It was the first weekend of fall 2022. Portland Playhouse and Albina Vision Trust joined forces to transform an empty parking lot in Portland’s Eliot neighborhood from a blank canvas into a vibrant, immersive pop-up city radiating Black creativity and joy.
Over the course of the two-day festival, music, laughter and conversation welcomed visitors of all ages. Alluring smells from food carts and market stalls filled the air. The sun was still gracing the region with its presence and warmth, illuminating the colorful art, clothing, herbs, books and self-care products.
Artists, dancers and storytellers from every generation gave life to the space through their respective gifts to help portray the complex range of emotions that come with healing past harm and re-imagining the future.
Last year, Portland Playhouse and Albina Vision Trust were awarded a $20,000 Community Placemaking grant. These grants support community-driven, equity-centered, arts and culture-based efforts that strengthen people’s connections to each other and the places they care about.
Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater
Inspired by elements of Afrofuturism, the two organizations assembled a collective of civic planners, artists and business owners to honor the history of lower Albina, the once-thriving center of Portland’s Black community.
The porches and stoops of Afro-topia
For many Black Americans, the porches and stoops of homes are more than just entry ways. They are like portals where families weave new and old timelines together. Where families tell stories, rest and honor memories. Where they get their hair done, process emotions, take photos, celebrate, and watch the world unfold.
Like neurons transmitting important signals, porches and stoops have been connecting the Black community to their neighbors, setting the stage for stronger networks of community.
Afro-topia gave Portland-based artists, creatives, vendors and performers the opportunity to honor their vision of Albina’s future with their own porch and stoop installations throughout the lot of the future location of the Albina One affordable housing development. Albina One will be a 94-unit family-focused residence designed to counter the intentional displacement of Black people from Albina through urban renewal, freeway siting and discriminatory housing policies.
Latoya Lovely is a multi-dimensional artist, painter, dancer and paraeducator. She’s originally from Florida and moved to Portland in the 1990s. Lovely and artist, Intisar Abioto, dedicated their porch/stoop to memories of Black childhood.
“When we went to my grandparents’ house, on their porch, that was where everything happened; where the grown folks got to sit and eat their cookout food,” Lovely said. “That was where we played patty cake. That was where my grandpa died, on the porch. That was where we gathered and mourned his passing. So, that porch was just integral to my childhood.”
Lovely reminisced about the importance of play and spending time be outside. “We made up games. We made up dances. Jumped rope,” Lovely said. “So our porch is meant to remind us of the joys of childhood.”
La Toya A. Hampton, MSW, also known as The Poet Lady Rose, was overcome with emotion as Afro-topia ended. She’s a queer Black femme educator, entrepreneur and poet.
“It’s good to be home. It’s good to be reconnected with community. It’s good to have a renewed purpose,” Hampton said. “I’m just excited for what’s next.”
About a year before the pop-up, Hampton considered leaving Portland, her hometown. She moved away a couple of times out of frustration, but always returned. Those feelings of past hurt were bubbling up, and she considered leaving once more.
Her community did not let her go again easily.
Hampton’s professional background is in education, mental health and social work. After earning her Master’s of Social Work at California State University in Long Beach, California, she worked as a child and family therapist serving families living in South Central Los Angeles.
When she returned to Portland, she taught CPR, but after a while, she decided to pursue art full time.
“People always thought that was odd. They’re like, you have a master’s in social work but you’re teaching CPR? But that’s just what came first,” Hampton said. “When I made that decision, I was like, ‘No, I’m done with that. I want to do everything art.’”
Having worked with youth in different capacities throughout her career, Hampton decided to use her art to guide youth on their own journey. Hampton understands the power of words for marginalized communities and helps students find their own voice through poetry and writing as a form of self-care and expression. She gives students tools to uncover and share their common interests and struggles.
Hampton’s short film “Petals and Thorns: A Spoken Word Journey” features four Black Portland youth’s journey as she leads them through a one-week writing and spoken word camp. The film was commissioned by Portland Playhouse as part of their Return to Wonderland short film festival and debuted in September 2022. The documentary follows the students as they step into their own poetic voice ahead of their first public performance – a captivating journey highlighting Black excellence and the power of storytelling.
When COVID-19 lockdowns began to fade, her art and services were in demand. When her friends realized she was making the transition from teaching CPR to doing “everything art” they made sure she had plenty of opportunities to spread her gifts.
“[My friends] were like, ‘Whenever we can bring you along, we’re going to bring you along,’” Hampton said. “It’s just blossoming, and people are noticing.”
It was clear that Hampton was very moved by this new energy. She opened up about how when she initially returned home to Portland, unresolved emotions lingered that came from feeling let down, unsupported or misunderstood in the past. She expressed gratitude for reconnecting with people in spaces like Afro-topia as she reintroduces herself in this new light.
“[People] are like, ‘Oh, this is who you are today. This is what you’re doing now,’” Hampton said. “Home will have me for as long as they’ll have me. So, I got a little choked up.”
Hampton’s porch/stoop installation challenged beginner youth poets to write short pieces on the spot based on prompts provided by eventgoers. To help the youth poets finish their prompted poetry request, Hampton joined the exercise and wrote the final poem of the event:
“Memories of you, reflecting on brighter days, when the warmth of sunrays penetrated my heart causing butterflies to return to me like boomerangs. May our love always renew and remain.” - La Toya A. Hampton, MSW aka The Poet Lady Rose
Reclaiming a sense of connection and community
Afro-topia was special because many bridges were created and reconnected. Elders passed on their wisdom to the youth, and the children reminded the elders to be creative and innovative in their visions of the future.
Bobby Fouther, a storied visual and performing artist born and raised in Portland, was asked to speak on the second day of the festival. He talked about his family history and growing up around a plethora of artists.
When asked how folks can reclaim the sense of community and connection past generations felt, Fouther mentioned the importance of using technology to research oneself.
“Coming from a community who is from the oral tradition, we should not slack on [sharing stories] at all. And young ones, help the old ones. We need your help. We can’t memorize it all. Technologically, we can’t do it all. We inherited a hundred years’ worth of family photos... thousands of them with important figures in them,” Fouther said.
He encouraged younger generations to help their elders archive their individual and collective histories, so they are accessible for future generations.
“That’s how you keep the family intact,” Fouther said. “And it’s a community family now. It’s not just your cousin and your aunt and your uncle. It’s a community family now.”