Background image of Garbage in a planter

Crossing theGreen Divide

Can residents turn a neglected Portland neighborhood green without pricing themselves out?

One mile from where waves of new arrivals glide through Portland International Airport’s sleek, award-winning terminal, the imposing crossroads at Portland’s Northeast Cully Boulevard and Old Portland Highway is still an urban jungle. On one side of the intersection looms a massive sand and gravel pit, the crushed rock piles soaring like giant ship prows over passing cars. Across the treacherous four-lane thoroughfare of Portland Highway is the crumbling Sugar Shack strip club. Large as a shopping plaza, its aged black-and-white-tiled exterior is falling off piece by piece. Female mannequins stare blankly from several diorama windows at the building’s corners. A years-old federal investigation into money laundering and prostitution at the Shack is unresolved. But that hasn’t hurt business at a separate taqueria business run from a double-decker bus in the parking lot — an eatery locals insist serves up some of the best tacos in the city.


Boy standing next to shopping cart

Community advocate Alan Hipólito makes his office in a hulking warehouse nearby. He sometimes bikes to work through the intersection, over a Union Pacific track, past the pipefitting yard beyond, before crossing another busy road frequented by trucks. “You end up spending a lot of time in the middle of that road, trying to cross,” he says, on a recent morning. “There’s no bus here, either,” he notes. Plus, his office is out of the operating zone of Car2Go, the slick swipe-and-drive car-sharing service that’s sweeping through hip urban areas nationwide. Hipólito, tall, lithe, and thoughtfully understated, with anhinga feather tattoos on each shoulder that peek out from under a short-sleeve button-down, says of this neighborhood, known as Cully: “It has a lot of need, but it also has a lot of people who want to do stuff.”

One of Hipólito’s colleagues recently said of Cully, a forty-by-twenty-five-block jumble of housing, heavy industry, roads, and rail lines: “We’re like an aging rural economy here, rusting and looking for reinvention.”

Cully challenges the popular progress tale about both Portland and Oregon. Between its light-rail lines, green buildings, bike routes, and obsessive foodies, the state and the city have come to embody the word “green” in the world’s imagination. Native son turned New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called Portland “America’s environmental laboratory.” It’s also worth noting that Portland’s green growth has been good for its economy (in addition to ecosystems, good consciences, and one Independent Film Channel show). From a $90 million bicycle economy of makers and sellers, to a thriving renewable energy sector, many Portlanders have made a good living building the good life.

But if you live in the outer ring of neighborhoods to the east of town, the economic boom seems very far away.

Security notice sign on a red fence

Cully is emblematic of those places left out of the Green Ascension. Just five miles from city hall, Cully was annexed into Portland in 1985, and since then, has been left to fend largely for itself in terms of transit, parks, and updated streetscapes. Only one-third of its streets have sidewalks. It has only one developed park — a postage-stamp parcel with a small dog park — within its borders. With housing that remained affordable, Cully has long been a magnet for newly arrived immigrants and the working poor. “It has been a place for Latinos to land and get a line on some work,” Hipólito says. It has a poverty rate about twice that of the rest of the city, and two of the three most diverse census tracts in Oregon. As of the last census, it became a “minority majority” neighborhood, where communities of color outnumber white residents — something rare in Anglo-dominant Oregon.

In the early 1990s, Latino leaders in Cully formed the Hacienda Community Development Corporation, buying back apartment blocks from slumlords and rooting out crime with strict requirements for tenants. Hipólito, a native of New Orleans, began working for Hacienda after graduating from Lewis and Clark College’s environmentally focused law school, and in 2005, spun out a separate organization, Verde, to try to harness Portland’s green growth for the low-income Latino community.

“Environmental issues touch so many different areas of private investment in this town,” he says. “We felt if we could get a toehold in this economy and grow with it, we could take the easy way up. If we could create good jobs, low-income people and people of color would see the opportunities, and say, ‘Hey, my neighbor has a job. How can I get one?’”

With foundation support, Verde started landscaping and nursery businesses focused on storm-water management and wetlands restoration projects.

And the enterprises hired people like Yoni Peraza, who was an out-of-work grocery clerk, born in the Yucatan and living just behind the Sugar Shack, in a block of apartments run by Hacienda. “When I first came here eleven years ago, there were a lot of gangs,” Peraza says. “People wouldn’t even bother buying bikes — they felt like it was throwing money in the garbage, because they were always getting stolen.” Peraza eventually convinced Hacienda to build a safe bike storage room, and then he started a bike club. “Still we need things to do — the kids are usually just sitting inside all the time watching TV,” he says.

