To learn more about the neighborhood around 82nd and Division, we spoke with people who live, work or travel in the neighborhood. Interviews below have been edited for clarity and length.
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Vong Soutavong and Aroon Onchumchit
Brothers Vong Soutavong and Aroon Onchumchit are very familiar with the concept of a tight-knit community.
Their restaurant Thai Fresh, located near Southeast Division and 85th, is a family affair. While they run the front of the house, their sister Kemphone and her husband Thongbay are busy in the kitchen. They are one of the many businesses in the area partnering with the Jade District, contributing input (and tasty food) to the district’s events and gatherings.
How did you get started in this neighborhood?
Vong: My brother and I both lost our jobs back in 2008. I did quality assurance in engineering solutions for hydraulic seals for the last 10 years. That’s what I know to do, but when we lost our jobs our sister called. She and her husband had been cooking Thai food for 30 years, and they asked us if we would like to open a restaurant together, and we both agreed that sounded like a great idea!
So we went searching for a location for the restaurant, but most of the ones we found were prime real estate and too spendy for us. But then this new spot became available, and it was on Division near 82nd. We knew there were a lot of Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants and groceries, and no other ethnic foods yet except those ones as well as Mexican. We decided why not try this area? Maybe we could give the neighborhood a “new flavor.”
Aroon: At first we were scared because there were just a lot of Chinese and Vietnamese businesses, and we didn’t know if we would be able to make it. But in the first year those local people and business owners started to come in and tell us they were thrilled we opened up in this location, because they wanted to see something different.
What does the Jade District mean for your business?
Vong: I’ve become more involved with Todd [Struble], Duncan [Hwang] and the Jade District over the years, trying to get connected with the neighborhood now that we a part of it. And now with the Jade District in full swing, we can get even more involved with the community, giving our ideas and helping with events. We helped donate food and help during the most recent “Polishing the Jade” event, which had the Mayor show up and help out.
Aroon: We try to do as much business as we can in our local community, shopping locally at the stores around us, because we like to get ingredients as fresh as possible. Definitely, when summer time happens, and farmers markets open, we get the freshest ingredients. We like keeping our money in the neighborhood, keeping that circle going.
What would you like to see change?
Vong: It’s exciting to see the neighborhood evolving into something new, something exciting – trying to improve itself and improve the living space. I would love to see the neighborhood streets become more pedestrian-friendly, with safer crossings. We need better crosswalks, because we have lots of older people in the neighborhood and some have been involved in some bad accidents. There’s an overpass right here Division, but they can’t or don’t want to risk climbing the steep staircase.
Interview by Justin Sherrill.
Jessica Acosta was born and raised in outer Southeast Portland, and wouldn’t have it any other way. After several years spent abroad in the military and living elsewhere, the notions of home and family, as well as a new career path, called her back to the area around 82nd and Division where she now teaches 5th grade at Harrison Park Elementary.
You grew up in the neighborhood. Why did you come back?
I went to Marshall for high school, went to PCC, Warner Pacific and PSU, and got some degrees. Joined the military, traveled the world, but I always ended up teaching. At church, I do the children’s ministry, I worked in early Head Start, and I substituted in Georgia for a while.
I worked in sales for a few years, and that was nice, but I remember watching a speech by Randy Pausch called “The Last Lecture”, and he said you can sell things, or you can sell empowerment and knowledge. It reminded me of what my father always told me growing up: that an education is something that can never be taken away from you by anyone or anything. Almost on a whim I threw myself into it, and I’ve been teaching since 2008, and now I know that there’s nothing else for me. I don’t even know if I can teach anywhere besides Southeast Portland.
I’m very, very proud to be born and raised here. My father worked at Portland Youth Builders just down the street from where I grew up, and I volunteer for them today. I’m extremely proud that my daughter is being raised here, because it’s real. She’ll grow up in a neighborhood knowing that she’s loved and cared for. She’s going to go to the church down the street from here, and hopefully she’ll end up going to school at Harrison Park.
What has changed over the years?
I came back to Portland and my neighborhood, and the heart of this place has never changed. The big change I’ve seen: it got richer as far as diversity goes. It’s great, the people moving into the area, I say I live on my own little Ellis Island. Believe it or not, but I remember growing up here and going to school, being the only brown-skinned girl in class.
