Bursting the Bend bubble

If you’ve lived here a while you’ve heard the term, “The Bend Bubble”. It often arises when residents return from travel, having experienced something very different from their daily routine at home. Awareness of the ‘bubble’ also arises when there is discussion about social inequities that are happening elsewhere that we “just don’t experience here in Bend.” Returning to the bubble feels safe and comfortable. It’s a place where people tend to agree on most things, needs are being met and lives are relatively stable.

My intention in bringing up the bubble is not to be divisive, but instead to raise awareness, encourage action and increase connection. The truth is that due to the dramatic segregation of our City, bubble dwellers reside primarily on the more affluent Westside. I have had to good fortune to live in the bubble most of my life, safely tucked away from the struggles of people living across the tracks. When we are in the bubble, there are things that we can’t see. Over the past six years, my family has navigated the challenging local rental market, migrating from one of the most desirable neighborhoods to one of the most economically distressed part of town.  In his book, Our Kids (2015), decorated Harvard professor, Robert Putnam profiled six U.S. cities to examine how and why we are failing our children in providing pathways out of poverty. With a nation of cities at his disposal, Putnam chose Bend, OR as a community of extreme segregation and socioeconomic inequity. Bend rose to the top of the list, but not the “most livable cities” lists that we are used to see on our Facebook feed by our realtor friends. Quite the opposite. The book includes a map showing that in my neighborhood, 45% of children under the age of 18 are living in poverty. A westside high school student interviewed has no idea that Bend has a poverty problem. He cannot see it from where he exists.

Today, Bend is a rapidly growing city where vital community members such as teachers and nurses are struggling to find housing that doesn't empty their wallets. We can wait no longer. It is time to change the conversation and update the strategy. Local community leaders and developers are beginning to collaborate with change makers and thought leaders to identify tools and create solutions that fit the unique needs of our city. We can no longer look solely through the lens of financial prosperity, we must equally consider the lens of community wellbeing. Financial capital and human capital must be equally valued if Bend is to thrive again.

With respect to developers of both affordable housing projects and new urbanism neighborhoods, the solution does not live in building neighborhoods where residents all look, think, work and act alike. In Bend, those neighborhoods have been built and that strategy has been executed. In terms of affordable housing, our strategy of clustering vulnerable populations in the same neighborhood is further segregating our city and failing to create communities of social support. In neighborhoods on the Eastside, where many residents are in constant financial chaos, schools, churches and social services carry the heavy weight of providing support for our youth and their families. Neighbors cannot support one another because everyone is fighting the same battle: staying afloat. We may be putting roofs overhead, but we aren’t creating supportive neighborhoods. At the other end of the spectrum, in neighborhoods of affluence, independence reigns and busy schedules make lending a hand or connecting with neighbors challenging. Here, isolation, depression and material-derived social anxiety often arises and disconnects neighbors from each other. Asking for help signals weakness and failure.

If we look back to a time when pathways out of poverty still existed, we see communities that took care of all of the youth of their community. Neighborhoods were diverse, neighbors kept an eye on kids, childcare was shared, and kids often ate from neighbor’s dinner tables and pantries. There was a level of trust and security built in knowing the people around you. Kids walked and biked to school. It is the “small town feel” of the past that many of us are longing for. This is a description of the Bend where I grew up 30+ years ago. In an effort to raise my son in a similar way, I discovered cohousing, a type of community prioritizes support and connection by design. These neighborhood attributes have been lost in our race for individualism and personal ascension. In cohousing communities, children have constant playmates and mentors, elders share their wisdom, help with childcare and genuinely “feel needed”. This relieves parents from the constant job of parenting and children have additional adult influences in their life. Asking for help is never a sign of weakness, but an opportunity to grace someone else an opportunity to give. Interdependence reigns. People thrive. Living in cohousing or in neighborhoods where residents value relationships reminds us of the profound collective power we have when we make time to connect. Monthly soup nights are scheduled and rotate from house to house. A neighborhood camp out or lake trip is planned. A lemonade stands pop up on a hot summer day. We begin to rewrite our stories living in the “we” and remember what it feels like to be a part of something larger than ourselves.

The future of Bend lies in creating environments of wellbeing for our youngest residents. Only when we put our priorities on creating diverse communities is there opportunity for systems of support and paths for mobility. Bonds are formed, mentorships are created, childcare is shared among mothers and by neighborhood “grandparents”. Children see families that function differently from their own, and feel the struggles faced by people they know and love. They build empathy and come up with their own ways to lend a hand. With stable housing and the gentle support of neighbors, parents can focus on improving their lives and pathways for upward mobility for children are opened. Improving our lives means putting our energies toward valuable human capital in the form of the families living next door to us. We can all be a small part of the solution.

As suggested at the “Missing Middle Housing” talk by Dan Parolek at Bend’s Tower Theater (March 2017), part of the housing solution comes when developers build more diverse housing types within neighborhoods. It would be encouraging to see a portion of land set aside for a pilot project for a diverse, connected community that assures a diversity of residents by design. It could come in the form of a land lease or a land trust by a philanthropic entity, a municipality, or an institutional entity with land, or individuals with a financial gifts who recognize the need for housing and step up to address the challenge.

The single family neighborhoods have been built. Family structures have changed dramatically since I was growing up here and Bend's housing stock needs a serious update. It is time to build inclusive, diverse neighborhoods for the rest of us. People who want to live next to everyone and who want to pour their energy into relationships instead of the maintaining of things. People who are ready to engage, collaborate, support each other and be supported. People ready to burst the bubble and invest in their relationships with neighbors. As we enter another period of rapid growth, we have amazing potential to direct our future. We can continue to replicate the outdated systems of the past or build a model city that addresses the unique needs of our community. The choice is ours.