Growing a Grassroots Park

Lately, Peraza has been working with Verde and a coalition of neighborhood groups, including Hacienda, on an ambitious project kicked off in 2009: the construction of a new park on top of a twenty-five-acre former gravel pit and construction waste dump. The land was turned over to the city by the state in 2000 — a stone’s throw from the intersection of Portland Highway and Cully — a decade ago, but could never come up with funds to restore it. Through an agreement with Portland officials, the neighborhood coalition gained the authority to have Verde plan and begin early construction on the park — if they raised their own money.

Verde spearheaded a $6 million fundraising campaign through regional foundations and private donors to build the new Cully Park, named after the pioneer and stonemason who settled in the area in 1846. The park coalition then began a kind of crowd-sourced park planning and construction effort, with all sorts of input, sweat equity, and design thinking drummed up from the neighborhood. The park site, a rough rectangle, will end up having some of your run-of-the-mill features: ball fields, a parking lot, a dog run, walking paths. But the neighborhood has already put its own stamp on the place. After Peraza and local residents reviewed and signed off on environmental quality test results to allay fears about the parcel’s toxicity, he and other community members and neighborhood children designed and  built a community garden at the west end of the park. Meanwhile, a Verde landscaping crew is transforming a steep-sloped bank alongside Columbia Boulevard, at the park’s north end, into native habitat. Elementary school children and homeless youth from a local transitional school joined with Verde staff and landscape designers to plot out a play area tucked into the west corner. And members of Portland’s Native community, many who access services at NAYA, the Native American Youth and Family center in the neighborhood, co-designed the city’s first Inter-Tribal Gathering Garden along the south border of the park.

Of course, nothing this promising could come off without a hitch. Over much of 2013, work to bring the park to fruition ground to a halt as Verde struggled to find and pay for 60,000 cubic feet of fill dirt to level the site — and then figure out the permits and procedures to pull off the transformation. When Native garden organizers gathered the community for a second annual seed spreading ceremony at the park site in November 2013, it was missing the tribal elders and emotionally charged atmosphere that had graced the first ceremony.

But early in 2014, following a series of stories in the local press about East Portland’s dearth of parks and healthy grocery options, the city’s parks commissioner, Amanda Fritz, delivered a $1.25 million check from the city to push Cully Park’s development forward.

In late spring, Verde finally found a sufficient volume of earth to level the site from a redeveloping block downtown along the Willamette River and secured the permits to bring in the trucks.

“That was a big, big, big deal,” Hipólito says. Then he adds: “Nobody’s counting any chickens around here. We’ve been successful in some aspects to date, but I’ll call the whole thing a success when it’s actually built.”

The city has also announced new investments in two other park sites in the neighborhood.

That leaves Verde and partners some time to focus on another evolving issue: as Cully grows greener, it might even become a gentrified victim of its own success.

New Homesteaders

On a morning this January cold enough to frost the streets of Cully, new arrival and city farmer Matt Gordon emerges from his recently purchased house — a tidy, sky-blue two-story Cape Cod with a chicken coop and a friend’s half-built granny unit on wheels in the spacious backyard. He heads across the street — which is sans-sidewalks, but dotted with speed-humps and designated as a new bicycle route — and walks down a small lane. Among the surrounding blocks, piles of bark mulch and dormant raised beds abound, next to unpaved driveways with Harleys and repurposed school buses, all under old swaying fir trees. One nearby lot holds a private BMX bike track. There’s a frontierish energy; anything goes in Cully’s oversized residential lots, a vestige of the neighborhood’s recent exurban status. “There’s less city scrutiny out here,” says one new resident. And Portland’s growing tribe of urban homesteaders is seizing on these ragged, large lots in Cully’s residential heart, pleasantly tucked away from its hardscrabble commercial and industrial edges.

At the end of the lane, Gordon enters a one-acre parcel he rents from a local church to run his community-supported agriculture business, Cully Neighborhood Farm. Some hearty bunches of kale and collard greens are toughing it out through the winter in the long rows Gordon and a friend first cleared and planted in the summer of 2010. At one end of the lot, a head-high hoop house shelters some withered tomato and pepper plants. Ribbons of plastic flutter in the breeze from rocks local kids hurled through the arched covering. “It’s too tempting for them — such a big target,” Gordon quips.

