By Kathy Eaton with photos by Judy Nelson
See our Facebook album with more of Judy Nelson’s King neighborhood photos here.
Originally named Highland, based on its location on a ridge at one of the highest points between the Columbia and Willamette rivers, the King neighborhood was platted between 1873 and 1912. Two decades after Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Northeast Portland citizens petitioned the city to rename Union Avenue. On April 20, 1989, Union Avenue was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and the neighborhood became known as King.
King is bounded on the south by Northeast Fremont Street and on the north by Northeast Ainsworth Street. Northeast Rodney Avenue forms the western boundary, and the eastern boundary zig-zags along Northeast Tenth Avenue, extending to Northeast 14th Place at Northeast Wygant Street. Five major Northeast Portland streets transect King neighborhood: Fremont, Prescott, Alberta, Killingsworth and Ainsworth. Designated a state highway, Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard serves as a major north/south arterial that runs through Northeast Portland.
According to History of the Albina Plan Area published in 1990 by Portland State University, King was once home to immigrant families of Irish, German, and Russian descent who settled in Albina because of its proximity to port and railroad jobs. A large African-American population settled Albina after World War II but they were subsequently displaced by the Vanport Flood, construction of Memorial Coliseum and I-5, and expansion of Legacy Emanuel Hospital. As African-American homes and businesses were destroyed, the community was pushed north into King.
Today King is ethnically diverse, but commercial development as well as population growth and change vary between north and south King, divided by Northeast Prescott Street. According to a 2011 study by Edward J. San Filippo, south King is an urban-renewal success story with more commercial development and housing compared to north King where poverty levels increased from 25 percent to 35 percent between 1980 and 2005. To read San Filippo’s study with findings and recommendations, download the King Neighborhood Association’s PDF.
MLK in Motion
Alan Silver grew up in Philadelphia and New Jersey, and was drawn to King because it’s where he found a similar mix of class levels, race and ethnicity, and homeownership. “It felt like home,” said Silver. Having lived here 13 years, he noted, “Social conflict and unrest was evident along MLK Jr. Boulevard from Northeast Killingsworth to Northeast Russell streets, but it was a microcosm of what was happening elsewhere in the country.”
Silver works for the Fremont United Methodist Church in Alameda and walks around the King neighborhood every day. On April 20, 2008, the 25th anniversary of renaming Union Avenue to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, Silver launched a blog called “MLK in Motion” where he posts history, stories and photographs to document his experiences on the boulevard. Part sociologist and historian, community activist Silver said, “I know where the dirt is; the underside.”
Silver served as chair of the King Neighborhood Association (KNA), actively sponsoring the King School Backpack Lunch Program, which provides 11,000 weekend lunches a year to students who reside in the King and Woodlawn neighborhoods. Whole Foods has been a fiscal sponsor for the past six years; and Silver’s church provides volunteer support to make sure the 170 kids served get the meals they need.
Managing change in King
In May 2014, Margo Dobbertin succeeded Silver as chair of the KNA, after moving to King from Southeast Portland more than three years ago. A 2009 graduate of Lewis and Clark Law School, Dobertin picked King for its veins of public transportation and for its mix of ages and families. She and her husband bought a Queen Anne Victorian house built in approximately 1902 that had a large entry-way for kids and dogs. As KNA chair, Dobbertin is concerned with the rapid pace of development with no obvious plan for smart growth. The south end of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard is home to national chain stores and quite different from the north end. “Turbulence emerges from changing demographics resulting from development,” said Dobbertin. “The issue is managing it.” She’s concerned that neighborhood associations have very little power; they can enter into neighbor agreements, but can’t enforce them. As chair, she strives to convene open meetings with help from the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods where neighbors can voice their opinions and ultimately negotiate decisions. Dobbertin is one of King’s representatives to NECN, along with Diego Gioseffi, Alan Silver and Eileen Kennedy.
Green King Project
Diego Gioseffi, who was born in Buenos Aires and who has lived in New York City and Hawaii, moved to the King neighborhood six years ago because the neighborhood seemed unpretentious and his family liked its access to parks, stores and King Farmer’s Market. Gioseffi, who’s Latino, sees diversity in King but said that King neighbors don’t interact, at least compared to other places he’s lived. He cites poverty, crime and violence as challenges for people living in King. The problem he chose to tackle first, however, was eliminating rats around his house, which is located next to the parking lot of King School. With overgrown blackberry bushes and ivy, a quarter of the parking lot sometimes flooded, leaving standing water. “The city was unresponsive to my calls, so I engaged the KNA and ended up writing a grant in 2010 to fix the problem,” said Gioseffi who founded the Green King Project.
