Background image of aerial view of Cully intersection

Fighting Povertywith Parks

Softbox Films

How a Portland coalition is creating green jobs in one of the city’s poorest, most diverse neighborhoods.

Yoni Peraza was an out-of-work Portland grocery clerk who had never heard of a green job, until he landed one. It happened in the most unlikely area: Portland’s Cully neighborhood, a place left behind by Portland’s recent green wave of development and industry growth. Since it was annexed into the city in 1985, Cully has been left to fend largely for itself in terms of transit, parks, and updated streetscapes. Only one third of streets have sidewalks within this neighborhood of odd-size residential lots bordered by an industrial corridor. It has only one official park—an undeveloped stretch of open space—within its borders. Meanwhile, it has a poverty rate about twice that of the rest of the city, and two of the three most diverse census tracts in Oregon. As of the last census, it became a “minority majority” neighborhood, where communities of color outnumber white residents—something rare in Anglo-dominant Oregon.

Despite their disadvantaged status, Cully residents and activists have worked persistently to create opportunities. Having emigrated from the Yucatan at sixteen, Peraza benefitted upon arrival in Cully from safe, affordable housing units maintained by Hacienda Community Development Corporation, an organization started by Latino neighborhood leaders. Still, living just across the street from the shadowy Sugar Shack strip joint, a known center for prostitution and crime, Peraza had trouble finding outlets for him and his kids.

man planting a tree

Softbox Films

Landscaper Antonia Rojas is one of several dozen people who have earned a living and built skills through Verde's social enterprises.

“When I first came here eleven years ago, there were a lot of gangs,” says Peraza, stocky and upbeat and in his mid-30s. “People wouldn’t even bother buying bikes—they felt like it was throwing money in the garbage because they were always getting stolen.” Peraza eventually convinced Hacienda to build a safe bike storage room, and he started a bike club.

Then, in 2010 he landed a job planting trees with Verde, a Hacienda spin-off focused on creating jobs and greening the neighborhood. Before long he was working with a coalition of neighborhood groups, including Verde and Hacienda, in an ambitious venture that promises to transform the neighborhood’s identity: the conversion of a twenty-five-acre former gravel pit and construction waste dump into a new public park.

The park is the most visible example of an emerging economy built around green assets and citizen empowerment in Cully, a case I analyzed in depth for the Future Economy Initiative.

Looking in on a park and garden from an empty field, cloudy sky

Courtesy of Verde

Local residents and schoolkids pitched in to build the community garden at Cully Park.

Neighborhood activists kick-started the park project. The city bought the land—a stone’s throw from Peraza’s apartment—a decade ago, but could never come up with funds to restore it. Through an agreement with Portland officials, the neighborhood coalition gained the authority to have Verde plan and lead construction of the park—if they raised their own money. Verde leaders spearheaded a $2 million funding-raising campaign through regional foundations and private donors to build the new Thomas Cully Park, named after the pioneer and stone mason who settled in the area in 1846.

The park coalition then began a kind of crowd-sourced park planning and construction effort, with all sorts of input, sweat equity, and design thinking drummed up from the neighborhood.

The park embodies an emerging economy built around green assets and citizen empowerment.

The park site, a rough rectangle, will end up having some of your run-of-the-mill features: ball fields, a parking lot, a dog run, walking paths. But the neighborhood is already making the place its own. After Peraza and local residents reviewed and signed off on environmental quality test results to allay fears about the parcel’s toxicity, he and other community members and neighborhood children designed and built a community garden at the west end of the park. Meanwhile, a Verde landscaping crew is transforming a steep-sloped bank alongside Columbia Boulevard, at the park’s north end, into a mini deciduous forest. Elementary school children and homeless youth from a local transitional school joined with Verde staff and landscape designers to plot out a play area tucked into the west corner.

And members of Portland’s Native community, many who access services at NAYA, the Native American Youth and Family Center in the neighborhood, co-designed a garden for tribal gatherings along the south border of the park.

Construction is set to finish this summer. Meanwhile, the city is building on the momentum by investing in two other open-space and parks projects in the neighborhood.