There so much culture going on, and there’s a work ethic that you don’t find many other places. You can see somebody from Nigeria down the road, or somebody from Mexico, or someone from Iraq across the street. That’s my neighborhood, but everyone has the same desires and dreams, and that’s to do right, to do our best and, if you can, help each other out along the way. I mean, that’s a Bruce Springsteen song!
I remember when Wal-Mart moved [into Eastport Plaza], and I have my own feelings about that. But everyone, including myself, has to buy things from there sometimes. But also, I think everybody in this area knows we have to buy local – and we do – whether it’s getting groceries from Portland Fruit, or shopping at the Portland Mercado.
How does the rest of the region view East Portland and 82nd Avenue?
There are misconceptions about this area that definitely need to get shaken off – I see it, and it can hurt. But people in this neighborhood, and I’m biased, have the biggest hearts. More than anything, people here are trying. Our students at Harrison Park are constantly interacting and bridging gaps with each other. You’ve got older kids looking out for younger ones, and the younger ones emulating the older ones, and there are some amazing role models in that school. Nobody in this area needs pity. It’s demeaning and demoralizing.
We are still very much separated from the rest of Portland. That worries me, but I have to take responsibility for that as well, because I have my own comfort zone, and it’s about 20 blocks in every direction from here.
What would you like to see change in the neighborhood?
Let’s just get some sidewalks, first, please! But seriously, these young people are not stupid, and their concerns are valid. They’re seeing the things that happen when you live in a highly dense area. But, honestly, my prayer and hope is that as they succeed and go forward in life that these kids come back to the neighborhood and continue the mission.
Interview by Justin Sherrill.
Born and raised in Portland, Michael Liu has seen firsthand the growth and change that has come to the area around Southeast 82nd and Division. He and his family, parents Richard and Lenna and sisters Jenny and Debbie, own and operate the Fubonn Supermarket at 82nd and Woodward, as well as their wholesale distribution company in Northwest Portland, Jinthay Trading Corporation.
How did your business start?
My parents emigrated over here in ’77, and in ’82 my father and mother started a food distribution company that specializes in Asian dried goods and frozen products, supplying restaurants and markets in the Portland metropolitan area. Around 2000 or so, we saw the need for a bigger community-centered and commercial development. In Portland, everything is very community-oriented but a lot of the stores are spread out, so you can take a whole day trying to get all your shopping done. So, we wanted to find an area where we could bring everything under one roof.
We kept coming back to this area, because it was in the center of our target demographic. It was the site of the old Portland Community College Southeast campus, but it was already pending sale to Goodwill, so we started to look elsewhere. When we heard their deal fell through, however, we got together with a group of investors in 2004, and by 2005 we were open for business.
What were your first impressions of the neighborhood?
Well, we know it was a part of the evolution of Asian businesses that started out on Sandy Boulevard, around 34th, then looped out to 82nd and then south from there. Just through time, being Oregonians, understanding the landscape through our food distribution company, we had been charting these trends. We saw a lot of opportunity in the area, because our target market were here – predominantly Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai – and we really wanted to be centrally located among those groups.
Since starting out, though, we’ve expanded our selections to include Korean, Japanese and Philipino as well as Hispanic and Russian and all the other cultural pockets that are in the area to make it a more multicultural center and shopping complex.
What would you like to see change?
Well I think we’re starting to see that change already. Before, there was just a lot of used car-lots and a lot of other suspect activities going on up and down the street, but as people start developing their pieces of land and start thinking business-first, it starts to deter that activity that was happening here previously.
As communities develop, I think we’ll see a lot of the negative aspects to the area be resolved. So, those perceptions from a lot of people, that 82nd is just a lot of car-lots and prostitution and drugs, is not really holding true as businesses have developed around here. Now, the first thing a lot of people think about this neighborhood is the food, and all the various cuisines you can get up and down 82nd.
A lot of development from multicultural entrepreneurs out on 82nd is finally starting to get a little ahead of the development taking place in the inner east side, but it’s all part of a wave that’s pushing out eastwards. And it’s not going to stop at 82nd – in a few years it will be 122nd. You know, I went to college, and the Pearl was just warehouses. I came back and it’s one of the thriving areas of the metropolitan area.
As the various government groups work to make this area more walkable, addressing the basic necessities – putting in sidewalks were there are none – I also hope that there is a balance between changing the neighborhood and maintaining the ability for businesses to continue thriving.
What role can Fubonn play in the neighborhood's change?
