Can the transformation of a park spark a revolution?
That’s the essential question behind the journey we have been on for the last three years in our effort to make St. Johns’ central-most park a point of pride – rather than a side-eye – for Portland’s northernmost neighborhood across the bridge.
Metro occasionally contracts with community members to write about newsworthy topics from their perspective as a member of a historically marginalized community, such as people of color, immigrants and refugees, low-income residents and people of varying abilities. These pieces are intended to provide important points of view for consideration and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Metro or the Metro Council.
The answer to that question felt resoundingly like a “yes” at the first The Kidz Outside Festival this past summer, as knee-high smiles darted around their parents or sat atop their shoulders, and neighbors and community members filled in the two acres of green space at George Park.
As the voices of rappers J Prodigy and Mat Randol boomed throughout the greater St. Johns, it was clear that our seed of change was beginning to reach for the sun. The revolution was near.
The Kidz Outside Festival was awarded $12,500 for a 2020 Community Placemaking grant. Community Placemaking grants support community-led, equity-centered, arts- and culture-based efforts that strengthen people’s connections to one another and the places they care about. Grants are awarded yearly and can range from $5,000 to $25,000, with typically 10 to 12 proposals selected for a grant.
St. Johns is special. The 11-square-mile neighborhood lined by the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers is lined by a mix of row houses, dilapidated buildings, specialty boutiques and newly-built, high-priced high rises just blocks from tiny home villages.
If you ask many of North Portland’s alumni where they are from, they may be more likely to say “St. Johns” rather than the Rose City. It’s no wonder, given the neighborhood’s history.
Annexed into Portland in 1915, the little town had its own city hall, post office and public transportation. A blue-collar city propelled by a booming logging industry, it embodied a sense of grit.
One could say the same about present-day St. Johns. Despite the creeping gentrification, there is still a sense of pride in the air on the north side.
While racial demographics in St. Johns have shifted significantly in the past decade, it is by far one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the state with 20% of its residents identifying as Latino, 6% Black, 4% Asian and 1.5% Native American.
St. Johns is also facing many challenges. Nearly a quarter of the residents live in poverty. Roosevelt High School was once considered the most impoverished school in the state with almost 70% of its students qualifying for free and reduced lunch.
The pricing booms that have swept Portland since the 2000s have more recently begun to constrict folks in St. Johns. According to Zumper, the average rent for a one-bedroom in 2015 was about $900. Today, the estimated average rent is $1,375.
St. Johns, quite simply, is changing.
The Kidz Outside is more than a festival, it is a movement to build up both the St. Johns community and its forgotten George Park, which sits within walking distance of four neighborhood schools: James John Elementary, Sitton Elementary, George Middle School and Roosevelt High School.
For Randol, headlining the festival’s kickoff event was a full circle moment. He went to three of those schools. He grew up across the street from that park.
When rapper and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle was murdered in 2019, it shattered hearts from Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles to Ethiopia. Randol personally knows people connected to Hussle and took the loss especially hard.
Randol was inspired by Hussle’s “do-it-yourself” approach to his career, which helped propel him to open his flagship Marathon Store in his native Crenshaw District. In light of Hussle’s passing, Randol began exploring what he could do to improve his own neighborhood.
A father to a then 4-year-old boy, Randol found the answer in an almost ritualistic complaint of his child when they strolled across the street to George Park.
“There’s nothing to do here,” little bouncy fro’d Knox said.
Then Randol called me. We first connected a few years earlier when I helped develop the artist residency series “Art Saved My Life” through my platform Gentrification is WEIRD! alongside three other organizations to create space for Black artists who’d been directly impacted by gentrification to freely create.
Supported by the Metro Community Placemaking grant, which was in its inception year, these monies helped us to support high caliber artistry for first-time artists and veterans alike – including Randol, who was on the heels of his first album release “Alignment.”
When I picked up the phone, he gave me the rundown about George Park, with the hopes that I could assist him in making a change. Neither one of us knew how, but we asked ourselves, “What would Hussle do?”
We got to work immediately. We applied for the Metro Placemaking grant again and were awarded the funds in April of 2020. We were so excited thinking we would hit the ground running as soon as that lil’ pandemic came to an end.
