In Portland, You Can Have All You Need by Sharing

When challenged with the quest to find 10 innovative ways that people in Portland share, I was amazed to find how easy it was once I started looking. We are surrounded with the most amazing of all things – step out of your house, have a look around – and yet it seems there is so much want. What stops us from taking in and enjoying all the great things, tools, clothes, gadgets, parties, gardens, activities, and events around us? I would suggest that the real innovation here is not some new thing or system, but a certain level of willingness, flexibility, daring, and persistence.

Here are a dozen circles of sharers who, as you read this article, are delighting in the fruits of sharing. They vary from large to small. Most operate with a balance of giving and receiving in mind, whether in the form of consensus, equality, nonviolence, or otherwise offering creative and flexible options like sliding scale pricing, barter, or open gifting.

Clothes, toys and gifts: The swap tradition runs deep in Portland. I could direct you to the giant Trash-to-Treasure event run by over 100 volunteers every Spring, or to countless underground “naked lady parties” where people gather at someone’s house and throw their clothes in a heap. Some of the larger swap groups like SwapnPlay share everything from toys to clothes to childcare and more. But it's good to put a face on innovation, so I introduce you to Barb Hughes. She and her family have run clothing and stuff swaps for years; I have found everything from shoes to a telescope at her swaps.

Most recently she created SwapPositive as a place for swappers around Portland to get the word out about upcoming swaps. The swaps that Barb hosts take place in a large gym with an emphasis on fun and respect. She and her family take care to make the experience positive for everyone by taking advance reservations, requesting clean items, suggesting ways to make sure everyone goes home with something they want and donating leftover items. Swaps are free from beginning to end. All items offered and the space used are given freely, and swappers are asked only to use swapped items for themselves or as gifts with the long-term goal of creating a thriving free economy.

Paintings displayed at a Trash-to-Treasure event in Portland. Photo credit: Mary Anne Enriquez. Used under Creative Commons license.

Event Spaces: Trying to find a space for neighborhood meetings and events often requires innovative solutions for individuals and nonprofits alike. In Portland, we are fortunate to have countless churches, theaters, and garages that are available for use with a little creativity and effort. I recall a yoga studio that offered an unscheduled hour each week for neighbors to come and meditate. With a little help from the neighborhood association, it is fairly easy to block off the street for a rollerskating party with neighbors.

Through a partnership with the activities coordinator at one of HomeForward's neighborhood apartment complexes, I have been able to use a lovely community room and kitchen for classes, swaps, and meditation groups as long as I opened them to residents. Multnomah County Libraries also offer meeting spaces free of charge for activities that are open to the public. For larger groups, space can be a huge budget item. MotiveSpace is an organization that supports nonprofits, neighbors, and community-based organizations with design, building, planning. and development services. They offer that extra help in planning and financing larger projects like The Barn – a sort of condominium for nonprofits with sharing and collaboration at the core. The project is in the works and visualizes shared spaces and services like reception and bulk supply ordering.

Chickens: About five years ago, Naomi Berg and her next door neighbor tore down the fence between their houses and shared the yard space to construct a run that they filled with chickens. They share the costs and labor that go into building coops (They are on the second one now.) and a chicken tractor for their garden beds, as well as the cost of feed and coop bedding, and in doing daily chores. In the very beginning, they had never cared for chickens before, but their neighbors had, so they were able to learn from them, as well as from the doing of it all. The benefits of sharing go beyond the fresh and delicious eggs, says Naomi, “We [also] share … the joys of watching and loving the hens, the sadness when we lose a hen, and we share the chicken manure which has greatly increased our compost and soil quality! Another benefit is the ability to leave town knowing that the hens will be safe and cared for by the other while we are away.”

What she notes as the biggest obstacle is also a hidden benefit: communication. “It may seem trivial,” she observes, “but I have found that fear and anxiety can arise when opinions differ over things like coop design or how to treat one of our sick hens. Despite the fear and anxiety, we have continued to be open and honest, as well as flexible.” The upside of this is that sharing anything with neighbors gives you a reason to stay connected with your place in the world despite of busy schedules. “Issues arise with the hens and, because we are sharing, we have to interact and make decisions together regardless of how busy we are.”

Tools: Residents of North, NE, and SE Portland don’t need to fork out cash or use up shelf space to have a router or a band saw on hand, and what a godsend it is to have the right tool for the job. The NE Portland Tool Library and the SE Portland Tool Library share space in a church, while the North Portland Tool Library is based in the historic Kenton Firehouse. Tool libraries are free with proof of residence and offer a wide variety of tools, workshops on building a birdhouse or a garden bench, and opportunities for shared services like sharpening blades, as well as networking for help with projects.

Shelves of tools available for lending. Photo credit: Beatrice Murch. Used under Creative Commons license.

Electronic Gadgets & Maker Spaces: So mom won’t let you use the kitchen table to solder LEDs? The bathroom isn’t a big enough space for you to repair that Space Invaders game you acquired? Or, perhaps, you’re working on a larger project? Portland offers a variety of shared workspaces for makers and startups: Nedspace for entrepeneurs, BrainSilo for hackers, or ADX for those needing a full-on wood or metal shop.

The most innovative offering about shared creative space as opposed to rented or paid space is the value of community and support in the form fellow makers who are neither paid instructors nor rule-setting monitors. The value may come in small packages such as being able to turn to someone nearby with a little part in hand and say, “Hey what’s this little springy screw for? Have you ever seen one of these?” to the more fundamental long-term thrill of co-creation and growth.

