REPORTER’S COLUMN: What Northgate residents value about their neighborhood, and what they’d change

Northgate residents of all ages made one thing clear to Salem Reporter at their Fun Friday social – they love their neighborhood park.

Dozens of families crowded along the winding walking path in Northgate Park last Friday, July 21, to catch up with neighbors and meet face-to-face with those who have a duty to serve them. 

That meant picking up a free Otter Pop from the Salem police to fend off the summer heat, checking out the job services offered by the state Employment Department or learning what Salem Harvest is doing to keep local produce from going unharvested.

The event was organized by the Hallman-Northgate and Kennedy Neighborhood Family Councils. Now in its third year, the gathering was first created by residents who wanted to take back the park’s identity as a neighborhood staple in response to violent incidents. 

Organizers said at the time they hoped the annual event would help families in one of Salem’s poorest neighborhoods build relationships, learn new skills and make the most of their children’s education.

Countless neighbors last Friday stopped by Salem Reporter’s booth and saw a pair of poster boards. We posed to those folks two questions:

“What’s your favorite thing about your neighborhood?”

“What’s one thing you would change about your neighborhood?”

The result was a constructive mix of answers provided by everyone from young children to senior citizens – and two posters boards plastered with sticky notes written in English and Spanish.

Among neighborhood favorites, the most common answer was Northgate Park.

The dense park features a basketball court, picnic tables, a splash pad, a stage and one of the most vital amenities mentioned by neighborhood kids: a soccer field.

A close second was the Northgate community itself – its people and atmosphere.

People generally spoke positively about their neighbors, describing them as kind and humble. Some said they appreciated knowing their neighbors and engaging as a community, particularly during summer events.

Multiple residents also described the neighborhood as “calm,” or “tranquilo” in Spanish. It has a “family feel,” according to one citizen.

It was also heartening to see several children write that they enjoyed going to school.

A young visitor to Salem Reporter’s Fun Friday booth draws with chalk on the walking path in Northgate Park on July 21, 2023 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Regarding what people would change, a number of people pointed to homelessness. Some said they wanted to see less camping in parks and cleaner streets.

A few people said they would like more parks developed in the neighborhood.

We also encouraged people to write a check mark on notes they saw posted that they agreed with. One response written in Spanish which received multiple checks was that drivers need to be more cautious of children as they head to school.

Several people expressed that they wanted police to keep a closer watch on the neighborhood, hoping for reductions in crime and drug use. 

Those concerns come at a time that the Salem Police Department is shifting its public safety focus. 

Police Chief Trevor Womack said in March that his agency was focusing on the rise in violent crimes and fatal crashes in Salem. That meant other matters such as property crime would become less of a priority, Womack told the Salem City Club at the time.

One public safety issue some citizens raised was the presence of gangs in their neighborhood, including an apparent rise in graffiti “tagging.” 

This certainly got me thinking. After nearly two years reporting on Salem’s most pressing issues, it has become clear to me that gang life — and the socioeconomic barriers that fuel it —  is the underbelly of much of Salem’s violent crime.

Its presence was no secret to the people of Northgate. But local law enforcement officials who have the unenviable task of investigating Salem gangs rarely, if ever, speak publicly about the matter.

We as a news organization also bear some responsibility. That is why opportunities such as these when we can hear directly from citizens are invaluable to our reporting. When the community tells us what matters to them, it’s our duty to listen and pursue information on their behalf from authorities.

That includes our youngest visitors at the event, many of whom – after giving their two cents – proceeded to grab chalk from our bucket and draw on the concrete before heading on their way.

One answer from a young child stood out among the calls for change: “Get rid of the guns from kids.”

The call is timely as more teens are being incarcerated in Marion County. Gun-related offenses in particular are on the rise, Juvenile Department Director Troy Gregg said at a May budget meeting.

Overall, Northgate residents had as much to say about what they appreciated as what they would change about their neighborhood. 

It was a pleasure to be stationed at the center of such a buzzing community event and pick the brains of those I spend each day aiming to serve. They showed up, and they were not shy about offering their thoughts.

Now, it’s our job to make sure they don’t go unnoticed.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.