By Kathy Eaton with photos by Judy Nelson
See our Facebook album with more of Judy Nelson’s Alberta photos here.
Alberta Street, with its storied past of gangs and gunshots, emerged as an arts district in the late 1990s when a local realtor advertised a home in a crime-ridden neighborhood later renamed Alberta Arts District. A distinctive cultural area, Alberta Street between Northeast 14th and Northeast 31st avenues transects four Northeast Portland neighborhoods: King, Sabin, Vernon and Concordia.
“Alberta Street consisted of a couple of bars in the 1980s, and living in the neighborhood was problematic with shootings, drug traffic and prostitution,” said long-time resident Elise Scolnick.
In 1993 Portland native artist and developer Roslyn Hill purchased property on Alberta, launching redevelopment of the blighted area by making it pedestrian friendly and welcoming to visitors. In 1997, she opened Roslyn’s Garden Coffee House and Shades of Color Gallery, ultimately buying and rehabbing a dozen properties on Alberta. A handful of gallery owners wanted Alberta to look different from other streets, according to Donna Guardino who said, “Roslyn Hill gave us the spark with her distinctive building designs, use of corrugated metal, iron and lots of colorful murals.”
In 1993, Magnus Johannessen purchased the form Rexall Drugstore building at 2403 N.E. Alberta St., and leased living space upstairs. About that same time, Elizabeth Tanner, Iris Moore and another partner opened the Rexall Rose as a bicycle and pedestrian-friendly sidewalk cafe on the ground floor of the building. According to Thomas Robinson, when the Rexall Rose opened, the street was considered so dangerous that Willamette Week refused to deliver newspapers to it. Within a decade, said Robinson, almost all of the African American-owned bars and stores would succumb to high rents and gentrification. For more information: Visit http://historicphotoarchive.com/mcm/
Galleries pop up on Alberta
In 1996, Donna Guardino and her husband Sal bought the building where they opened Guardino Gallery, 2939 N.E. Alberta St., recalling there was open drug dealing on the street and neighbors thought they were crazy to remove the bars from their windows. Last Thursday spurred growth by encouraging folks to buy buildings and improve them to open or rent to businesses. “Business and property owners took risks to improve Alberta,” she said, “but it took community involvement to rebuild the neighborhood.”
Cully resident and fiber artist Judee Moonbeam, who leased space from Guardino, tagged “Art in Alberta on Last Thursday,” according to Guardino. Last Thursday opened in May 1997 with seven destination art spots. Guardino and Allan Oliver of Onda Gallery pushed other gallery owners on Alberta Street to remain open late to encourage business. For several years, Oliver and Guardino alternated presidency of Art in Alberta. Referring to herself as one of the tribal elders, Guardino, now age 71, is content to relinquish leadership to the next generation of Alberta leaders, confident that they’ll find their own way as she did in the 1990s. For more information: Visit guardinogallery.com or call (503) 281-9048.
“Artists had no box to think outside of, and it worked really well,” said Bridget Bayer, who was hired in 2012 by Friends of Last Thursday. “It was easy to brand and market because it was comprised of artists. Last Thursday got Alberta on the map. It was a no-brainer to grab hold of, but problems developed.”
Art on Alberta’s goal was to bring buyers into the galleries whose owners hosted wine/cheese and meet-the-artist events to attract visitors. Once food vendors, musicians and other entertainers came in, Last Thursday lost its focus on art, according to Elise Scolnick.
Scolnick served on the board of Art on Alberta and Alberta Street Fair and recalled a police incident in 2007 related to drinking, public urination and parking issues that sparked city involvement. Previously operated with no rules and regulations, the city wanted to require permits for Last Thursday vendors. There was no real resolution to the problems and concerns remained about liability, according to Scolnick. Some Alberta residents observed that the June 2014 Last Thursday closed down at 9 p.m. and was not as rowdy or noisy as it had been in past years. Others expressed that they’ve seen a decline in the neighborhood focus on art at Last Thursday. “It’s not fun anymore; it’s crowded and loud and feels more like a frat party. Alberta Street Fair is more organized and family-friendly,” said Alberta resident Rachel Novak.
Alberta Main Street
Woodlawn resident Sara Wittenberg was named executive director of Alberta Main Street, a nonprofit organization created in September 2010 to foster economic development. “Alberta Main Street supports the whole district, not just those who support us,” said Wittenberg.
Based on a national model, AMS provides a forum for residents, property and business owners. According to Wittenberg, in 2013, 85 new, full-time jobs were created on Alberta Street. Statistics show that 97 percent of Alberta Street businesses are locally owned; 23 percent are minority-owned, and 43 percent are women-owned. In addition to sponsoring monthly stakeholder mixers at local restaurants for those who live and work on Alberta Street, AMS hosts the annual Alberta Street Fair, an event that attracts approximately 20,000 visitors to a 20-block area.
