On a calm May evening, eight drummers of the taiko drumming group Unit Souzou stood motionless inside a formerly vacant commercial building in Southeast Portland, while in the windows behind them, a muffled rush hour parade of cars and buses flowed through the intersection of SE 82nd and Division Street.
Hear the sounds of the Jade District
The building still bears Art Deco embellishments from its 1930s inception as a Piggly Wiggly grocery, as well as the bold neon signage and large storefront windows from its midcentury turn as a furniture showroom.
Now, passersby peered in through those windows, curious as to why this long-dark space was now full of life, while Michelle Fujii and Toru Watanabe explained their group’s specific style of taiko to a large gathered audience.
“In Japanese, the word ‘souzou’ can mean three things: creative, imaginative and noisy,” Fujii said with a grin.
At Watanabe’s signal, the group sprang into action, arms whipping in unison, filling the large showroom with thundering drumbeats. Out across the faces of the seated spectators, smiles spread from plugged ear to plugged ear.
Fujii wasn’t lying; it was loud.
The drumming was a fitting opener for an event called the “Voices of Change Celebration,” since the event’s organizer, Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, better known as APANO, had a clear goal in mind for the night: be heard.
The message was one of reflection on the hard work of generations past, as well as a call to action for the future: There is already a vibrant and diverse neighborhood here, but it can be more prosperous, safe and livable if a community comes together.
This is the mission of Portland’s new Jade District, now anchored by an old furniture store that’s been rechristened the Jade/APANO Multicultural Space. The building for the space was purchased last year by Metro as part of the Transit Oriented Development Program, and will be a part of the long-term plans for the Jade District.
Beyond the walls of the Multicultural Space, however, is where the mission will have to contend with the realities on the ground.
History and heritage
Physically and socially, the Jade District defies simple categorization. It shares land with three Portland neighborhoods, and it bridges the border between Portland and East Portland. The district’s history is a tangle of 19th century rural settlement, 20th century boom and decline, but new opportunities are sprouting up between pieces of the past.
While the neighborhood is still majority-white, the district is home to Portland’s largest concentration of Asian Americans – at rates triple the regional average – as well as significant numbers of Latino, Slavic and black residents. Many residents are first-generation immigrants or their children, and some have started thriving businesses in the area.
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But there's also struggle here. About 20 percent of the people around the Jade District live at or below the poverty line, compared to 16 percent for the state. Asthma rates in the district are as much as double those of the regional average – in large part, experts say, a consequence of living between heavily trafficked highways with no significant tree canopy to mitigate the resulting air pollution.
Memories of rampant prostitution along 82nd remain fresh for many residents and contribute to lingering perceptions of the area as unsafe, especially at night.
Officer Mike Gallagher, a senior member of Portland Police Bureau’s Sex Trafficking Unit, has been working the area for nearly 30 years, and knows of its ups and downs.
“The 90s were a real low point for that stretch of 82nd, and the recession added to those problems," Gallagher said. "But, the city has since tripled the number of officers in this unit and we’ve been making progress in the last several years."
With such a varied array of issues facing it, the Jade District intends to improve the area by using an equally diverse assortment of solutions.
“The Jade District is kind of a hybrid of a neighborhood association and a Main Street district,” explained APANO communications and development director, Duncan Hwang. “We want to address issues with a holistic approach, because it’s really about building up the human capital of the entire district. So, we look for ways to balance the needs of local businesses with the needs of the community – from transportation, to air quality and food security.”
“We have to let these communities lead.” - Patrick Quinton, Portland Development Commission
The Jade District is part of a new system of urban revitalization spearheaded by the Portland Development Commission. It’s called the Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative, and as part of it, the Jade is one of eight districts around Portland that will receive capacity-building support and funding – around $1 million over the next 10 years.
The program is part of a wider strategy to help build up local neighborhoods’ economies, letting that success feed back into improving the community physically.
