By Kathy Eaton
with photos by Judy Nelson
See our Facebook album with more of Judy Nelson’s Woodlawn photos here.
History: Made by trains
The Woodlawn neighborhood is bounded on the north by Northeast Columbia Boulevard, on the south by Northeast Ainsworth Street, on the west by Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and on the east by Northeast 22nd Avenue. Called Portland’s most beautiful suburb in an article published in “The West Shore” in June 1889, Woodlawn was noted for providing health advantages: “Its elevation renders it free from malaria and its perfect drainage protects it from diseases caused by bad sewage and accumulations of filth.”
A 320-acre parcel, noted as “Claim 64” in Land Office records, was initially settled by William McClung who gained title in 1855 by the Donation Land Claims Act.
According to Rod Paulson’s Portland Neighborhood Histories, Vol. 2 (Community Press), Frank Dekum and partners George Durham and H.C. Stratton in the Oregon Land and Investment Company (OLIC), subsequently acquired the land and filed a plat for Woodlawn in 1889. Commercial businesses opened around the train station in the center of town, at the intersection of Northeast Durham Avenue and Dekum Street. Woodlawn’s streets were angled, laid out in relation to the Portland and Vancouver Railway.
A decade later, OLIC was forced into foreclosure and the street car line to Vancouver was bought by the Portland Consolidated Railway Company. According to a 1976 Oregonian article, Dekum left his mark in Woodlawn by mapping out streets “in diagonal defiance of the compass points, giving Woodlawn its unique slanted grid system.” Although the commercial center was known for decades as the Dekum Triangle, by 1993, residents pushed to rename it Woodlawn Triangle in honor of the neighborhood, rather than the street that runs through it.
After years of decline, Woodlawn was revitalized after receiving funds from the Federal Model Cities program in 1970. Subsequently, the Woodlawn Improvement Association spearheaded projects including the creation of a park in Woodlawn. Trees were planted and roads were improved, however 80 houses were razed to create the 7.5-acre park located at Northeast 13th and Dekum Street.
Unfortunately, Woodlawn Park became a haven for gangs and drug dealers in the 1980s and 90s, and by 1996, a triple homicide was reported, involving victims who were shot, stabbed or beaten to death in Woodlawn Park. Woodlawn residents stepped in to improve their neighborhood.
Historic commercial buildings survive and thrive
In 2007, Arcadia publishing company asked long-time Woodlawn resident Anjala Ehelebe to write a history of Woodlawn. She obtained old photos from the Oregon Historical Society and Woodlawn residents, illustrating a rich history of the neighborhood. Images of America: Portland’s Woodlawn Neighborhood by Anjala Ehelebe is available for sale at P’s and Q’s Market and Deli, 1301 N.E. Dekum. A community activist, Ehelebe got involved with Woodlawn’s neighborhood association (WNA) shortly after moving there in 1984. The WNA initially held meetings in the Woodlawn Odd Fellows Hall, 700 N.E. Dekum, built in 1909. Crime was the big issue then, particularly with gang shootings in Woodlawn Park. “Prosperity had not yet found Woodlawn in the 1990s,” said Ehelebe.
Ehelebe described Woodlawn as “the sleepy backend of nowhere” until the railroad spurred Woodlawn’s commercial development. Woodlawn’s Coffee and Pastry Shop, 808 N.E. Dekum, was originally built as a hotel for overnight guests traveling by train from Portland to Vancouver. The building east of the coffee shop once housed the Nickelodeon Theatre, 814 N.E. Dekum and later became a privately owned woodworking shop which made tables and chairs for several Woodlawn restaurants.
In 2007, a former grocery store and butcher shop was acquired by Good Neighbor Pizza, 800 N.E. Dekum. Woodlawn bakery was located in the building now occupied by Breakside Brewing, 820 N.E. Dekum. Fire Station No. 29, 711 N.E. Dekum, originally built in 1913, was acquired by J.R. French Company, a painting and decorating company in the 1980s. After the firehouse was converted to a personal residence in the 1990s, the owner sold it to Matt and Dr. Elizabeth Busetto in 2007. The Busettos converted the ground floor to the Firehouse Restaurant and opened a naturopathic and chiropractor business upstairs. Today Dr. Busetto offers holistic individualized care to support the health and well-being of men, women, and children at Luna Chiropractic, 728 N.E. Dekum.
The Grigsby Brothers Paper Box located at 817 N.E. Madrona St. was formerly an icehouse in the 1930s and served as headquarters for the Army Corps of Engineers during the Vanport flood in 1948. Today, the building houses Classic Foods, an artisan specialty foods producer and distributor, which also provides meeting space for the neighborhood association.