Our goal is to be a destination shopping location for the Portland metropolitan area. Hopefully, we can start to draw people from west of the river and Vancouver, so they can come to this area and experience all that the neighborhood can offer. With all of the different shops and restaurants around here, there’s a lot to do in the area – you can easily fill up a day in the neighborhood, between bakeries, restaurants and other niche businesses.
With our retail units in Fubonn, our goal is to find qualified people who want to be a part of the mall. If people have the right business plan and experience, we’re open to giving them the opportunity to start out in some of our smaller spaces, and then hopefully they can grow from there. PCC has been doing a lot of great things with the community, assisting people with understanding a lot of the nuances of starting and running their own business. The Jade District and 82nd Avenue of Roses, they have all the pieces in place to groom the entrepreneurial spirit of people in the neighborhood, which is needed, because a lot people just don’t know where to start.
Why is multiculturalism and collaboration important for this neighborhood?
I think it’s an educational platform for people in the neighborhood, to learn from all the different groups – whether through food, cultural events, or outreach. Instead of seeing something as different, see it as an opportunity to learn something, to expand your understanding. In any case, the more you learn, the more similarities you start to see in everyone.
So, just embracing diversity as something that makes us strong, as something that has real value, I think would enrich the neighborhood.
I’m the one talking to you, but my parents started this business back in ’82, and they and my sisters and I all work together to make this businesses what it is. One person can’t do what was accomplished here – it takes people to buy in, having vision and working together. At the end of the day, that’s what I hope to see happen in the neighborhood on a grander scale. They have to buy in, they have to work together, have open lines of communication.
Interview by Justin Sherrill.
Nearly 21 years ago, Rosaline Hui and her husband packed up their things and moved from their native Hong Kong to Portland. Only a few years later, they started up the Portland Chinese Times, a Chinese-language newspaper serving the region's growing population of Chinese-speaking immigrants. With their office at Southeast 87th Avenue and Division Street, Rosaline is also deeply involved in organizing and advocating for the local neighborhood, including serving on the Jade District steering committee.
How did you get started in this neighborhood?
When I first came to Portland, in the 90’s, I think there were a few Chinese restaurants here, but not for Chinese people! They were Chinese food for Americans. So, we had to go downtown to Chinatown to find groceries and have dim sum.
A lot of Chinese immigrants started to move here because Portland wasn’t as developed as San Francisco, so people saw a lot of opportunity here. And a lot of them started their businesses along 82nd. In Chinese, the number eight means “rich” or “wealthy”. And the number two, the sound it makes, means “easy”. So "eighty-two" is a very, very good number – if you believe in feng shui.
When we came over, a lot of Chinese people living in Portland didn’t have a channel to communicate with the mainstream. Most of the time, they lived on their own, and a few were very disconnected. Since we started the newspaper, we help them communicate, we organize events. So, it helps Portland feel more like home for Chinese people.
What was your impression of this neighborhood when you moved here?
I didn’t like it. To me, the neighborhood seemed so old and kind of messy, and nothing but car-lots. When my husband and I came here to visit for the first time, just for one week, the Oregon environment seemed so green, and the atmosphere was so much more relaxed than anything we had experienced in Hong Kong. There, you know, they city is awake until late into the night because it’s so hot, that’s when people do a lot of their business, meet with friends. But here, after eight o’clock: nothing!
How have your opinions changed?
They have changed a lot. With all the Chinese businesses that started here along Powell and Division, it’s started to feel like a new town. We call it New Chinatown, sometimes.
There is a Chinese-American developer here who built a lot of houses in this neighborhood, so that when these families move here, they can live close together. This is important because not a lot of immigrants know how to drive, and some are too old to get around besides walking. It becomes very inconvenient, and very lonely, to be isolated like that. So, a lot of them look at renting near 82nd, that way they don’t need to worry about where to get Chinese groceries, where to get insurance, where to eat dim sum. Then, when they get to know the city a little better, maybe their children leave home to go to school, they are ready to look at other places in the region to live.
What should people know about this neighborhood?
Well, for the people I work with and write this newspaper for, I want them to know that the city and Metro want to make the area better, but they need to be involved. I want them to know that we deserve to be a part of it, to have their say, but it’s really hard. All of the business owners here are so busy, that they never have time to make it to meetings or workshops. I realized that if you want to know what the business owners are thinking, if you want their opinion, you have to be more creative than just setting a time and hoping they come.