“The focus of the program is to connect with the business community,” said Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative manager Amy Fleck-Rosete, “to make sure it’s thriving, reducing vacancy rates, increasing the number of jobs and increasing the number of businesses. Those are some of the core long-term metrics we’re looking at for success.”
PDC executive director Patrick Quinton also stressed the importance of this grassroots approach to the Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative.
“We have to let these communities lead,” Quinton said. “Our goal is to build the capacity of these districts become centers of gravity for when public agencies are deciding how to make big public investments in the area, so we don’t compromise the great work they’ve done. It’s all part of answering the question, ‘how do we change the trajectory of these neighborhoods?’”
The direction and scope of revitalization, however, is guided not by the PDC but by the Jade District and its leadership – in this case overseen by APANO staff and a steering committee of local business and community leaders.
The coming years will put these goals to the test as big public investments begin to change the face of the Jade District.
Already the district has seen the arrival of Portland Community College’s new Southeast Campus, which aims to bring many more students to the area. Following on its heels will be the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project, a project designed to bring bus rapid transit to a bustling education corridor stretching from Portland State University to Mount Hood Community College in Gresham.
Visions of the future
To capitalize on that momentum, the Jade District plans to help local businesses through a variety of means, from securing storefront improvement grants to partnering with the Small Business Development Center at Portland Community College to provide technical assistance and education to business owners.
The Jade District has already started using one of its tools. Its inaugural Night Market exceeded expectations last summer, and plans are already well underway to make this year’s event even bigger and better. Able to draw attendance across Portland’s spectrum, from uptown cosmopolitan foodies to local working families, the Night Market works by showcasing the Jade District’s considerable diversity to a wide audience who might normally overlook this corner of the city.
Recognizing that diversity as one of the greatest strengths of the neighborhood, APANO and the district’s leadership are striving to make sure that any prosperity that comes to area is shared by all.
To build a broader base of stakeholders, the district’s leadership invited the major cultural groups of the district to two sets of visioning workshops in April and June 2014. Professional architects and planners helped these different cultural communities plot out their hopes for the district’s future.
The visions shared two common themes: improve the quality and safety of the district’s streets, and bring some green to the Jade by building parks and community gardens.
The area around the busy intersection of 82nd and Division received particular focus from each workshop group. All agreed that adding more dedicated pedestrian crossings to both roads and slowing traffic through various other means was the first step to improving the safety of all residents, as well as creating a more vibrant and walkable commercial district. To the relief of many in the neighborhood, the Oregon Department of Transportation recently began planning to add $5 million worth of safety improvements to 82nd Avenue.
The creation of new greenspaces in the district will take time and creativity, but the work has already started at nearby Harrison Park Elementary, where a community garden project was recently initiated by the Jade District. The project, complete with multilingual sign-up sheets and instructions, is aimed at getting kids excited about gardening, as well as getting parents and area residents interested in healthy food and building the bonds of community.
Jade District manager Todd Struble said this year will see a series of programs he hopes give the Jade a greater exposure to Portland and the surrounding region, as well as increased buy-in from local businesses.
“Storefront improvement grants are in the works and we hope to have them ready later this year, and we’re planning to get more local businesses involved in this year’s Night Market, which is going to be even bigger than last year’s," Struble said. "We’re also partnering with Division-Midway Alliance to do a series of placemaking projects along the corridor that all feature local artists, speaking to local issues that affect all residents, of different cultures or ages.”
It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that the district’s twice-yearly cleanup and graffiti-removal effort, “Polishing the Jade,” evokes a sense of something precious – something to be shared and tended to by a new kind of community that spans generations and crosses cultural lines.
In a region where diversity and equity are issues finally getting the public attention they deserve, the Jade District functions as something of a case study. Future public and private development will change the face of the district. What remains to be seen is how the community as it is today will navigate those changes.
That chapter of the Jade's history is still being written, but with more voices guiding the story than ever before.
In focus: 82nd and Division
A story of an intersection where people, cultures and opportunities cross.