Ehelebe cites Woodlawn Park as the crown jewel of the neighborhood and she’s proud of the community garden created in 1998 that’s located on a parcel between the Park and Woodlawn School, 7200 N.E. 11th Ave. Ehelebe credits the Woodlawn School PTA as the first organized group of activists whose members wrote a history of Woodlawn in booklet form.
Shoulders you stand on
Shirley Minor, who’s served as a board member for the Woodlawn neighborhood for many years, grew up in Woodlawn. Her father worked at Kaiser Shipyards in the 1940s, after moving to Oregon from New Orleans. Minor’s father bought a lot in Woodlawn in 1952 and built a house near Northeast Holland and 10th Avenue where she and her brother grew up. Minor’s family, including her mother, three aunts and an uncle, also worked in the shipyards during WWII. Minor recently recalled having a wonderful childhood, skating her way through the neighborhood, playing on the school grounds and learning about community at an early age. After graduating from the University of Oregon with a master’s degree in public administration, Minor returned to Portland to work in human resources for the city and for the state employment department.
In the 1980s, Minor bought a condominium on the south side of Woodlawn School where her son attended. “It was tough for a while,” said Minor. “When my son was a teenager in the 1990s, I was concerned that gangs would recruit him.” Her son called her at work one day to report that their condo had been firebombed, but no one was hurt. Minor credits her family with providing positive role models by instilling a strong work ethic. “You have to get up in the morning with a purpose,” said Minor. Her son, now in his early 40s, has three sons of his own, and is pursuing a degree in counseling. “You can’t beat having a good family: those are the shoulders you stand on,” said Minor.
Amy Ruiz, WNA’s communications chair, moved to Woodlawn in 2007. “We found affordable housing and great neighbors in Woodlawn,” said Ruiz. Her family was delighted to see several new businesses open in Woodlawn since they moved there. Her son Alex, who attends Woodlawn School, loves eating on the patio at Tamale Boy, 1764 N.E. Dekum, followed by a gelato dessert from Bassotto Gelateria Cafe, 1760 N.E. Dekum.
Although home prices attracted many people to Woodlawn during the past decade, housing affordability remains an issue.
Woodlawn Neighborhood Association connects community
Cheryl Thompson and Quinne Salameh of North and Northeast Neighbors for Housing Affordability spoke at the June WNA meeting to request the board’s endorsement of a grassroots effort to increase the availability of affordable housing in North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods. Their coalition’s objective is to increase housing opportunities by expanding the stock of permanently affordable homes through policy advocacy, public education, community organizing, and supporting the efforts of housing providers. The WNA voted to endorse their objectives. The non-profit Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives (PCRI) organization has established a “Pathway 1000” project to mitigate aspects of displacement and gentrification by building 1,000 homes over the next 10 years, according to an article published June 2, 2015 in The Portland Observer.
The WNA is also concerned with a proposal by Pembina, a Canadian company that proposes to build a rail-served propane export marine terminal in nearby St. Johns. Since trains transporting flammable substances would transect the Woodlawn neighborhood, board members are very concerned about residents’ safety as well as environmental hazards. As of today, the issue is still unresolved.
Markets and more
In 2013 and 2014, the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods (NECN) awarded grants to Woodlawn’s Dekum Youth Empowerment Initiative. Funded by the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, NECN is one of seven coalitions in Portland. The Dekum Youth initiative focused on culinary education, no-waste cooking and environmental education according to NECN’s special projects initiatives coordinator, Fran Ayaribil. In 2015, NECN awarded a $2,000 grant to start a Farmers Market in the parking lot of the Woodlawn School. The market, which opened on Saturday, June 6, hosts a number of local farmers and vendors and will also feature workshops and entertainment. The market is open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. throughout the summer.
In March 2013, The Linnton Feed & Seed Store opened a satellite location called Dekum Street Doorway, 728 N.E. Dekum. A feed and seed business since 1946, Linnton Feed & Seed made the decision to open Dekum Street Doorway as a way to bring products closer to customers living in the city. The Doorway offers edible and landscape plants, animal feeds, straw, hay, bulk soil amendments, garden tools, and seed, sourced from local farmers and plant nurseries. For more information: See dekumstreetdoorway.com and linntonfeed.com.
WNA will be screening “The Princess Bride” for movie night at Woodlawn Park’s amphitheater beginning at dusk on Thursday, July 9. Woodlawn neighborhood will participate in the city-organized Sunday Parkways on July 26 and the WNA is currently planning for their annual National Night Out event in August.