What would you like to see change?
I would like to see safe, pedestrian-friendly planning. Because there are so many stores here, that if we just have better planning, it would totally change the face of the neighborhood. Everything is so close, you could just walk everywhere. But safety is such a big problem here, especially around 82nd. Down on Powell, near here, there is a senior housing building – lots of Chinese and Russian elderly people there that can only walk around the neighborhood, or bike around the neighborhood. So, to make the neighborhood safer for them is very, very important.
Also, around the neighborhood, there is no green space for kids to exercise, for adults and elderly people to relax. So, looking at the air pollution reports, it's no surprise that there are these problems.
Interview by Justin Sherrill.
Richard Kiely believes in the future of East Portland, and he believes that future will be made possible through collaboration.
A 16-year resident of Portland, Kiely has been part of the 82nd Avenue of Roses Business Association for nine years and president for the last two years. He operates a small commercial printing company in the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood.
What is the 82nd Avenue of Roses Business Association?
We have the largest business association by area in Portland. We go from the [Clackamas] county line to I-84 and from 72nd to 92nd Avenue. That's an amazing amount of area to cover. With 500-plus businesses in that area, we're trying to join the businesses and the neighborhood associations that connect to 82nd.
I can't even count the number of languages on 82nd Avenue and I only speak one of them. We're trying to get all of these associations and languages together so we can make a better Portland.
My opinion is, we're all in the same boat. If we all paddle together and in the same direction we get there faster.
How do you hope to bring businesses together?
I am one of the people who helped start the Movies in the Park project [with Portland Parks and Recreation]. We started with six movies in five parks and now they're doing something like 50 movies in 48 parks. It was about finding ways to promote interaction and communication within each community. Since its inception we've watched neighborhood associations grow, neighborhood watch groups flourish, neighbors and neighborhoods interact more to make safer places to live and play.
With that as our guide, I felt we could do the same thing with the 82nd Avenue of Roses on the business side. Businesses are always concerned about the decreasing market share and profitability of their companies, so they don't really come together to try to promote each other because of the time constraints and lack of information and marketing skills needed to accomplish that goal. We are attempting to do something about that through the Portland Pilot Program, the annual parade and our business association.
What's the potential of 82nd and Division?
It's been difficult for a long time. 82nd and Division had a sullied reputation. Homelessness, mental health issues, prostitution and drug addiction were blatant. We are working with the dedicated officers of East Precinct [of Portland Police] to promote “good neighbor” agreements that have helped curb crime and assist those in need.
The "Avenue of Roses" sign caps we put up there a number of years ago made it aesthetically nicer, but it really didn't change the public perception. We feel the addition of what APANO, the Jade District and what Metro is doing with the furniture store, and what PCC has done, hopefully we can slow crime and the traffic down. If we can clean up that corner, I believe we’ll have a better chance of putting in more public safety features while offering our diverse community the opportunity to connect and help plan our next phase of development.
Where does that momentum for change come from?
I think it came from the grassroots neighborhood associations getting tired of watching the continued deterioration of a once vital area. The 82nd Avenue of Roses Business Association are doing their part and lately we are not alone. I have seen both business associations and bordering neighborhood associations joining us to seed the changes they would like to see in our individual areas as well as the thoroughfare.
What do you want to see next on 82nd?
I see the transition. It's getting better slowly.
It would be nice to have the speed limit dropped. Even though it says 35, people do 60. It would be nice to have it 25 or 30. We'd like people to slow down and see what's there.
In my opinion we don't need any more strip malls but it would be economically encouraging having some professional buildings on some of the car lots that wished to subdivide and expand their growth potential. We’d like to have some nicer restaurants, have more nice little places like at Fubonn. It would be relaxing to enter a pub with great food and live music. A quiet café for an afternoon brunch. I would love to see varied ethnic restaurants where you could immerse yourself in another culture for an evening of dinner theater. A family fun center with a great pizzeria or miniature golf center to add to the experience.
What's your biggest challenge?
I've been doing this for almost nine years. In reality, we are attempting to rebuild a brand name that has been tarnished over time with neglect. We are seeing positive things happen slowly. With assistance we can make them happen faster.