Despite the odd run-in here and there with local teens, Gordon and his wife Katy Kolker, who works on a community food gathering initiative called the Portland Fruit Tree Project, have ingratiated themselves in Cully: he teaches gardening classes to kids from the church’s middle school and donates excess produce to Cully’s Northeast Emergency Food Bank — one frequented by 11,000 people each year.

urban farm in the hazy sun
The Side Yard Farm & Kitchen is an urban farm located in the northeast Portland neighborhood known as Cully. The farm supplies produce to fifteen area restaurants, as well as its own pop-up supper club.

Many new urban farmers, like Gordon and the nearby The Side Yard Farm, another urban agriculture project in an oversize lot, are striving to give the neighborhood better access to fresh, affordable, healthy food. And they’re not land speculators. “They’re not all wealthy folks. Some of these farmers are really scrappy,” says Howard Kenyon, who runs the Northeast Emergency Food Bank and sits on a neighborhood business association board. But the increased desirability of Cully, driven by the combination of its easy bikeability to downtown and its urban farm potential, is pushing up home values. The median home price jumped $90,000 over the last decade to $251,000, a steeper percentage increase than already-trendy Portland as a whole.

A recent city analysis found that Cully is in the early stages of gentrification, meaning that its current residents’ income and educational levels are already making it difficult to keep up with rising housing prices. As more infrastructure such as parks and green streets arrive in Cully, and people see continued reason to invest in the neighborhood, values will only climb. The glossy lifestyle magazine Portland Monthly named the Northeast 42nd Avenue strip, a transitioning area of hip restaurants, coffee shops, and pubs at one end of Cully, a “hot microhood” in 2013.

A new “eco-village” called Cully Grove that opened last year may be a harbinger of things to come. Sixteen attached townhouses painted earthy reds and tans sit on two oversize lots, powered by solar panels and clustered to make room for a 4,400-foot community garden and a common house for shared activities. The cheapest home sold for $350,000, well out of the range of people like Yoni Peraza at Hacienda or the Gordon family. And all of the homes were presold, many of them during the doldrums in the housing market more than two years ago.

“The incomes of residents are definitely higher than what you see in the neighborhood, and it’s not that racially diverse,” admits Cully Grove co-developer Eli Spevak.

Spevak is no voracious developer — he’s spent two decades building affordable housing and small communities in Oregon. Many emphasize green power and efficient shared spaces. He sought out the Cully Grove site with a friend and developer, Zach Parrish, because their families were expanding and they wanted to grow more of their food in an urban farm. What made this green development expensive, says Spevak, were zoning restrictions that limited his ability to build cheaper accessory granny units or other infill units.

“It remains a challenge to do affordable housing in Cully beyond what subsidies will cover,” he says, because of both rising land costs and the lack of higher-density zoning possibilities.

Watching Cully Grove emerge only underscored the need for Verde, Hacienda, and their neighborhood collaborators to accelerate affordable housing projects. Even staff involved in the neighborhood coalition are feeling price pressure and moving out of Cully: NAYA’s Donita Fry left to buy a house in a neighborhood farther east of the city last year.

A thorough Portland State University study commissioned by neighborhood groups last year recommended a shotgun approach — thirty-six different ways, to be exact — for combating some of the gentrification that has plagued other Northeast Portland neighborhoods. At the top of the list: quickly setting aside land for affordable housing.

Verde’s Tony DeFalco, who is leading the coalition, has been working with residents of Cully Grove on affordability strategies in the neighborhood.

“There aren’t that many big sites left in Cully,” says DeFalco. “We’ve got to get them.”

Harnessing Green Growth

The original premise of Verde — empowering low-income residents and communities of color — will help harness the green growth wave in the neighborhood. Through its enterprises, now expanded to energy retrofitting and building contracting (Cully Park is its first project in that arena), Verde is helping community members keep up.

A community garden with vegetables growing, Portland

Photo By Alan Hipólito/Verde

The first harvest from Cully Park, August 2013.

That means paying for GED courses, vocational training, English classes, and prep programs to allow staff among Verde’s landscaping crews to become certified arborists and start their own landscape companies. Landscaper Antonio Rojas and others on his team dream of striking out on their own someday, and maybe even taking advantage of Cully’s growing wealth. That educational leg up — Rojas is studying for Arborist certification as well as taking English classes — pushes them ever closer. “Communication is the hardest thing for me right now,” Rojas says in Spanish. “I don’t always know how to talk with people in English.”

Verde has so far trained or employed forty-one crew members in its enterprises. And Verde’s strong networks around town are opening up doors for people. Earlier this year, it arranged for two landscape employees to take new jobs, one with a private landscaping business and another with a local tree-planting and restoration organization, Friends of Trees. After Yoni Peraza, the Hacienda resident, spent this winter on the sidelines, out of work, leaning on his wife’s childcare business run out of the Hacienda apartments, he landed a new tree planting position this spring.