Almost 300 vendors in three categories (retail, nonprofit and food) have registered for the 17th annual Alberta Street Fair, to take place August 9th from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. In addition to three stages of music on Alberta Street at Northeast 11th, 21st and 29th avenues, this year’s event will include a kid stage at Northeast 18th Avenue. AMS added “Play in the Street” for all ages, featuring bike polo instruction and play, yoga and fitness and field day events to be held between Northeast 10th and Northeast 11th avenues. Two beer gardens located at the main stage (Northeast 11th Avenue) and acoustical stage (Northeast 29th Avenue) will close at 9:30 p.m. For more information: Visit albertamainst.org.
Printing in Portland
Bitch Media, publisher of Bitch Magazine: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, has its office at 4930 N.E. 29th Ave. By email, co-founder Andi Zeisler said, “We picked the Alberta District more than eight years ago because it was vibrant, diverse location that felt more like a neighborhood than a downtown office space ever would. We’ve never regretted the decision. I feel like it’s given Bitch Media a chance to become part of a community of small-business owners who truly support one another and have a stake in the future of the area.” Zeisler is co-founder and editorial/creative director of Bitch Media. For more information: Visit bitchmedia.org.
Gallery in a box
Using his Great Aunt Ethel’s 1910 ink pen, illustrator Aaron Voronoff Trotter embellishes and crosshatches details from sketches he made on-site in Portland and other places. Trotter is descended from a long line of painters and potters and took Voronoff as his middle name to identify his artistic roots. His studio at 1627 N.E. Alberta St. is located around the corner from the apartment he leases from the same landlord.
“I’m drawn to angles and lines,” said Trotter, who was influenced by the etchings of artist Albrecht Durer, and William Morris of the Arts and Crafts movement. The card decks he makes are printed locally and available for purchase at Saturday Market and other businesses on Alberta Street.
“It’s about art,” said Trotter. “Even if you don’t play them, you can still hold them in your hands and shuffle the deck.” For more information: Visit aarontrotter.com.
Residential life in Alberta Arts
Neighborhood diversity is the reason many Alberta residents moved to the district and a strong sense of community is why they stayed, according to Elise Scolnick. The planning consultant moved to Alberta in 1979 over the objections of several realtors who tried to discourage her, a single parent with a six-year-old daughter, from relocating from the Irvington neighborhood. Scolnick bought an Alberta home for $30,500, invested in the neighborhood, and worked hard to improve it. Although her daughter left when she was 18, she’s since returned to live in Alberta with her husband and family.
Canadian-born Alberta resident Sarah Retzer, who’s lived here since 2006 said, “Portland is the first place that feels like home.” While looking for a home in the Alberta Arts District, she drove down the street and spotted Spank! Hair Studio, 1433 N.E. Alberta St., recalling “The very diverse neighborhood was funky and fun, not like anything I’d ever seen.”
After buying a one-room schoolhouse built in 1906 with a big back yard, Retzer later hired a gardening consultant to deal with “the blueberry and weed disaster in the back yard” and planted a vegetable garden. The consultant suggested that the 40-foot cherry tree would provide shade for a chicken coop, which inspired Retzer to purchase three chickens. Since then, Retzer said, “an addiction to the breed took over.”
“Chickens are pure entertainment,” said Retzer, who doesn’t own a television set.
Retzer, an engineer, has been on a spiritual path for the past five years. Approximately a year ago, she began training as a practitioner of Neshamah Healing. “Blending ancient healing practices from Asia and India, practitioners (of Neshamah Healing) provide gentle yet powerful energy to restore and rejuvenate, creating a greater sense of well-being,” said Retzer. For more information: Send an e-mail to moc.l1508370443iamg@1508370443rezte1508370443rs1508370443 or call (503) 929-4632.
One of Retzer’s neighbors, Rachel Novak and her husband moved to Portland seven years ago from New York City. Familiar with the Alberta Arts District because they’d stayed with family who lived in the neighborhood, the Novaks bought a home here.
They enjoy living near restaurants and shops, with access to Zoom Care located two blocks from their home. Because their son loves grilled-cheese sandwiches, they often eat at Bunk, 2017 N.E. Alberta St. Novak’s favorite stores include Tumbleweed, 1812 N.E. Alberta St., for clothes; and Red Sail, 1723 N.E. Alberta St., for gifts and accessories. Novak frequents nearby Tula Gluten Free Bakery Cafe, 4943 N.E. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., where she buys smoothies, as well as savory and sweet baked goods.