Unique to Urban Green’s approach to grassroots community development is its emphasis on community gatherings and celebrations. The Oak Grove area, though, has barely any physical or social center, and having a “sense of place” seems to require something like a town center or at least a gathering place. A six-mile strip mall along McLoughlin Boulevard just doesn’t cut it.
In 2008, the Oak Grove Coffeehouse opened in the old town area of Oak Grove Station. The owners wanted to have a place that people could identify with, where they would go to hang out with friends and talk; a community meeting place. Members of Urban Green posited that an “open mic” could be a seed for the sense of community we wanted.
We chose a date and made a few posters. We emailed some people who could email some other people and the word got out. We collected some basic equipment, microphones, amplifiers, a mixer, some extra chairs, and so forth. No fund-raising was necessary. We didn’t need to buy anything. A few musicians just shared what they already had.
The first Open Mic Night was held on September 8, 2008. We learned the we have a lot of musicians and poets here. The opening night was surprisingly well attended and there was a lot of good music and poetry. It was a great night, full of magical moments and fun. We held another a few weeks later, September 26, and then settled down to monthly Open Mic Nights on the last Saturday of each month. At times the place was so packed we were worried that the fire marshal might discover us and restrict access. On other nights, perhaps because of bad (or really good) weather, it was kind of sparse. But still, it always felt successful and soon became consistently well-attended.
Realizing that we needed to maintain contact with the community, we founded Oak Grove Commons. It manifests as a website (www.oakgrovecommons.org) and a mailing list. As of this writing there are more than 200 names on the mailing list. The website is minimal, but it does allow people to sign up for the mailing list. Each month we produce a colorful poster to place here and there in the community, and an email reminding people about the date. In addition, the use the email list to promote performances by local musicians and announce community music and cultural events.
We continued at the coffee house for two years until the Oak Grove Coffeehouse closed. After that, the Open Mic moved to Spring Creek Coffee House in Milwaukie for a couple years, then to the Elks Club for 2 years, then Liz’s Creative Cafe for a while. We learned that our Open Mic was centered around community, not the location.
The spirit of our Open Mic Night is to be open to everyone and to whatever might come out. We aren’t critical or cynical about performances, the performers, or musical or poetical styles. Performers often feel that open mics become too competitive and the sense of community suffers from it. People have remarked that the spirit of our open mic is practically unique in this respect.
It takes a lot of guts for a performer to stand in front of a group and sing a song, dramatize a poem they wrote, or play an instrument. It could even be a life-changing experience for some, as they finally face their demons and go for it. Open Mic Night attracts a very accepting and open-hearted audience. We realize that it is precious to be there when someone reaches a little beyond themselves, and we welcome them doing just that. Even when a performer flubs, the audience is very generous with their support. Most often the spirit of the place creates a magical evening that inspires us on many levels and makes us smile.
Because of this open mic, there have grown the makings of an artists’ community. Both musicians and performers are attracted to the positive, non-competitive spirit of the event. Our spirit of openness has encouraged collaborations between performers, and we have been delighted by new, ad-hoc groups “cross-fertilizing” to innovate exciting new styles. A number of fledgling performers have advanced their art and now perform in different venues around Portland. The key has been to establish a true sense of openness and support for each other.
A great side effect of the emergence of the Oak Grove musicians’ community is their enthusiasm in playing at community activities. One theme promoted by Open Mic Night is “the community entertaining itself”. This takes musical performances out of the realm of business and puts it in its traditional role of enriching shared community activities. One good example is the yearly Fairoaks Festival (that began as the Fairoaks Block Party). A prominent attraction of the Festival is the live music. A rich array of musicians from the Open Mic Night volunteer to play throughout the event, and they can be heard up and down the street, adding to the overall feeling of festivity.
The Festival attracts a couple hundred close neighbors who join with others in a big potluck dinner. The combination of music, excellent food, colorful decorations, and some organized activities brings people out of their houses and into friendly social contact. It has a powerful effect of creating a sense of community for the area.