In April 2014, Gioseffi obtained a grant to create more green space to reduce storm water runoff and provide an educational opportunity for King students to learn about storm water management and the role of native plants in protecting water quality. “I never guessed I could find inspiration in a parking lot,” said Gioseffi, who’s currently recruiting volunteers for upcoming events, including depaving around King School parking lot on September 27 and planting in the bioswale on October 18. For more information, visit: kingneighborhood.org/green-king.
Confronting safety issues
A Northeast Portland resident for 30 years, retired teacher Eileen Kennedy moved to the King neighborhood four years ago, seeking a racially and culturally diverse neighborhood near the church she attended, St. Andrews Catholic Church, 806 N.E. Alberta St. Witnessing a 49-year-old man being murdered in front of her condo two years ago motivated Kennedy to join the KNA, and she volunteered to be King’s representative to the NECN committee for safety and livability. “Patterns don’t change without a lot of work,” said Kennedy, so she began engaging neighborhood businesses that Portland police had identified as hot spots for crime. “Quik Trip, 5832 N.E. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., lacked dumpsters so litter piled up in plain view, said Kennedy, who took photos and campaigned for clean-up. Safeway, 5920 N.E. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., is another hot spot for crime in King. Safeway store representatives initiated contact with KNA board members to develop strategies to reduce crime occurring in the store’s parking lot. “Neighbors invite crime in if you don’t keep up the neighborhood,” said Kennedy, a soft-spoken yet determined activist.
Partnering with King School
Trace Salmon rented for two years in the King neighborhood before buying a house one block off Alberta Street near Northeast 10th Avenue in 1998. King offered affordable housing, easy walkability and access to coffee shops, stores and restaurants. The King neighborhood has benefited and suffered from development along Alberta, according to Salmon. “Its diverse population brings different viewpoints and perspectives; the downside is increased traffic and other impacts because Alberta Street is a regional draw for events like Last Thursday,” said Salmon. His wife, Julie Davis, views the community struggling with its identity and different visions of what the neighborhood could be.
After serving as co-chair of the KNA a few years ago, Salmon handed over the leadership reins to Alan Silver when Salmon became more involved with the King School PTA. Their 9-year-old son, Atticus, attends King School; and Davis described a fun weekend day they share with him in King:
“We eat lunch on a school bus parked next to Grilled Cheese Grill, a food cart. Glancing up at a mural painted on the bus ceiling reminds me of a 15th-century Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch painting. Atticus enjoys playing a round of Trivial Pursuit while eating lunch on the stationary bus. Afterwards, we walk to Green Bean Books, 1600 N.E. Alberta St., to browse for children’s books. From there it’s a short walk to Collage, 1639 N.E. Alberta St., a great store that sells kids art supplies. Then we mosey back to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, stopping in Candy Babel, 1219 N.E. Alberta St., for a sweet treat.”
The Salmons are season subscribers to Portland Playhouse, 602 N.E. Prescott St., in the heart of the King neighborhood. Artistic director Brian Weaver founded the playhouse in 2008 and has directed 18 productions in the intimate 100-seat theater. “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” was my all-time favorite show,” said Julie Davis. Portland Playhouse has a partnership with King School; and, in 2013’s Fall Festival of Shakespeare, Atticus had a role in the King School’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Weaver enjoys strong neighborhood support for Portland Playhouse, noting that two years ago, the KNA endorsed its designation as a community arts center. Their seventh season opens September 24th with a preview of August Wilson’s masterpiece, “The Piano Lesson.” For more information: Visit portlandplayhouse.org or call (503) 488-5822.
Note: A few blocks east of King neighborhood is Vernon, where Salt & Light Lutheran Church, 5431 N.E. 20th Ave., houses Leaven, a nonprofit organization with partners that include Northeast Portland Tool Library, Kitchen Share NE and others. Read more about Leaven’s community-building partnerships in the October column.