After many years of planning and collaboration with partner groups, the project to create a cultural heritage garden at Lone Fir Cemetery’s Block 14 is underway.
With input from community members, the Lone Fir Cemetery Foundation, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and the Mental Health Association of Portland, Metro has dedicated $4 million to the project from the Metro park improvements program area of the 2019 parks and nature bond measure.
“We’re delighted that Metro has prioritized this project and is funding it,” said John Laursen, president of the Lone Fir Cemetery Foundation. “The garden will be a place that tells the story of people who were marginalized or forgotten.”
Currently, Block 14 is an empty lot in the southwest corner of the tree-filled Lone Fir Cemetery. But from 1891 to 1928, more than 1,131 Chinese people were buried there. Even earlier, it is believed that more than 200 patients of the Oregon Hospital for the Insane, the state’s first psychiatric hospital, were laid to rest in various areas of Lone Fir Cemetery, including the eastern part of Block 14. Many of their names and stories have been lost to memory, but community members hope the cultural heritage garden will be a place to honor their stories.
“There’s so much history that’s left to be told,” said Marcus Lee, a member of the board of directors of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. “This is a great way to be able to share one part of that, one chapter of that history.”
Metro acquired Block 14 from Multnomah County in 2007, a decade after the county had transferred the other parts of the cemetery to Metro.
The Block 14 project has been in the works at Metro for a long time. After a process of community engagement in 2008, a Lone Fir Block 14 Master Plan and design were created. When complete, the cultural heritage garden will feature memorial elements for the people once interred there, as well as a new pedestrian entrance into Lone Fir Cemetery with signs and artwork providing information about the history of the site.
Project scoping is underway. Staff are beginning to outline the sequence of work needed to complete the memorial thoughtfully and with intention. Considerations include the site’s cultural and archeological resources, and its status as a treasured neighborhood space that is also listed on the National Register of Historic Properties.
Though it took many years to secure funding, stakeholder groups and Metro councilors never lost interest in the project.
Former Governor and Metro Councilor Barbara Roberts, whose district included the cemetery, was especially committed to the cultural heritage garden project, said Metro Council President Lynn Peterson.
“When Governor Roberts served as a Metro Councilor, Block 14 was important to her,” said Peterson. “She wanted to honor the contribution these folks made to the history of Oregon. We’re so glad we can continue her vision now and make it a reality.”
The garden will be a place to honor the past and present contributions of two groups that continue to face racism and discrimination: The Chinese-American community and people institutionalized, often unjustly, for many reasons in addition to experiencing mental health conditions.
As work begins on the garden, the original design may be refined to reflect present-day considerations around community storytelling and trauma, everyday uses of the cemetery, and resources available for Metro cemeteries stewardship and maintenance.
“We’re excited to be able to take the next step with this project,” Peterson said. “We look forward to making Block 14 a place to help reimagine the role of public space as the region confronts new and old challenges.”