Computers: Tech-curious Portlanders can go down to the library and play games on a shared iPad, but for those who desire a more in-depth computer experience, here is an example that is really innovative in its efficiency and workflow. FreeGeek takes in unwanted computers, monitors, and electronic gadgets. Volunteers part them out, test them, and sort the odd bits into bins for metal recycle. Monitors, CRTs, and old televisions are also recycled safely through partnership with other organizations.

There is nothing so empowering as taking a crowbar to an old computer case and knowing you are helping yourself, your community, and the environment at the same time. Volunteers receive training on how to build (and unbuild) and test a computer, and can also take classes on the Free and Open Source Software that the computers run on. By contributing hours in recycling, intake, or building computers that are given as hardware grants to local nonprofits, volunteers can also earn their own computer to take home. The operation also hosts a thrift shop that sells some of the refurbished computers and computer accessories. Tight.

Prom Dresses: Prom dresses (and bridesmaid dresses) are one of those things that make a lot of sense to share considering how many there are that don’t get used more than once or twice. Thanks to Abby’s Closet, all those sequins and lamé have another chance to shine. Year round, people are invited to clear out a big poofy pink section of their closet and make a donation at one of more than 50 convenient locations around the Portland area. Then, once a year, high school girls have the opportunity to pick their favorite dress from thousands of choices. It is a fun, all-day event where young women from high schools all around come out to choose a dress, and receive other gifts and accessories to mark this special occasion, while those contributing items receive other benefits as reflected in this note from the donor of a vintage satin orange number: “I have never owned another piece of clothing so special. I hope it helps fulfill another girl’s prom dreams.”

Letterpress: Maybe it didn’t even occur to you that you needed a letterpress, but you could have access to one through the Independent Publishing Resource Center, a place that “facilitates creative expression, identity, and community by providing individual access to tools and resources for creating independently published media and artwork.” Membership for would-be authors, printers, and artists is available for an affordable sliding scale fee and offers access to workspace, computers, printers, book-binders, and lots of community support for creatives. Their library of original works and resource materials is available to the general public and is searchable online.

Party Props: As featured before on Shareable, collector, event planner, and master recycler Lane' Bigsby knows from her own experience that weddings can be a big, one-time expense and very environmentally unfriendly. Something Borrowed offers a lovely collection of odds and ends to make a unique happening for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, or showers: a suitcase, a birdcage, a kitchen scale, and a set of vintage amber Indiana Glass goblets for 30 people and doilies galore. Sharing, reusing, and recycling are the bottom line at Something Borrowed so, although there is a nominal fee for lending, no one is turned away for lack of funds.

Items from the Something Borrowed catalog. Photo credit: Simply Rosie. Used under Creative Commons license.

Food: Those who put their mind to it can go without the conventional weekly visit to the grocery store, as shared meals abound among friends and neighbors. Food Not Bombs offers regular meals in the park. Sisters of the Road Café makes delicious, nourishing food accessible to everyone in a safe, hospitable space founded onmutually supportive, caring relationships. For many years Portlanders met to share a cup of tea under the mobile T-horse, a project of City Repair. Churches offer regular community lunches or bags of groceries.

Walking distance from my house in the city, I can find huckleberries, blueberries, blackberries, apples, figs, cherries, and pears on publicly accessible land. In a much more coordinated effort, Portland Fruit Tree Project gathers fruit from orchards and residences around the area that would otherwise fall to the ground. Last year, participants gathered 39,000 pounds of fruit – 10, 000 of which they kept for themselves and the rest was shared with 4,000 other families in Portland. For those wishing to pack up some of that fruit for the winter, North Portland's Preserve and Serve can lend out the necessary supplies.

Sewing Machines: As a beginning sewer and a mother of three small children in a house with little extra space to set up a sewing machine, I was overjoyed to find this gem in my neighborhood. Sew-Po is a neighborhood sewing store with a welcoming display of cheery fabrics owned and operated by three generations of “one big happy fabric-loving family.” It feels more like a visit to a friend’s place with a few sewing machines and a play area set up in back. The machine and clean table space were a blessing, and it was great to have someone nearby to ask a question or show off my finished product. They also offer regular classes for a fee, but open sew is available every Friday for free.

Trucks: Most of us aren’t hauling a yard of gravel on a daily basis, but when we need to relocate a sofa or pick up the garden mulch, its great to have a truck on hand. For $160, members of Nat West’s truck share get up to 240 miles of truck use (a nice large serious one with an optional trailer). There is a little mileage book in the truck and everyone writes down their starting and ending odometers, which he shares on a Google docs spreadsheet every couple months to keep track of miles and occasional contributions for gas. It seems simple enough, but the innovation here is at a less visible level.

Nat is not new to sharing or innovation, already having negotiated the use of an empty lot across the street for a mini CSA, having shared his table with friends and neighbors every(!) Wednesday for the past five years, and having started his own cider business out of his basement – which he built (the basement, that is) with a little help from his friends. The innovation here is in Nat’s willingness to take a risk, ask for help, and set up a clear structure, as well as in the trust and kindness between members of the share. Nat takes priority for himself as the truck owner (as he has a pretty regular flow of apples and basement concrete), but in general, if there is an overlap in scheduling, the truck people just work it out. “Last time that happened to us, we just ended up sharing labor, as well,” notes truck sharer Ben Kreusser. “I helped Patrick load up and dispose a truckload of yard debris, and he helped me distribute two yards of mulch around my garden.”

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