By Kathy Eaton
with photos by Judy Nelson
“Cully is one of the most active neighborhoods in the city,” said Susan Nelson, who moved from Concordia in 2003. Retired from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management where she worked as a mapmaker, Nelson is in the process of collecting information and researching a book about Cully. Nelson has interviewed ten Cully residents, including one woman whose late husband was a descendant of Thomas Cully.
“Lewis and Clark recorded notes about a village where indigenous people lived seasonally on the Columbia River from roughly Northeast 42nd to 82nd avenues,” said Nelson. That village’s location would be slightly north of where the Cully neighborhood’s official boundary is drawn today.
In 1846, Thomas Cully, an English stonemason and farmer who moved to Oregon from Texas – where family legend reports he’d been a Texas Ranger – settled a 640-acre tract between Northeast Lombard and Killingsworth streets. Cully and Anthony Whitaker, an Irish immigrant, met requirements to gain legal title under Oregon’s Donation Land Law intended to promote homestead settlement in the Oregon Territory.
Ultimately, Cully’s tract included orchards, dairies, truck farms and berry fields, according to Nelson. Cully died in 1891 after being thrown from his wagon while ascending “Gravelly Hill” near Northeast 57th Avenue and Sandy Road. Nelson believes that the “Gravelly Hill” may be what is now known as “Alameda Ridge.” Cully had 14 children and was survived by nine of them.
Anthony Whitaker settled a 640-acre claim adjacent to Cully’s tract near the current site of the Portland International Airport. In 1861, his wife, Isabella, founded Whitaker School. Large lots within Cully were not bound by city regulations, and the neighborhood was not annexed by Portland until 1985. Cully became home to many small manufacturing businesses, including the Steigerwald Dairy, which now houses Delphina’s Bakery Cafe, 4636 N.E. 42nd Ave.
In 1971, World War II veteran Bob Cassady opened Bob’s Pizza, 4935 N.E. 42nd Ave. After acquiring the business in 2009, Juliet Hyams, current owner of Bob’s Rocket Pizza, asked 80-year-old Cassady to roll out the pizza dough every morning. “We kept many of the original recipes but we’ve since added gluten-free products to appeal to new customers,” said Hyams.
Boosting local businesses
Portland Development Commission created six Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative districts, with two located in Cully: Our 42nd Avenue and Cully Boulevard Alliance. According to Michael DeMarco, district manager for Our 42nd Avenue, NPI’s goal is to support local entrepreneurs, generate employment opportunities and community redevelopment that benefit members of the community. In the past 18 months, eight new businesses have emerged on 42nd Avenue, including Old Salt Market, Miss Zumstein and Cat Six Cycles. During this period, 70 new jobs were created. For more information: See ne42pdx.com or call (503) 893-5542.
Collaborating with CBA and Cully Farmer’s Market, DeMarco organized the Community Harvest Festival, which took place on October 4 and attracted 700 attendees. With a theme of multiculturalism and food security, the celebration signaled the end of Cully’s farmer’s market for the season.
According to CBA district manager Laura Young, NPI investments support the retention and growth of Cully businesses, preventing displacement and preserving the neighborhood’s character. There’s been a concerted community effort to root out establishments that were once magnets for crime and violence. For more information: Visit cullyblvdalliance.org.
Cully Association of Neighbors
Kathy Fuerstenau, who’s lived in Cully for 35 years and served for the past 10 years as chair of the Cully Association of Neighbors, said recently, “I’m seeing more younger families move to Cully since it’s more affordable here, but we’re also focused on outreach to the Latino population in Cully, which comprises about 21 percent.” CAN meeting agendas are posted on-line in both Spanish and English, and its quarterly newsletter, Cully Neighbor News, available online at cullyneighbors.org, is published in both languages. Translators attend every CAN meeting, according to Fuerstenau.
Portland Parks Commissioner Amanda Fritz once said Cully was “parks deficient” and supported local efforts for Cully to designate land at Northeast Alberta Street and Northeast 52nd Avenue for a park. The park, named K-hunamokwst (the Chinuk Wawa name for “together”), will open in spring of 2015. The language was commonly used by Chinook tribes of the Portland metro area. They settled the area along the Columbia River thousands of years ago. Cully residents desire paved sidewalks on major streets, according to Fuerstenau, who will focus on transportation infrastructure.
In 2000, painter Betty Durham learned the Tibetan art of Thangka and, with her husband, writer Marcus Thomas, lived in a Tibetan refugee settlement in northern India. She donated proceeds from sales of images of Tibetan kids and adults. “What we take for granted here wouldn’t approach their wildest dreams,” said Durham, who for 10 years financially supported a Tibetan elder.
Durham’s been painting since age 12 and always has felt compelled to paint or draw, although she was retirement-eligible when she graduated from Pacific Northwest College of Art with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. A life-long learner, Durham continues to take classes at Hipbone Studio where she takes life drawing; twice a month she studies painting with Sanje Elliott in Northeast Portland.