Our goal was to survey people about what they wanted to see at the park, lay down a street mural and launch an annual festival at George that kept the neighborhood engaged and excited about the park’s future.
But as COVID-19 reigned, it became clear we were not going to be able to engage with the community how we wanted, but we refused to let it stop the revolution.
Instead of hitting the ground, we hit the internet streets, distributing our George Park improvement survey digitally to gain feedback from neighbors about how it is being used now and collect their visions for its future.
More than 60 people responded within a matter of months. Current and former neighbors alike with a joint heart for North Portland responded, and as responses poured in, one thing was very clear: St. Johns was ready for change at George Park.
‘Dirty,’ ‘inadequate’ and ‘forgotten’ were common words that were used to describe the park in the survey. However, despite the critiques of the park, community members expressed a deep desire to use the space more regularly and fully and for its limited play structure to be improved.
Knox was right.
‘Hope,’ ‘excitement’ and ‘vision’ were also common words when people talked about the future of the park.
Ideas from the community about how to make the place greater were in full supply: better lighting, a basketball court, artwork.
The ask was clear.
“Do something,” a neighbor surmised bluntly in a comment submitted in the survey. “If something does get improved at George Park, it’s about damn time. It’s been the same way since I was a kid. It’s always been the forgotten park, the forgotten area. Like they say in the movies, ‘If you build it they will come.’”
Come, indeed, they did. When COVID-19 restrictions finally loosened in 2022, and outside was a place more people wanted to be again, we finally launched the inaugural Kidz Outside festival that made the wait truly worth it.
As I surveyed the sea of faces spanning from newborns to been-here-for-a-whiles, I could not help but think about how much had changed since the first call between Randoll and I about George Park in 2019.
Knox doesn’t have an afro anymore. Me and my love had a child of our own. The park looks the same today, but amongst those faces was the stamp of a guarantee that it would not stay that way forever.
The world had all but shut down, but when it opened again, North Portland did exactly what the survey participant said. They showed up for George Park.
And why wouldn’t they? J Prodigy, a rising star at just 11 years old, rocked the crowd so hard that she left with new fans chanting her name by the end of the event. Randol, the headliner, blessed the stage with rhythm and poetry for 40 minutes across the street from the place he had called home for more than 30 years in a park that had never seen that many people in it at once.
Heavy Plays made sure every belly was full. Portland’s legendary first Black clown Nikki Brown Clown crafted balloon animals and made sure every kid in the park got an extra dose of joy. And Tenacious Rose passed out school supplies to students in need, including over 70 backpacks and much more, to make sure the young pupils started the school year properly prepared.
The Kidz Outside Festival was named one of the best summer events of 2022 by Portland Monthly and was even featured on the cover of Street Roots for our efforts to transform George Park with the community.
Decision makers began to take notice. Shortly after the festival, then-parks commissioner Carmen Rubio committed to working with us. Portland Parks Foundation, who named us Park Champions in 2021, invested in similar efforts. Harpers’ Playground founder, Cody G. Goldberg, who got his start advocating for and designing a fully-accessible park for his disabled daughter at North Portland’s Arbor Lodge and now designs them for cities across the world, has also offered to help advise us into this next chapter of ours.
Since the first Kidz Outside Festival, its planners have explored a potential partnership with Sitton Elementary and are planning to lay down a street mural at the the corner of North Calhoun Avenue, which is at the site of Randol’s former home that was condemned during the height of the COVID-19 shutdown.
The home was converted into three row houses, forcing Randol to relocate his elderly mother and grandmother. Many area natives refer to his grandmother as the “Bridge Lady” because she was born the first day the St. Johns’ Bridge was dedicated on June 13, 1931.
As truth would have it, revolutions and playgrounds go hand in hand. Playgrounds are canvases for kids’ imaginations to explode upon. And change, especially deep change, at its core requires just that: imagination.
St. Johns is a lot of things. The Kidz Outside is one gargantuan effort to capture, uplift and preserve the things that make it special. Look at it not as a tombstone for what “was” but as a testament to what has been and what can be.
George Park will be the scene of a revolution. It already has been.
Now what remains to be seen is how the rest of the story will unfold. But one thing remains certain, however it plays out, St. Johns will be made better for it.