Remember the House of Sound, the record shop on Williams Avenue? How about Maxey’s Grocery Store, the one at Williams and Weidler Street?
More businesses come to mind if you remember the old Williams Avenue – the main street of Portland’s African-American community before redevelopment in recent years brought in the condos, the high-rise apartments, the trendy eateries and the bike lane.
Doris’ Cafe, the Tropicana Bar Be Cue, and the Cotton Club, a block over on Vancouver Avenue – those are a few of the other black-owned businesses that served the surrounding neighborhoods.
They are gone now, but the memories of people who were part of the close-knit community have been collected and transformed into sidewalk murals, posted signs and a kiosk with a touch screen offering photos and additional information.
The artwork, created by a husband and wife with family roots in old Williams Avenue, will be introduced at a public gathering at noon June 3 in Dawson Park, N. Williams Avenue and Stanton Street, followed by art walks until 2 p.m.
Kayin Talton Davis, an artist and mechanical engineer, and Cleo Davis, an industrial engineer who has studied architecture, were selected to create the artwork highlighting places, people and events that are a part of the black community’s history.
The 11 murals and 30 signs, appearing between Broadway and Killingsworth Street, are porcelain enamel tiles. The kiosk, planned for Williams Avenue and Cook Street, will be of weather-tested materials with a baked enamel finish, said Talton Davis.
“We wanted something that would be unique, would take color and would hold up under everyday wear and tear,” she said. The material also should hold up to vandalism and can be easily cleaned if tagging occurs, she said.
One tiled subject is Dr. DeNorval Unthank, recruited as the city’s first black physician in 1929. He went on to head Portland’s NAACP chapter and co-found the Portland Urban League. He continued working in a variety of civil rights and equal opportunity efforts up to his death in 1977.
Otto and Verdell Rutherford worked with Dr. Unthank and others in urging the Legislature to pass Oregon’s 1953 law outlawing discrimination in public accommodations. The couple’s house on Northeast Shaver Street was the center of civil rights activity for decades. The couple also opened the NAACP Credit Union in their dining room, giving African-Americans equal access to financial services. That achievement is noted in one of the history tiles.
Other tiles highlight Hank’s Dairy, music mentors, Jefferson High School and the “All Power to the People” period.
The history project grew out of the transportation bureau’s Williams Traffic Safety Project, completed in 2014 to bring more crosswalks, traffic signals and bicycle lanes to the avenue, once called Portland’s “Black Broadway.”
A subcommittee noted that a series of redevelopment projects – Memorial Coliseum, a section of Interstate 5, and Emanuel Hospital’s expansion – gradually wiped out many African-American homes and the businesses that blossomed after World War II. New development also increased property taxes and rents, which forced some longtime residents to flee to lower cost neighborhoods.
A subcommittee from the traffic study gained the support of then-mayor Sam Adams to work with the Regional Arts & Culture Council “to develop an art project that provides education about the historical change in the surrounding area.”
Cleo and Kayin Talton Davis were selected from 15 applicants for the project, with a budget of $80,000, said Joyce Harris, a subcommittee member. “Their vision was way far ahead of everyone else,” Harris said at a May preview of the project for residents who provided research information.
African-Americans feel an acute loss of the old community because public policies destroyed it, said Talton Davis. “If it’s a mass push-out, that’s different from people moving out on their own,” she said.
At the May gathering, Donna Maxey explained the loss.
“You knew everybody,” she said. “You never locked your door. You never locked your bike. Whatever you were doing, the word would get home before you did. Everybody was your parents. It was a lifestyle I miss. I wish our children could have it and our children’s children.”