Hipólito notes that Verde’s success has spawned new green jobs and opportunity investments by other organizations: a new energy-retrofit initiative at Hacienda apartments and new affordable units to be built by Habitat for Humanity on an empty lot in the neighborhood. NAYA will also build its own native plant garden on a stretch of open field behind the organization’s headquarters in an old high school on bustling Columbia Boulevard.

As Northeast 42nd Avenue moves upscale, it is creating new jobs in restaurant, food processing, and light industry. Competition is fierce for entry-level jobs that offer a chance to move up the economic ladder, and there are even competing notions among community groups about who should have access to those jobs. Michael DeMarco, who runs a Our 42nd Avenue, a tax-increment financed micro-urban renewal area making sidewalk and storefront improvements on the street, senses a duty to several surrounding neighborhoods, not just Cully. “There’s poverty on both sides of the street,” he says.

Hipólito and DeFalco, meanwhile, are working with developers coming into the neighborhood to design new opportunities for residents. Columbia Biogas, a new venture that will produce fuel from commercial food waste at a facility in Cully’s industrial district, has promised to seek out candidates in the neighborhood to fill some of the twenty permanent positions at the plant. Verde is also exploring construction of a new greenhouse near the biogas plant, which would use the plant’s waste heat and carbon dioxide to create a new enterprise to employ low-income residents..

The future conversion of an old golf course — just a block from Verde’s offices on Columbia Boulevard — into open space and an industrial park presents more opportunities. The city recently bought the eighty-five-acre open space portion of the property, which drains gently to Columbia Slough, a backwater canal that is recovering from a century of industrial pollution. Verde is laying the groundwork with the city for another co-design and co-development of that public space, along the lines of the Cully Park project.

A Journey of Restoration

The converted golf course is part of a grand vision just coming into view for Cully: a network of open spaces anchored by the sprawling former golf course, the new Thomas Cully Park, and Whitaker Ponds bird refuge, which sits behind the NAYA center and was rescued from dump status in the early 1990s when volunteers removed 2,000 tires from the site. All would be connected by a footbridge over Columbia Boulevard and trails along Columbia Slough,

“That would all be amazing. Someone could walk out of affordable housing and be able to access wildlife habitat,” Hipólito says.

For Cully’s Native community, the restoration of the neighborhood would be the culmination of a remarkable circular journey. Two centuries ago, Lewis and Clark paddled through the fecund landscape of the lower Columbia River, camping in and around the estuarine marshes near today’s Cully. They found a “thickly timbered place,” dotted by open fields and meadows that supported rich bird life in such “great numbers” that flocks obscured the sky. The Corps of Discovery traded for wapato, a tuber that Natives collected in wetlands. Cary Watters (Tlingit) who manages community engagement at NAYA, reminds people that the Corps of Discovery entered what was, in essence, a heavily cultivated garden, tended by lower Columbia tribes. A Chinookan village, Neerchokikoo, occupied a significant portion of what is today Cully.

The Lewis and Clark journey marked the beginning of steep declines in Native people and culture. As traders and pioneers happily took up more and more of the region’s resources, the march of the industrial economy began, with its railroad tracks and roads, its equipment yards and dump sites eventually laid down right through Cully — right through that old village of gardeners. Stand at the neighborhood crossroads, Lombard and Cully, and witness how the land and people tied to it have been chewed up and spit out.

The Native elders who gather at the NAYA center in Cully decry the federal policy — beginning in the 1950s — of terminating tribes’ federal status, leaving people adrift in urban places like Portland, without even a semblance of their ancestral homelands and cultural gathering spaces. “We talk about being part of a ghost generation,” says Donita Fry (Shoshone-Bannock), who organizes the Portland Youth and Elders Council at NAYA.

When the plan to redevelop the Cully Park site with a tribal garden was first presented to elders at NAYA, Fry says they balked: the Natives were being given a garbage dump, as history could have predicted. But the community has come around to see this as an opportunity to reclaim a piece of land taken out of Native hands and despoiled. From the slight promontory of the park site, they can see clearly to Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood, engaging land forms spiritually significant to local tribes. They will have wild spaces back to craft as their own. They will have the space to dance and drum. “We are going through a healing process,” Fry says. “And healing is reconnecting with the places that are sacred.” It requires a great stretch of the imagination to see some of the most hard-edged stretches of Cully as sacred. But that journey has begun on the former waste dump that will become Cully Park. “We expect nothing less than excellence in our public spaces,” Fry says.