Take a walk down Fourth Plain Boulevard and you’ll see a diverse slice of Vancouver’s community.
Vietnamese restaurants sit beside eastern European bakeries.
A man on a street corner sells fresh tamales and street tacos.
The area, also known as Vancouver’s International District, is where many of the city’s newest residents get their start.
“You’ll see a lot of Latino immigrants, Russian and Asian immigrants running businesses here,” said Will Suarez.
“It’s a very unique area.”
Suarez works with the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber. The organization is Portland-based, but they recently opened a bureau in downtown Vancouver.
He says Latinos represent about a quarter of the community in Fourth Plain. More than a third of the businesses here are minority-owned.
“Sometimes I come here to go to the bakery and buy Mexican sweet bread, which is hard to find,” he said. “And I’m sure people come here because there are products and services that they only can find in this part of Vancouver.”
Fourth Plain serves as a main artery that connects downtown to East Vancouver. The stretch of businesses is being targeted for renewal. The city's plan for redevelopment, called Fourth Plain Forward, hopes to capitalize on the international brand. Portland's 82nd Avenue saw a similar makeover with its Jade District.
Suarez says the Chamber is happy that Vancouver is trying to beautify and invest in Fourth Plain. He just hopes it doesn’t translate into gentrification.
“You just cross a border and we know the history of Portland,” said Suarez. “We don’t want that to repeat here.”
For some newcomers to Vancouver, Fourth Plain Boulevard was a taste of home. When Carmen McKibben relocated to southwest Washington in 2013, it was a bit of a culture shock.
“Latinos in Clark County, it’s hovering at just below 10 percent,” said McKibben. “I came from an area where it’s like 40 percent.”
McKibben moved to Vancouver from Phoenix, Arizona. She’d often get homesick for the southwest Mexican food she grew up on. When she first got here, she had heard of an area called the international boulevard. She soon learned that place was called the Fourth Plain corridor. On her first visit, she pulled up to a traditional Latino market.
“Just seeing some of those food products,” said McKibben, who also runs a Mexican food cart called Vida Flair. “It was just exciting to see elements of my culture.”
Four years later, McKibben is no longer a stranger to the neighborhood. She’s part of the recently formed Fourth Plain Forward Business Association. It’s made up of residents, shop owners, and members from local nonprofits who would like a say as the city moves forward with plans to revive the area.
“It’s a way to get people excited about this community and have it be another area like, ‘Hey, Vancouver has this. Look at all the richness in this area,’” she said.
On a sunny weekday, Gabriela Mendoza is busy blending fresh mango smoothies. She’s the owner of Frutas Locas, a small business that specializes in Mexican-style fruit cups and drinks. She followed her sister from Los Angeles, and moved her family up to Vancouver. She never imagined she’d end up owning her own business.
“When we moved we came with nothing,” Mendoza explained. “So I tried to start this business showing my kids what my mother taught me, and that's how we started.”
Mendoza says she chose to open her business on Fourth Plain because that's where most of her customers are. With her shop tucked away in a strip mall parking lot, Mendoza says she’d welcome improvements to the area. Many of the buildings along the strip are vacant and covered in graffiti. But she also worries that investment could increase the property values and make it difficult for her to stay.
“To be honest, yes. I’m very concerned,” she said. “I may have to raise prices for products and that would affect my clients."
A 2015 study by Portland State University graduate students found more than a third of renters in neighborhoods along Fourth Plain are burdened by housing costs. The poverty rate is more than double Vancouver's average.
The study also found that a majority of the businesses in Fourth Plain are serving the people that live there. And that’s not just limited to food – culturally-specific insurance companies, hair salons, and health services are all on the corridor.
“When we looked at the Fourth Plain Corridor plan, we said here’s an area where there’s a huge asset in terms of minority-owned businesses and neighborhood serving businesses,” said Rebecca Kennedy, an economic development planner for the City of Vancouver.
The city helps fund programs with the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber to offer free technical assistance to small businesses. They also provide a series of workshops throughout the year and work with property owners to make small improvements to storefronts.
Kennedy says if the corridor can help attract a broader customer base, beyond those who live there, it could be a boon for business.
“That is the opportunity,” said Kennedy. “Let’s really try to support and strengthen the business district in that area.”
The corridor is already changing. Earlier this year, C-TRAN completed its first Bus Rapid Transit system, The Vine, which travels down Fourth Plain. Six apartment complexes slated for the area could bring an additional 400 housing units.
“We’ve been seeing a huge shift in investment and development that’s playing out here,” said Mark Maggiora, the executive director of Americans Building Community, a not-for-profit community development corporation with a focus on Fourth Plain Boulevard.
Maggiora says after the city invested resources into improving downtown Vancouver, officials began asking what’s next. Mayor Tim Leavitt – then a city councilmember – suggested his old neighborhood: Fourth Plain.
“And he really made the case that if we consider the downtown zone the heart of Vancouver, the Fourth Plain Corridor is its backbone,” said Maggiora. “It’s really a place where many people get their start.”
Now the biggest test for the city will be finding a balance between branding a business district and preserving its character.
“That’s a challenge,” said Maggiora. “As a place shifts its character to one of a more inviting and safe place – the word gets out.”