A memorial to Judy Mae Phillips hangs outside the Alberta Co-Op Grocery in Northeast Portland. 

A memorial to Judy Mae Phillips hangs outside the Alberta Co-Op Grocery in Northeast Portland. 

Anna Griffin/OPB

In many ways, Northeast Alberta Street is the epicenter of Portland gentrification.

This arts district is now a tourist magnet, a place where people with money come to buy designer ice cream and fancy coffee – and where bungalows can sell for $500,000, or more.  

So it might come as a surprise to hear that just the other day, Alberta Street held a memorial parade for a panhandler named Judy Mae Phillips. 

“Judy? Judy is the self-proclaimed queen of Alberta Street, although she was much more of an ambassador than a queen,” said Micki Waddell, who works at the Alberta Co-op Grocery. “She definitely ruled in her own way, but she was the eyes and ears of the neighborhood. She always knew what was going on.”

Judy spent her days and many of her nights outside the co-op and considered the bench out front – along with the rest of Alberta Street — her office.  

From there, she asked for change — but she also gave. She’d yell, “Hey Mama,” whenever Waddell came to work, or “Hey Shorty” when she saw Aysha Ghazoul, who lives a few blocks away.

“Today, online I saw a couple of postings that people are referring to her as the ‘Alberta panhandler,’ and I think that’s a bunch of crap,” Ghazoul said. “Sure, once in a while she might ask for change, but that’s not who she was.”

She was a tiny 60-year-old woman who doled out greetings, life advice, snippets of gospel songs, and nicknames to pretty much everyone she encountered in a booming voice that belied her size. 

“She called me ‘nephew,’ and so she’s kind of like another family member to me, like an aunt,” said Matthew Randall, who lives and works in the neighborhood. “She always asked me, How’s your son?’ and when she’d see me she’d say, ‘That boy is too big to be in your arms, he should be walking.’”

Betsy Levine lives in an apartment next door to the co-op and says Judy carefully watched her behavior before and after she was pregnant with her now-4-month-old daughter. 

“Every time I went to the co-op, she said, ‘Have you had that baby yet?’ And once I did, she made sure I had a hat on her,” Levine said. “So for this walk, we are wearing a very warm hat.”

Judy had a soft spot for parents, and she had kids of her own — three children and one stepchild.

She was also one of 11 siblings; Betty Holmes said her sister always had a place to go but often preferred her family on the streets.

“She chose to be outside when she was,” Holmes said. “You couldn’t give her nice things, a nice bed, or anything comfortable. She just wouldn’t take that.” 

A few years ago, Holmes found her sister sleeping on a bench across from the market. She wanted to bring her sister inside because it was winter and cold. The effort failed. 

“I knew if she’d seen me coming she was going to disappear on me because everybody around here knows her. I came in through the back door and tried to get her off that bench, and all these homeless guys come out and say, ‘She’s at home, leave her alone, who are you?’” Holmes said. “I’m like, ‘I’m her sister, I’m trying to take her home.’”

Judy wasn’t having it.

“Judy’s all ‘I ain’t going anywhere, I’m good, leave me alone,’” Holmes said. ‘“OK, Judy. We aren’t going to make you do anything.’”

Most recently, Judy lived with her elderly mother a couple blocks away, and treated her time on the street like a job.

“She’d fix mom breakfast, then she’s like, ‘I’m going to work,’” Holmes said. “And she’s out here, and she’s home before 12. Yep. Twelve midnight.”   

Regulars at the co-op would ask what she wanted and bring out her favorites: root beer, potato chips, and pecans. Workers and volunteers at the neighborhood bike shop had a tip jar – and a jar of change they collected for Judy. A European bakery up the street threw her a birthday party – no matter how many times a year she decided to celebrate her birthday.

But not everyone on Alberta was as delighted with Judy’s presence. Panhandling is controversial in Portland, especially as the homeless population has exploded and Alberta Street has changed. Micki Waddell says the co-op’s board heard plenty of complaints from shoppers who didn’t like being asked for money. Some wanted market staff to call the police. They refused.

“You get people who are moving to the neighborhood, and they can’t deal with the presence of people that don’t fit into their little fantasy bourgeoisie neighborhood,” she said. “It hasn’t always been that way. One of the things about her passing that is setting heavy with a lot of us is that she’s sort of the last bastion.”

That’s part of the reason friends organized a memorial march last week or Judy, who died of natural causes on April 4. She touched them, both on a personal level and as a symbol of a city that, for some neighbors, seems to be disappearing.

“For me, Judy was that one last string that kept us familiar with the old Alberta,” Ghazoul said. “This used to be a place where people talked to each other, no matter how different they might seem. I’m not sure Portland is like that anymore.”

The memorial march attracted close to 100 people. A diverse crowd of whites and blacks, young artists and graying retirees walked 10 blocks chanting “Thank you, Judy,” and “We love you, Judy.”

Then they shared a root beer toast – for Judy and what she represented.