homes. After realizing it would be impossible to raise the money the corporation was insisting on, “we presented him with an alternative idea which was to realign the lots themselves. . . to keep the trees there as either a backyard or front yard and then put two smaller houses on the lot that didn’t have the trees,” said Fix.
Despite these continuing negotiations however, over the weekend of September 11, an ominous fence went up around part of the property, concerning neighbors. This prompted those involved to “[start] creating a list to alert people about urgent developments involving the trees,” said Fix.
Then, the plot thickens. “Monday morning around 8:30. . . I got a notification. . . and I ran over,” said Fix. Everett had sent over tree cutters.
In the stark face of the violence of that act, protesters mobilized. “There were cars in the way that would not allow the chipper to back up onto the lot. It was actually pretty hectic,” said Fix. The protest continued to escalate and “when the president of the neighborhood association arrived he walked right on to the lot, and many of us followed him, and we were around the trees which prevented [the tree cutters] from actually doing any work,” he continued.
By the afternoon the police had been called in, and protesters were forced to decide if they were willing to be arrested for their cause. Though no arrests were made that day, the presence of the police galvanized protesters, and they redoubled their efforts.
Among those present when the police arrived were some members of the Reed community. Earlier, Fix had reached out to former student Mick Song, who, along with Paul Messick and Alex Krafcik, had spread the word about the situation over social media.
“Maggie Hoffman and several other Reedies were there at the Martins Street site on Monday morning,” said Fix. “If Maggie...and the other three to four Reed students had not been there with us on Monday morning, when the tree cutters arrived, we might not have been able to save the trees,” he continued.
Later in the week, more Reedies began to involve themselves in the protest. “We were speaking to one of the organizers and when we told her we were from Reed she exclaimed ‘Finally! Where the hell have you all been! It's about time,’” said Robby Murphy, spokesperson for the protests for GreenBoard. “This really brought things into perspective. Such an important thing was happening in our community, but we had invested so little support, while others were taking time off their full time jobs,” he said.
Once the sun set and the police left on Monday, neighbors concocted a new plan for community engagement, and it was most certainly a horse of a different color. On Tuesday families were encouraged to bring their children to come see the trees, in order to bear witness to their beauty, and serve as witnesses should they be removed. “That day a lot of people came over, the activists on the inside. . . opened up the gates, and it was actually a very beautiful day. . . somewhere around 400 people came by to look at the trees that day,” said Fix.
It was that evening that “the tree sitter David Walter came over to the sight...he said he needed to go take care of a bit of business, but that he was coming back and he had time on his hands,” said Fix. Walter serves as the unlikely hero in our story. “He had never climbed a large tree like that ever before in his life,” said Fix. Despite this lack of experience, he was willing, under the guidance of activists, to ascent the limbless first twenty feet of one of the trees, and perch himself, indefinitely, on a platform 40 feet above the ground.
Walter’s presence, and the continued insistence of the protesters, was beginning to bring the situation to a head. On Wednesday morning “people gathered fairly quickly” at the lot, said Fix. “Then there was a stand off and that lasted for most of the day,” he continued. “The police tried to get the tree sitter to come down, and he was very smart, he paid no attention to them at all.”
Though the protests had been an object of fascination and discussion around Portland all week, Wednesday brought particularly extensive media attention. “I was there all of the morning. . . and gradually as the TV crews showed up we were able to guide them into neighbors lots, so they could get in to see the tree sitter more closely. . . I ferried in probably four different TV crews,” said Fix.
That afternoon found McCullough in intense negotiations with Everett, mediated by the Mayor’s office. Fix reports that none of the protesters were aware of the contents of those talks.
While the negotiations proceeded, though, in a final act of malice, Everett sent in tree cutters again. “I think this was just a tactic to force the people who were negotiating. . . to agree to his, what I still think is an outrageous, deal.”
Don’t despair, in the triumphant climax of our story, the music swells, there’s not a dry eye in the house and — “there were so many people there on Martins Street at the time, that we got together and literally forced the tree cutters out of the area,” said Fix.
Later that day a deal was struck with the developer, the police left, and, finally, the unlikely hero was able to come down from the tree. “It was merely meeting the demands of the developer to put up earnest money on Friday. . . papers will be signed in the next few days and then the lot will belong to the neighbors,” said Fix.
So, did the kids save their neighborhood? This time, the answer was yes. However, this wide eyed view of protest in action, while exciting, does not encompass the whole problem, one endemic to our expanding city.
“Part of the reason people got involved had to do with the fact that Everett Custom homes, and the younger generation that has been managing it. . . has been tearing down houses, fine houses, houses that could be remodeled or left, and cutting down trees in this area for at least a couple years,” said Fix.
The cause of this turmoil seems to go back to the same problem plaguing many American cities: too many people and not enough space. “When the city decided that it did not want to expand beyond its boundaries. . . but knew that the future migration into the city was going to be large, because of Portland’s relatively good climate. . . as a living site, they decided the policy to take on was. . . the fill-in, but they did not provide the right kind of guidance for that kind of a policy, and then the economy got better and developers decided to invest, and they invested rapidly,” Fix said.
Though there does not seem to be a clear path forward to solve these problems before they occur, Fix is hopeful for other neighborhoods using the same methods that Eastmoreland employed. He believes that neighbors coming together, and organizing effectively, can have the power to stop bulldozers in their paths. . . or wood chippers, as the case may be.
When I think of trees back home in the northeast, I think of the green or red-orange, or sometimes naked blurs they become when I am driving down the highway. I think of a certain mid-sized model I climbed to the lowest branch of as a kid, and I think of the way I colored them in in elementary school, brown trunks with a black hole in the center and bushy greens on top. Generally amiable, typically friendly, occasionally tripping and taking out power lines.
I think if I had grown up in the Pacific Northwest I would have drawn trees differently. The firs, cedars, and sequoias that are first visible from the window of the plane as it sails lower over the landscape are magnificent even from great heights. The spirit of awe they inspire transcends the everyday. These trees prompt average people to give up mornings and afternoons and mental space to fight for their survival.
“I grew up in an area of eastern Colorado where there are almost no trees, you can count all the trees,” said Fix. So now that he is here in Portland, “I just love the trees,” he finished.