Today if you break a nail it's on Facebook. News travels at the speed of the Internet. And the old joke: nothing travels faster than good news except bad news. People only want to talk about bad news. The kid who worked diligently to achieve an Eagle Scout award should be on Page One, and the guy who robbed the liquor store should be beneath the tire ads in section E, page 8 below the fold.
How do you bridge different cultures?
What I see here is the same thing I saw as a kid. I grew up in the brownstones in Bridgeport, Connecticut. We had these segregated neighborhoods – the Irish, Italian, Polish, etc. neighborhoods. The only time people did business outside of their own neighborhood was when they had to. It took them decades to realize that when they worked together they all made more money and made a better neighborhood for everyone.
That's what this situation is missing. We have first and second generation neighbors from diverse backgrounds here and that's wonderful. It's what America is. But if everyone's staying in their own comfort zones, they're not accomplishing as much because they're not working together. They're working really hard and just treading water.
82nd Avenue [business association] assisted in the formation of the Jade District and are proud to partner with them where we can. We still have cultural idiosyncrasies to learn, appreciate and respect. We are working together to overcome those bumps in the road. I think the Night Market was a great start.
I don’t mind paying a few dollars more to buy local and help generate income in the community. It keeps local business in business. They are the ones who do the grassroots work, they help build community gardens, and sponsor everything from neighborhood lemonade stands to Neighborhood Night Out. Small businesses turn the key at 6 a.m. and shut the computer off at midnight. These are the people from all ethnicities, cultures and beliefs that make local communities thrive.
In my opinion, the big picture is simple: We make the east side bright and shiny again. It will attract new and larger businesses, lower taxes, reduce crime, insurance rates will decrease, children and families will prosper monetarily and strengthen family unity, our infrastructure will be repaired, living wage jobs will be on the rise, while the existing businesses profit from added revenue through blue collar liquid capital and increases in feeder businesses and new start-up companies. If we build it they will come!
Interview by Craig Beebe.
Ken Yu runs Wing Ming Herbs, a business founded by his mother, which not only sells a variety of medicinal herbs but has also developed a mixed-use courtyard shopping center near the corner of 82nd and Division. Yu, whose family comes from Guangzhou, China, has seen a lot of dramatic change in the 82nd and Division area since 1986.
Why did Wing Ming Herbs move to 82nd and Division?
Wing Ming Herbs was started by my mother in 1996. We were at Foster and 84th until 1998. We were looking to expand, because more and more Chinese people were living close to Powell and Division.
We found a piece of land on 82nd Avenue right next to the old PCC Southeast Center. It was a narrow, deep parcel, and a lot of people thought it was an unbuildable lot. We built a long skinny building, two stories, with residential above and commercial space below, and we moved to the first unit.
Pretty soon we knew it was too small. The business was growing rapidly. More and more Asian customers were coming and also more and more Caucasian customers discovering Chinese herbal supplements.
We happened to look just to the north of our old property. It was a really run down set of old houses, and it wasn't up for sale. But we worked with a realtor and were surprised to find that the landowner was ready to sell. We worked with US Bank which said if we'd come up with the money to purchase the lot they'd finance to get the building built. We turned to our relatives to get enough funds together to purchase the land and then built our building. We opened in December 2003.
How was Wing Ming Plaza designed?
We built a courtyard style development with businesses in front, residential behind and a parking lot in the middle. We could have built a strip mall but then the street exposure would be narrow. And also we were interested in keeping some of the residential houses.
We didn't have enough capital to demolish them all. But also in our culture, people always liked to live close to the business. On our first building on 82nd, that's why we built residential on top, because my parents wanted to live upstairs. We feel that like other Asian people want to live close to commercial shopping and working areas.
They're good residential units. They're never vacant. Some people move out and others come in quickly. A lot of people looking come in and ask if we have units available. Many are new immigrants and don't know how to drive and want to live close to transit. Some of them actually work at the restaurant in our complex. They just come out of their house and walk across the parking lot to work. It's been really nice for them. Others work at restaurants and businesses nearby.
By having a commercial building in front, screening the traffic noise, it helped the residential area as well, made a nice living condition.
What were your early impressions of the neighborhood?
When we first moved to this neighborhood, it was really run down. The skinny lot we bought was vacant, with wild blackberry growing on it. We dumped out a few loads of abandoned mattresses and tires and even half of a car.
But after we moved here the Asian population grew in the whole Portland metro area. Fubonn opened a few years after us here in the old PCC Southeast Center after PCC moved to where the Albertson's used to be (at the corner of 82nd and Division).
