The corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Alberta Street in Northeast Portland is getting new life after decades as an empty lot as the long-awaited and controversial Alberta Commons project finally opens its doors.
Northeast Portland is the city’s historically black corridor, but one redevelopment project after another has left the black population as just that — history.
“I’m real excited about being able to serve my community, right here,” said Theotis Cason, a journeyman meat cutter and butcher for 40 years who finally has his own shop. He’s in a dusty office chair surrounded by white sheetrock walls, exposed wires and paint-stained concrete floors.
“This will be my first brand new spot ever, and I wanna put my taste on it and just let it shine for the community,” the Northeast Portland native said.
After years of renting spaces and pouring money to patch up other people’s properties, Cason designed Cason’s Fine Meats from the ground up.
He walks around the shop pointing to the future home of the deep freezer, the case for prepared foods and the wrap-around counter. His 4-year-old grandson, Messiah, swirls around on a scooter.
Cason said he wants to pass the meat cutting trade and the shop on to his family. He has a nephew in an apprenticeship that he said will join him at the shop along with his young grandchildren.
Cason’s Fine Meats and two other black-owned small businesses were awarded prominent storefronts at Alberta Commons.
Investing In The Community
The city looked for black-owned established businesses that would bring foot traffic for the shopping center, which is anchored by a Nature’s Grocers and owned by Majestic Realty Company. Prosper Portland, the city’s economic development agency, rents 5,000 square feet from Majestic and charges tenants less than what they might pay on the open market. The small businesses also have unconventionally long 10-year leases, part of the city’s effort to reclaim space for black-owned businesses in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood.
“It’s the middle of Dream Street … we are creating a district that is all-inclusive,” said Cole Reed, co-owner of greenHAUS Boutique and Gallery, which sits at the corner of NE Summer Street at Alberta Commons. “… it’s an homage to what was here. And that’s a big thing.”
“The first word that comes to me is longevity. I look at it as an opportunity for maturity for my business,” Jamal Lane, owner of the Champions Barbershop at Alberta Commons, said. This is one of his two two barbershop locations. He also owns the Champions Barbering Institute.
Lane grew up in Northeast Portland and has seen the changes over the years. He said that many of the staples still exist on MLK: a grocery store, auto supply store and a barbershop.
“But there weren’t any breweries or anything like that,” he said reminiscing about growing up in the neighborhood during the 1990s.
“‘The K’ was that common strip,” he said. “If you were going to meet anybody, if you were going to go do anything, ‘I’m about to hit ‘The K.’”
This is Lane’s third business on MLK. He grew up on this street and plans to always have a presence here.
“I think that there’s a narrative out there that we are getting pushed out or the word ‘they,’” he said. “‘They’ takin’ over or buying up everything.”
By “they” he means developers and the white people who typically benefit from projects like this.
“… Being here on this block shows that we can still be successful right here in our own neighborhoods,” Lane said.
Leaders of Prosper Portland know they’re seen as the bad guy by Portlanders who remember the communities that were pushed out through urban renewal and, later, gentrification.
“I think the major obstacle throughout all of this is the continued lack of trust between the black community and Prosper Portland and the city,” said Kimberly Branam, the executive director of Prosper Portland. “There’s been a lot of missteps.”
Prosper Portland, formerly the Portland Development Commission, was behind redevelopment efforts in North and Northeast Portland that, over generations, displaced tens of thousands of black families and wiped out an entire community of black-owned businesses.
Branam sees projects like Alberta Commons as a way to help right those wrongs.
“We’re trying to behave differently and not use different words, but actually to create different kinds of opportunities and to show up and really make sure that we are supporting people who could benefit from increased economic opportunities,” Branam said.
A Redeveloped Redevelopment
In 2013, city leaders announced a multimillion-dollar project to bring Trader Joe’s to the vacant lot where the old Walnut Park Theater once stood.
The decision drew outrage from people community who saw it as the latest installment of displacing black folks in the Albina neighborhood.
Some black activists and community leaders felt betrayed and left out of the conversation.
“All the advocacy that happened during and after was really about what it means to have black people be a part of the decision-making process and really be seen as experts of their lives and their communities,” said Joy Alise Davis, director of the Portland African American Leadership Forum. During the Trader Joe’s debate, PAALF, wrote the city expressing their frustration and distrust of their development decisions.
Trader Joe’s pulled out of the deal. And Prosper Portland rethought the project.
Portland officials sat down with neighbors and activists to create a community benefits agreement that would become a new standard for their development projects throughout the city. The CBA for Alberta Commons included requirements such as dedicated retail spaces for business owners who might otherwise be priced out, artwork curated by local artists and workforce opportunities for diverse contractors and workers.
Similar models are being used at city-backed redevelopment in Lents at Lents Commons on Southeast 92nd Avenue, and downtown at SW 10th Avenue and Yamhill Street. The other two projects also look to support people of color and people with longterm ties to the communities they’re in.
Braman said these projects focus on communities of color because of the negative impact many public institutions have made through processes that amplified the impact of redlining, essentially barring blacks and other marginalized groups from settling in an area by preventing them from getting bank loans.
“I think there were already disparate impacts, so I believe that it’s critical that we take a look at what it’s going to take to meet equal outcomes. And sometimes that means that you have to take different approaches,” Branam said.
A Fresh Start
There’s a saying you hear in gentrifying parts of Portland: Black Lives Matter signs have replaced black people. At Alberta Commons, black-owned businesses will serve what are now predominantly white neighborhoods.
“So if you’ve got a sign in your window, bring your wallet,” said Cole Reed of greenHAUS.
She wants white consumers to think harder about how they spend their money.
“How many products do you have in your home that were built or designed by brown people?” she said. “I want you to be real and look at yourself and invest in your community because we are apart of your community because it is our community.”
All the shops at Alberta Commons open the weekend of June 21. A grand opening celebration is July 20.