Getting to Know Your Neighbors

Q&A with Vincent Dawans and Kim Alter

If you’ve recently seen a tall dark-haired man circling SES with a garbage bin and a shovel, or throwing Metro bags into the back of a truck, you’ve spotted Vincent Dawans. Vincent joined the SNA’s Community Safety & Livability Committee in December 2020. Having spent much of his career working on poverty-related issues in West Africa, Dawans was increasingly alarmed by the poverty and homelessness he saw here in Portland—specifically in Sunnyside, where he and his wife Kim Alter and their son Felix have lived for 14 years. In December, he volunteered to lead a regular trash pick-up in the neighborhood with the help of other volunteers. In early February, he organized the successful clean-up of the gargantuan trash pile on Hawthorne and 36th. More clean-ups are planned.

Dawans and Alter met in Brussels, Dawans’ home town. Alter, who was getting her MBA via Boston University’s Brussels program, was working as an intern in the marketing department at Dow Corning, while Dawans worked in I.T. “I needed a mouse and my supervisor said, ‘You have to call Vincent (vahn-sahnt) at the help desk,’” she recalls. Even though she was transferred to the wrong Vincent (it’s a common name in Belgium), the couple eventually met. The rest is history.

In 2000, the couple launched Virtue Ventures, a small social enterprise consulting firm that focuses on projects in India, West Africa, and the United States. They have crisscrossed the globe for their work—from Washington, D.C. to Kazakhstan, Brussels again (where Felix was born) to Oxford, and Tanzania to Colorado, California, and eventually to Portland.

When did you settle in Portland?  

Vincent: 2007. That’s when Felix was to start school, so we had to find a place that was a bit more gentle than Washington D.C. and that was Portland in 2007. We had come here for work around 2002, working at an organization in Corvallis called Oregon Cascades West Council of Governments, and we liked that it was a walkable city.

Did you settle immediately in Sunnyside?

Vincent: Yes. I got bamboozled into buying this house. Being the financially responsible one, I was going to rent for a year and …

Kim: When we looked for a place to rent, the guy showed up stoned. He was telling us it was a Buddhist temple or something like that. There was a homeless person living in the garage. We were like “Does he come with it?” So we walked back to our car. I’d already seen this house online…We paid too much for it.

Vincent: It’s an 1885 Queen Anne. It requires a lot of maintenance, but we love it. We do have a problem with too much demolition in Portland—turning everything into these square boxes. I understand that some of the older houses may not be the best environmental standards. We have to find a balance.

What do you love about Sunnyside?

Kim: The walkability between Belmont and Hawthorne. Being close to Powells, Movie Madness, the theaters where we would take Felix when he was younger, all the cool funky shops, access to the library and the parks. I really have appreciated all of that.

Vincent: I didn’t want Felix to grow up in an environment where you have to be driven everywhere. He went to Sunnyside Environmental School. As he got older he was able to take the bus further out. Also, I’m an introvert. So for me to be able to go out in the street and be there with people, without having to interact much, is important. You can do that when you’re in a walkable place.

What drew you to the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association?  

Vincent: I’d grown very frustrated with the polarization of everything in this country, including the local government. We can’t do anything about anything because everything is about everything. That includes the homeless issue. One side says, “These people shouldn’t be here.” and the other side says, “These people have nowhere to go.” Somehow we manage to take these entirely compatible opinions and create two opposing teams around them and get stuck.

So when I saw the Community First Statement on the SNA website — which is nothing earth-shattering, just a pragmatic, down-to-earth statement of things to be done – I thought, “Finally! Something anchored in reality.” It doesn’t make for some crazy vision. I thought it was so refreshing, and the SNA had endorsed it. So I went to a CS&L Committee Zoom meeting. Then hearing the conversation of the committee, I thought, “These are people who are very pragmatic in their conversations.” It’s kind of sad that that’s something special. But it is, now. Being pragmatic and down-to-earth, today, that’s a special skill.

The trash clean-up was an easy point of entry for me. I was already doing that in my neighborhood. So that was a natural thing.

What is one thing you’d like to see change about Sunnyside?

Vincent: I’d like to have more local government. We all know that the centralized form of government we use in Portland is broken. It might have worked when it was a smaller city but now that it has grown… You should have a neighborhood area where you could get services—from getting help applying for various government services (getting a driver’s license or applying for a passport) to the ability to get more basic requests answered on the spot (such as getting a permit for a block party or trimming a street tree). That’s how things are done in Belgium.

Kim:  I don’t know if it’s specifically Sunnyside or just a sign of our times, but things are changing. We’re less cohesive than we were, and less friendly. The eroding of the neighborhood with these new middle-section houses everywhere are destroying the physical integrity of the neighborhood.

Vincent: We can have a smaller city in a bigger city. My example of a decentralized government gives you the best of both worlds. It actually does work. That’s how Brussels is designed; it’s divided into 19 little cities, or “communes.”  It comes from the French Revolution and it’s a French concept. In Belgium, that level of government is responsible for street cleaning. So, that’s what I’d like to see for Portland. If we did that type of thing, I think it would make this a much more livable city.

Matt Lembo

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