Fubonn draws a lot of Asian business here and it helps us too, because we're not a grocer, we focus on herbals. People go to Fubonn to buy groceries and come over here to check out any herbal stuff they need.
How is the neighborhood changing now?
We are seeing more and more Asians here. Lately we're seeing something we didn't see before – a lot of foreign visitors, especially Chinese. Many are students or tourists.
One of the things we sell is American ginseng. And that's a really hot item as a gift when they come back home, genuine ginseng from the US. It's highly advertised over there, because there's less pollution. We purchase three to five thousand pounds every year from a Wisconsin farm. Most of it we sell to visitors from China or people that live here or bring it back to China as a gift.
I like the Jade District. They do a lot of good things. They help promote the businesses. And they ran the Night Market last year, which was really successful. It was good for our business, because people who went to the night market also spent time here and looked around.
When you have that kind of business it will also draw people to move to Oregon from other states. If they can come here and buy the food they used to eat, or live in the neighborhood they like it can have a lot of influence. I personally have friends from New York or California, moving here because the cost of living is a lot lower and the environment is a lot nicer.
What changes would you like to see now?
If you go down Division and Hawthorne in the 20s through the 50s, I think it's really good street development. There are a lot of sidewalk cafes and residential units above. I think it's a really good business community there. I'd like to see that happen on 82nd. But it would be tough because there's a lot of fast traffic.
I've thought that street parking would be nice because it blocks some of the traffic noise and people might feel a lot safer walking next to parked cars than to fast traffic. I have a six-year-old and sometimes he goes for bike rides around the neighborhood. I’m really scared about that. But I don't know how to make it safer, because there's no way to expand the street and making it one lane each way would be a real traffic jam.
Security is also a concern. We have a gate, I didn't want to do that, but we had to because a few years ago we had a lot of tenants' cars broken into at night. We even hired a security guard but we can't afford to have them here 24 hours a day. We have them a few hours a night. We put the gate in and it seems like it's helped somewhat. But still, we have a camera, and I see people jump over the gate. You have that problem no matter where you are.
Interview by Craig Beebe.
Jade Journal reporters
Samantha Martinez-Mendoza and Joe Chan are Harrison Park School students in Timothy Schulze’s class, and participated in the Jade Journal project last year as fifth-graders. They both live near the school, and wrote about issues facing kids in the neighborhood.
What do you like about this neighborhood?
Samantha: I’ve been here since fourth grade. My mom has been here before and she likes it. She also works in this neighborhood.
Joe: I was here since kindergarten. My parents really like this neighborhood because they can make friends and go over to their houses nearby. I really like the diversity, and how there’s people from all over the world here.
Samantha: Me too!
What did you write your story on?
Joe: I wrote about parks, because East Portland doesn’t have enough parks for us to play around. Kids just stay at home without any exercise, when they could go to park with their friends and family just to play, but they’ll just stay at home playing video games, so they don’t get to experience the outside, or the forests.
Samantha: I wrote about how APANO helped us here at our school start our garden.
Joe: Our article was about gardens, too.
Samantha: Yeah, so we’re growing things like tomatoes and watermelons and lettuce so we can have healthy food. We got to taste them a few days ago.
What was it like going to City Council?
Samantha: We were really nervous before, but Joe went on first and I went on after him so I wasn’t as scared.
Joe: It feels weird to go first, because you don’t get to see other people do it right. But, if you go on afterwards you can copy the other person and what they did right, and fix what they didn’t
Samantha: We wrote letters to the mayor about what we think we need in our neighborhood. I wrote about food, and how we need more healthy stores around here. I remember when we got there, the mayor was holding up our newspaper.
Joe: I wrote my letter about safety, and how we need more sidewalks, stop lights and sidewalks. People are getting hit a lot with cars, because streets don’t have sidewalks. And the crosswalks need to be longer, because some people are old, and they take more time to walk over and they might run out of time and get hit.
Interview by Justin Sherrill.
Brian Wong has long had concerns about safety on busy 82nd Avenue, which is also a state highway and one of the state's most dangerous roads. To advocate for better safety, he helped form the 82nd Avenue Improvement Coalition. As the Oregon Department of Transportation spends millions on safety improvements and begins a major planning effort to consider the road's future, Wong will serve on a Community Advisory Committee.
