From Chapman Elementary to Mount Tabor, public outdoor gathering spaces provide respite, renewal.


COURTESY PHOTO: TARA LEMEZIS, PORTLAND AUDOBON - Thousands of Vaux's swifts assemble at sunset inside Chapman Elementary School's unused boiler chimney.

Over the past week, two unrelated dramas on public land demonstrated different kinds of community.

A few days ago, for the first time in years, I made the pilgrimage to Northwest Portland's Chapman Elementary School to witness an annual September rite: thousands of tiny Vaux's swift birds assembling for the night inside the school's unused boiler chimney.

There is incredible choreography to the act, as the aviary mass swirls and swoops around the chimney, hundreds of times, a few birds entering the brick opening at a time. Together they look like a tornado, but really it's more like merging highway traffic.

At times a hawk or falcon may scare off the swift armada for a few seconds. Yet in time, their sheer numbers simply overcome the bully and the dusk-dance resumes.

At the Portland Audubon Society, some 2,000 people gather nightly here to watch the swifts; at least that many assembled on blankets and lawn chairs on this evening. Even so, it wasn't just the swifts attracting people to this place.

Chapman Elementary borders Wallace Park; together their fields, playgrounds and ball courts create one combined outdoor gathering space. While many of us watched the swifts, just as many kids and adults were immersed in soccer and tennis, swinging on swing sets, or exercising their dogs.

If the birds represented one pageant of choreographed togetherness, this cinematic setting of a late-summer neighborhood gathering place seemed to be playing out in parallel.

Earlier this week before the Chapman swifts trip, police announced the arrest of two teenagers {obj:65817: accused} of setting over 30 fires at Mount Tabor Park.

Running at Mount Tabor two to three times a week, I'd seen the fire damage and, like some of my neighbors, shared those concerns on social media. Soon several citizens began coordinating a plan to patrol the park, while fire and parks bureau professionals began investigations. The arrests arguably came because of collective, coordinated action.

Parks like Mount Tabor and Wallace became even more important during the pandemic and, as COVID-19 continues to impact our lives, they are fuller on the average weekday than they were before 2020. Maybe in some way that's its own kind of community: enjoying solitude together.PMG  - Brian Libby

Sometimes traumatic threats bring moments of clarity. As black burned patches began to show up and the totality of Mount Tabor's woodsy wonder became threatened, it occurred that for all the controversy in recent years of various statues at Portland parks toppled or threatened, the wonder of these greenspaces has never been about the statues. It's about connecting to nature within the city. And if climate change is ever to be reversed, it will come only with a massive reforestation of the planet, including green bands across cities.

This year marked the 200th anniversary of iconic park designer Frederick Law Olmsted's birth. He and his sons created parks and park master plans for cities all over America, including Portland. The statues of various political and military figures we associate with these parks were a later addition. The Olmsteds saw parks as an engine of democracy and equity.

Coincidentally, Olmsted's original partner was architect Calvert Vaux. That's not whom the Vaux's swift was named for, but it's a reminder that whether it's the Chapman Elementary grounds or any of Portland's parks, we're all just looking for the respite and renewal these spaces provide.

Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell, among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or online (

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