When Jill Janow became involved with the Pike-Pine Urban Neighborhood Coalition (P/PUNC) she thought she might volunteer with the community group for a fairly short time. Nearly ten years later, and more than five as chair of P/PUNC, Janow has chosen to move on. She leaves with a sense of accomplishment as well as some frustration that more neighborhood projects could not be done.
Janow moved to the Pacific Northwest more than 20 years ago with her former husband and settled on the Sammamish Plateau. At that time the area was essentially rural and not the suburban enclave it is today. But after her marriage ended, Janow knew she wanted to move to a more dynamic, urban area. Pike-Pine made for a natural fit.
"I wanted to find a neighborhood that was thinking about itself, a place that was active in trying to create something. Pike-Pine certainly fit the bill," she said. "I like urban settings and I wanted to be around lots of people and have most of the things I needed within walking distance."
Soon after moving to Pike-Pine she went to a Pike-Pine Urban Neighborhood Council (P/PUNC) meeting. At the time, the city was going through its lengthy neighborhood planning process. In short order Janow found herself taking part in the planning process, working mostly on arts efforts. When the neighborhood plans were adopted at the end of 1998, another looming issue pointed Janow into more active involvement.
The Washington State Convention Center expansion involved building a canopy over Pike Street to cover the elevated ramp and access road connecting the two main buildings. While considered a positive visual element looking east from downtown, from the Pike-Pine neighborhood's perspective it blocked the view of downtown and served as a physical separation between the two areas.
"That canopy cut us off from downtown. And the city gave no thought to what would happen east of the Convention Center," she said.
The issue needed attention. And while there was no real way to prevent the canopy's construction, Janow got active. She led efforts to secure roughly $750,000 in Convention Center mitigation funding, more than three times the amount of money originally offered. Additionally, with a natural turnover of volunteers within P/PUNC, some of whom were burned out after years working on the neighborhood plan, Janow found herself leading P/PUNC in 2000.
"I thought I'd stick around until that money was spent," she said. "I thought perhaps a year or two. It's been six years, and there's still some money left."
The money was primarily spent in three areas, each of which resulted in a physical improvement to the neighborhood.
In one project, a survey of the trees along Pike-Pine was conducted, as was pruning and planting new trees to replace sick or irreparably damaged ones.
Money was also spent on a pedestrian issue, a project near to Janow's heart.
"Pike-Pine is a natural pedestrian neighborhood. We wanted to calm traffic along those streets. Pedestrians needed the upper hand," she said.
To that end, P/PUNC convinced the state Department of Transportation to mark crosswalks on most of the streets intersecting Pike and Pine. Created as part of a pilot program, a report on the crosswalk's success is expected shortly.
More recently, P/PUNC used its resources to help fund the newly opened Plymouth Pillars Park, which features an off-leash area.
While the park's reopening is a positive development, Janow said the process and result is illustrative of how long things can take when working with city departments. The project took years longer than expected and the result lacked the aesthetic improvement the neighborhood had hoped for. She's pleased an off-leash area is part of Pike-Pine. But she's underwhelmed at the end result.
"I'm sorry to say that the park is pretty bleak looking. There were many city delays, which really ate into the money we had. It's certainly a good thing the park has been cleaned up and opened, but the result was disappointing and even sad," she said.
Being a neighborhood activist requires patience and a thick skin, Janow said. Disappointments must be taken in stride. Nothing ever happens quickly. Persistence does pay off, though. One can make a difference. And there have been many personal benefits to community activism as well.
"I'm glad that I was able to help make some concrete changes," she said. "I'm very pleased to have been part of the fabric of this community. That aspect has been wonderful. There are amazing people here and it is rewarding to have a context to meet them. I also think P/PUNC raised the profile of the neighborhood with the City Council and city agencies."
While aware that getting discouraged with city bureaucracy is counterproductive to accomplishment, Janow wishes city government would focus more on the present rather than the future.
"I'd like politicians and department heads to pay more attention to who is living in the city right now rather than who will be living here in 20 years. Small things, like street improvements, are important to people right now. It would be quite helpful if the city would pay attention to human livability and not just real estate developers," she said.
Community groups often suffer when a long-time president or chair steps down. As for the P/PUNC's future, Janow isn't worried. Longtime P/PUNC members Liz Dunn and Betsy Hunter co-chair the organization. Janow noted that a core group of neighborhood people remain involved and focused on the neighborhood.
While she's stepping away from community activism, and likely moving from Seattle as well, she's not walking away from the notion of being a volunteer. Two years ago she volunteered at an AIDS orphanage in the slums of Soweto, South Africa. And last fall Janow spent two months volunteering for animal rescue operations related to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. She ended up volunteering in Louisiana for a short time, then learned of a group called Best Friends. Best Friends had a large operation in Mississippi.
"They had a large space where they would care for the animals. We worked to return animals to their owners and find new foster homes," she said.
As for what's next, Janow is considering possibilities. She may spend a few months working with Best Friends in Utah, near Zion National Park. She may move to a more rural location for part of the year. But it's time for a change, for new challenges and she said it's probably time for her to move on. A photographer, Janow intends to direct some of the energy spent as a community activist back into her artistic pursuits.
"This neighborhood is a work of art," she said. "But cities work at a slower pace and a much larger scale than most art projects."
Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 461-1308.