On a hot August Saturday afternoon in Southern Oregon, community members began trickling into Phoenix High School auditorium. Some brought their kids and many stopped to grab a free lunch of enchiladas and watermelon juice from Rogue Food Unites before taking their seats at a cluster of round tables. They talked as they ate, enjoying the sun that filtered in the large windows while catching up with each other.
Nearly two years ago, on September 8, 2020, these community members lost their homes in the Almeda fire, the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, which wreaked havoc across Oregon’s Rogue Valley in a matter of hours. Sadly, their community, Talent Mobile Estates, a longtime hub for gatherings and home to many of the area’s Latinx community, did not escape the devastation: Fewer than a dozen of the 89 homes in Talent Mobile Estates survived the fire. Since that time, many of the residents have been living in hotels, temporary housing, and with relatives. But, thanks to an innovative collaboration between a local grassroots organization, Coalición Fortaleza, and CASA of Oregon, they are beginning to chart the future of their community.
The Saturday afternoon meeting marked the second round of a people-centered approach to designing their community and bringing their neighborhood back. In collaboration with Salazar Architect, Coalición Fortaleza and CASA of Oregon—which acquired the land with the intention of transforming it to a resident-owned community cooperative— have been hosting community workshops to determine the new design of Talent Mobile Estates. The prior meeting focused on the layout of the homes and the spacing around them. At this Saturday meeting, which was held in Spanish with English translation, residents were tasked with mapping out the design of communal areas.
The facilitator split up the group of about 40, and each of the eight tables was given a map and props that represented various amenities like an exercise space, trees, picnic tables, and water. Animated and excited, the attendees got to work quickly and began charting out what their ideal community would look like—what would the open communal space be used for? Would it have a dog run? An area for barbeques and parties? What about parking? How much green space will there be?
Despite the tremendous excitement in the room, the pain and loss was still evident. At one table, Amborocia Cruz set down a row of plastic trees in a neat line. One of her table mates quickly took them away while looking down, explaining that “trees catch fire too quickly.” At the back of the room, a table and two counselors from OYEN Emotional Wellness Center were on site in case any residents wanted counseling during or after the process.
After an hour, each table presented their design as community members from the other tables gathered around. They explained why they chose certain amenities and locations and how they made the tough choices they did. One community member suggested the erection of a statue to commemorate the fires and symbolize “new homes, new beginnings, and new memories.” At the end of the two-hour session, Salazar walked away with eight different configurations of outdoor common space that will inform their design options. These options will be processed and filtered into three different site plans, then will be presented to the community in the next month or so for their input.
As community members hugged and said their goodbyes, a feeling of optimism and excitement permeated the room.
“I can’t wait to go back to Talent,” said Temo Gutierrez. “This exercise gave me hope. I feel like I have a say when it comes to my home and my neighborhood.”
“Right now, my whole family [who lived in Talent Mobile Estates] is scattered throughout the area,” explained Delίa Alma Rico as she stood next to her father. “It’s been a hard process mentally—seeing what the community has become and knowing what it was.”
Her father Victor, who lived in Talent Mobile Estates for 20 years, touched Delίa’s shoulder and said that he feels “calmer” after the meeting. “I know now we have a future, and it feels incredible to be part of it.”