Here, he shares how their impressions of the neighborhood's safety and potential have changed since they bought their home in Montavilla in 1999.
When did you move to the neighborhood?
We both worked at Providence (Medical Center, on NE Glisan Street), so we wanted something close by. My wife's mom lives in the area and we wanted to be close to her. It was very convenient because it's right off I-205, off 82nd. It's super convenient to travel around, just a mile to work. And it was affordable.
I was rather uncertain at first. The first week we moved in, there was a house down the street that had a major drug bust and the SWAT team came and closed the road and I was wondering what we got into. The local business street, Stark Street, was all vacant when we moved in. We had that ebb and flow of small property crimes and nuisance crimes coming up 82nd.
Why did you stay?
As we started to do family planning we were on the fence about whether we'd stay there.
But we looked around and the housing market had gone crazy. Even though we were both earning good wages at the time, and we'd end up with less house in a slightly better neighborhood.
We also saw signs the neighborhood was turning around. The business district was starting to pick up. We had gotten connected with our neighborhood association. We worked with Commissioner Dan Saltzman and the Portland Police on addressing prostitution and street crimes and got a program in place. It's still in place.
So nine years ago we decided to put our money back in our house. We remodeled our home and made it bigger. We're very happy with that decision.
What were the signs of hope that you saw?
The spaces started getting occupied and there started being life in the business district. Things were walkable. We didn't have to get into a car. I had grown up in Woodburn, which is very rural, and the only way you can get around is in a car.
Now we walk down to the Montavilla area, the farmers market, three or four times a week and more in the summer. The Academy Theater is probably our favorite place to go to. The kids get to have pizza for dinner and we get to watch a movie together as a family, so that's a neat experience.
What would you like to see change on 82nd?
82nd Avenue is too difficult to navigate when you're not in a car. I would like to see more options available to navigate 82nd Avenue. I think it has tremendous potential: seven miles of north-south traffic that's uninterrupted, except for traffic lights.
If we could get more traffic besides vehicles on it I think the businesses would net a lot of benefit from it. It's so vehicule-oriented your options are limited as to what kind of business you can put on that boulevard. If a restaurant is going to set up there, they're not looking to the local community they're looking to what traffic they can draw from the interstate. They're not looking to the local community as customers.
So me and a couple of neighbors got together and said let's see what we can do. We created the 82nd Avenue Improvement Coalition. I serve as the chair. Our vision is to make 82nd Avenue a grand boulevard for the city of Portland to be proud of. We look to promote three things: livability, prosperity and functionality.
Our vision is to make 82nd Avenue a grand boulevard for the city of Portland to be proud of.
When I was on the neighborhood association, whenever we addressed a concern about 82nd Avenue with the Oregon Department of Transportation or Portland Bureau of Transportation, they'd always tell us to go to the other one. As far as most people are concerned, they don't really care who owns what part of the street. That was our biggest goal: to bring ODOT and PBOT into closer alignment.
The other is to build the political willpower to say, "Let's do something with 82nd Avenue." And this is why we're really excited about the 82nd Avenue Implementation Plan. We should be using that planning process to say, what does the local community want on 82nd Avenue?
Is 82nd a necessary evil?
Cities do need streets like 82nd Avenue. You need boulevards that move traffic and freight traffic up and down. But you also need a boulevard that fits into the community. And that's where 82nd Avenue is lacking. It doesn't fit into the community. If you were to ask anyone who lives along 82nd, they view it more as a barrier than a boulevard. You can't cross it. You can't walk alongside it comfortably.
(Some say) nothing can be done, but I say something can be done. Look at streets like Northeast Sandy (Boulevard), a former highway which they've modified to better standards in the Hollywood District. That's still moving traffic just fine. I think there's always something that can be done. It's about priorities.
What are this community's strengths?
When I was on the neighborhood association and they started redeveloping Stark Street, someone asked me what the magic was and I said, "low rent." The neighborhood is so affordable it's going to draw a diverse crowd to start businesses and buy homes.
We need to protect that affordability. I could see two great ways to do that: inclusive housing and raising wages. I hope that an employment zone and affordability could be an engine to maintain diversity in the community. There's no easy answer but being aware of it and always trying to maintain diversity is important.
And for the most part, Montavilla has complete sidewalks and good walkability index. You just need the businesses to show up. Give us the businesses and we'll walk there.
Interview by Craig Beebe.