'Some people just find preserving natural areas in their soul'

'Some people just find preserving natural areas in their soul'
Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com Producer/Reporter.

PORTLAND, Ore. - "There's no question that she was just a remarkable individual."

That's what Portland resident Alice Blatt said when we asked her to tell us about her late friend, Jane Baker, who died in 2002 at age 69.

Every Friday we put the spotlight on a local park and Jane Baker, a local community activist, was instrumental in the creation of this week's pick, Midland Park.

The park is a 1.87-acre natural area located at Southeast 122nd Avenue and Morrison Street, right behind the Midland Library. It's been there for decades but once - long ago - it was an ugly, overgrown lot that was an eyesore in the community. The lot bugged Jane, who lived nearby, and she decided something had to change.

"She just thought it was embarrassing to have that terrible vacant lot directly in back of the library," said Bonnie McKnight, a volunteer who worked closely with Jane back in the day. "So Jane organized a group of us and we spent some weekends out there pulling blackberries and cleaning the place up. And actually my kids and I and some other folks put some paths in. We did that all as a volunteer effort and Jane actually bought a lot of bedding plants to put on the side of the bank so it wouldn't erode. And so that was always Jane's park."

'Some people just find preserving natural areas in their soul," Blatt told us.

For Jane, who had always been very active in her community, it was a chance to make something beautiful out of something unsightly. And Blatt said Jane was just the person to make it happen.

"She just had considerable wisdom in applying code to individual proposals out here," Blatt said. "She wasn't an activist that would cause problems. She was looking for solutions to problems."

During her lifetime, Jane also worked with local schools so children could experience nature and she often used Midland Park as the learning environment.

"She was very involved with the David Douglas School District because that's where her kids went to school," McKnight said. "She saw Midland Park as a learning lab for kids who probably would never see a bird or a squirrel or maybe even a fir tree."

Those who worked with Jane on community-driven initiatives decades ago will likely remember sitting at her kitchen table hashing out ideas and developing plans of action.

"She had great connections inside the city because she was such an ethical and courteous person," McKnight said. "She didn't like to drive downtown so she did most of those connections by telephone or by inviting people out to her house to sit around her kitchen table and have coffee and talk to her."

McKnight said she and other volunteers are hoping to someday develop a kiosk that tells the story of the park that Jane helped create. And they're thinking of giving it a name that reminds them of those old times at Jane's home.

"We thought at one point we were going to call the kiosk 'Jane's Kitchen Table' because her kitchen was kind of information central in then-unincorporated Mid County," McKnight said.

Both Blatt and McKnight said Jane's involvement in the community made a lasting impression on not only them, but the neighborhood as a whole. And they said Midland Park is a wonderful example.

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"It's a great credit to her that Midland Park has been preserved," Blatt said, later adding "I have pleasant memories and much gratitude for her help and concern about many things. She was definitely an asset to the area."

"Those kind of people (like Jane) almost never get recognized but they are the backbone of the volunteer effort anywhere," McKnight said.

When Jane passed away, the Mid-County Memo ran an article about her. You can learn more about her work in the community on their website.

Although Jane is gone, her little park in Southeast Portland remains. Today, Portland Parks & Recreation and various volunteers help care for Midland Park, which in some circles is affectionately called 'Jane's Park.'

"We just got done mowing down all the grass and clearing out invasive weeds around the trees for better visibility," Louie Guerrero, Park Maintenance Supervisor for Portland Parks & Recreation, told us.

Guerrero said it was the first time crews have been able to do work at Midland Park this year because of all the rain we've been getting. But now that the weather is getting better, the park is coming to life.

"During the day it's really active," said Guerrero. "I was there last week and during lunchtime people were using the tables and people from the library were coming out. The weather was nice and they were using the park."

Midland Park is a little secluded and is a passing point between the library and the surrounding neighborhood. We talked to Art Hendricks, Security Manager for Portland Parks & Recreation, to find out if there are any problems there.

Hendricks said while the area surrounding the park has a fair amount of crime if you look at the Crime Mapper numbers, the park itself has very few problems. That's probably because there are lots of people watching what goes on there and they report anything that seems off.

"Between the library people, the neighbors and us, we're keeping a pretty good eye on it," Guerrero told us. "If (for example), something happens there the library calls us and lets us know there's activity of some kind in there. We then send in the park ranger and they either chase them out or see what's going on."

One thing we did notice while we were there was a broken birdhouse high up in one of the trees (pictured at right). According to McKnight it's one of the last remnants of a birdhouse program that local volunteers spearheaded. She said at one time there were actually over a dozen birdhouses at the park.

"They got vandalized," she explained. "I don't know how because we had the Fire Bureau help us put them up and they were very high in the fir trees."

McKnight said volunteers used to build birdhouse kits out of cedar and give them away to kids for free.

"We gave them away for nothing and then we would teach the kids how to put them together," she said. "So we always had a table at those events to show the kids what to do - some of them how to pound a nail, but some of them how to at least put the kit together. And there were a number of those kits that went back to families that had never thought about putting a birdhouse out."

McKnight said she and the others who worked on the birdhouse project felt it was an important way to teach kids and their families about the value of nature.

"It was a direct tie to, we believe, the value of the natural environment and the value of having birds in amongst the concrete and asphalt," she said.