Durham and Thomas have lived in Cully for 15 years and remain active. Durham practices yoga and pursues her interest in Nepalese Temple dancing. She taught painting in their basement until 2013, but now offers private lessons. Unpretentious and unfettered by material things, Durham and Thomas don’t own a car, relying instead on Tri-Met, bicycle, Car2Go and walking. “I love the organic gardens blooming so vigorously in Cully,” said Durham. “The neighborhood is thriving.” For more information: Visit bettydurham.com; to learn more about Nepalese Temple dancing: Visit dancemandal.com.
Northeast Portland native and fiber artist Jude Cornwell — along with her husband, musician Michael Beach, originally from Niagara Falls, New York – are tied to Middle Eastern culture in their respective art forms. Each has a studio on Cully property adjacent to their home. “Cully is neighborhoody and comfortable,” said Cornwell, who found their home in 2001 while driving around and was attracted by the large lot.
For 30 years, Cornwell has been producing wearable art made with silk-screen motifs. Cornwell’s been a participating artist of Local 14, a juried all-women’s annual art show and sale, participates in Open Studios and hosts the Say it with heART show from her home every February. Say it with heART benefits the Oregon Food Bank and attracts neighbors who drop by to purchase gifts for Valentine’s Day.
Cornwell is currently taking welding lessons and collaborating with a metal artist to replicate the designs of wearable art she creates. Where she once used metal armatures as hangers to display her garments, she’s started to incorporate her fabric into metal to hang on walls as art. Her work is found at Made in Oregon stores, Vista House in the Columbia River Gorge and Lincoln County Historical Museum. For more information: Visit judeemoonbeam.com or call (503) 285-1875.
Michael Beach is a vocalist, multi-ethnic drummer/percussionist and founder of Brothers of the Baladi and Arabesque bands. “Baladi, which is Arabic for ‘folk’ or ‘country,’ is my baby,” said Beach, who formed the band in 1976. The Brothers perform both traditional and original Middle Eastern music featuring vocals in seven languages: Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Farsi, Spanish, French and English, using instruments from around the world. For the past three decades, Brothers has been successfully bringing their music to festivals and colleges, as well as to concert and belly dance audiences. They’ve recorded 11 CDs, with a twelfth one due out later this year. Their 2008 CD, Just Do What’s Right, was nominated for a Grammy.
“We’re not a bar band,” said Beach, who moved to Portland in 1988. “Outside my studio, it’s very quiet and I can’t see anyone,” said Beach. A self-described workaholic, he travels with his band about one-third of the year.
For 20 years, Beach’s seven-piece traditional Middle Eastern band named Arabesque has been performing every Wednesday night for Portland audiences. “I’m just a white guy who sings in many languages; I love the music — it’s not about politics. I’ve been bridging the gap since the 1970s,” said Beach. He’s observed audiences who’ve never heard his music fall in love with it. “I’m a regular drum-kit player with rock and blues, too,” he said. Arabesque performs at Hoda’s, 3401 S.E. Belmont St. every Wednesday at 8 p.m. “Belly dancers often accompany our band and enjoy performing in Hoda’s family-friendly venue,” Beach said. He also offers group classes and private drumming lessons at all levels “on any drum you bring.” For more information: Visit baladi.com or call 503-288-4684.
Angel on Patrol
Since 2007, Cully’s also been home to an aspiring Country-Western musician, retired Portland police officer Berniece Johnson. Johnson is the fourth of 16 children born in Oklahoma. She first rented a room in Cully in 1981 and recalls when it was a rough neighborhood. “It’s cleaned up since then, and is a lot more friendly,” said Johnson. She’s a former Marine and semi-pro athlete in basketball and football. When she was 26, she decided to try out for tennis, a sport she’d never played. “Tennis and soccer were rich people’s sports,” she said.
After the Portland Police Department revised physical requirements for female officers, Johnson took the test and was admitted to the academy. In 1986, she became a cop, a job she’d dreamed about as a child, and was assigned to cover North Portland and Central districts. “The job was challenging; you never knew what the day would bring,” said Johnson. She recalls now a particular incident that tested her ability to remain calm and clear-headed under pressure. “Angel on Patrol,” a true story published in the anthology, Chocolate for a Woman’s Soul (Simon & Schuster, 1997), relays the account of how Johnson counseled a potential bridge jumper on the Fremont Bridge and made sure he went home safely with his wife and small child, who waited nearby in their car.
After 10 years, Johnson retired from the police force and set a goal of becoming the first African-American female Country singer. “My voice is different because I sing contralto, whereas most female Country performers sing soprano,” she said. Johnson moved to Nashville in 1996, but was discouraged after three years and returned to Portland to enjoy life in retirement. Acknowledging her greatest joy is helping others, Johnson may pursue voice-over work for audio-books, cartoons, commercials or video games. Stay tuned.