Sustainability as anti-poverty strategy

The park effort tracks Verde’s broader initiatives to create a viable economy for the Cully community around environmental asset building; Portland’s “green economy”— whether it’s the $90 million bike sector or the thriving renewable energy space—has already benefitted so many other communities.

“Environmental issues touch so many different areas of private investment in this town,” says Alan Hipòlito, Verde’s executive director, who helped spin the organization off from Hacienda in 2005. “We felt if we could get a toehold in this economy and grow with it, we could take the easy way up. If we could create good jobs, low-income people and people of color would see the opportunities, and say, ‘Hey, my neighbor has a job. How can I get one?’”

In Verde’s hands, sustainability becomes a neighborhood-wide anti-poverty strategy, addressing unemployment, displacement, health, and access to services and neighborhood amenities simultaneously. The organization has so far trained or employed forty-one people through its interrelated social enterprises: a landscaping company, a native plant nursery, and a building and weatherization contractor. Verde also spearheads an alliance of like-minded neighborhood groups called Living Cully. It includes Hacienda CDC, the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), and the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. In the coalition, Verde plays the role of the backbone organization, organizing meetings, collecting data, and thinking creatively about how to make Cully’s development benefit all its residents.

As Living Cully’s signature project to date, Cully Park has opened up opportunities for Cully residents: a total of 116 youth and 170 adults from the neighborhood took part in visioning, planning, and design workshops. The process of building the park has been inclusive, as well: 79% of wages have been paid to women or people of color.

Some of the project’s biggest beneficiaries have and will be Portland’s urban Native community, which has long been marginalized from public spaces in the city. For this group, the gathering garden will be a vital cultural and natural asset. “We want (the garden) to showcase the way we can re-establish the interrupted relationships with the plant world,” says Cary Watters, community engagement manager at the NAYA Youth and Family Center. “It will be a gathering space in dual meaning: where people gather, and where people gather to gather plants.”

The layout of the garden, designed by representatives from the urban Native community and Portland Parks, will reflect Native values and culture. “A medicine wheel at the highest point will offer very beautiful views of Mt. Hood, Adams, St. Helens and the Columbia River Basin,” says Cary Watters. “It will be an area of contemplative ceremony. Then we will have bartering and multi-use space, where people can host classes and other kinds of gatherings. The rest will be developed into what some call a Food Forest: we’ll have many different types of plants for many different purposes: weaving, edibles, medicine. A non-traditional way of doing things that’s based on wisdom since time immemorial.”

Development without displacement

As Living Cully has gathered steam, its mantra has become, “Development without displacement”—meaning the coalition is working to revitalize the neighborhood without displacing its most vulnerable residents. While Cully remains rough-edged, its abnormally large lots have become coveted by Portland’s growing tribe of urban farmers. Merchants and developers are also moving in. The glossy lifestyle magazine Portland Monthly named the Northeast 42nd Avenue strip, a transitioning area of hip restaurants, coffee shops, and pubs at one end of Cully, a “hot microhood” in 2013. And property values are rising. The median home price jumped $90,000 over the last decade to $251,000, a steeper percentage increase than already-trendy Portland as a whole.

A recent city analysis found that Cully is in the early stages of gentrification, meaning that its current residents’ income and educational levels are already making it difficult to keep up with rising housing prices. As more infrastructure arrives in Cully, such as parks and green streets, and people see continued reason to invest in the neighborhood, values will only climb.

Already, staff involved in the Living Cully coalition are feeling price pressure and moving out of Cully: NAYA’s representative to the coalition left Cully to buy a house in a neighborhood farther east of the city last year.

Sustainability becomes a neighborhood-wide anti-poverty strategy, addressing unemployment, displacement, health, and access to services.

Living Cully is pushing hard to upgrade existing affordable housing: Hacienda will rebuild or rehabilitate a total of 133 affordable units at its Clara Vista location in the neighborhood, while another project will weatherize 100 single-family homes occupied by low-income families.

Meanwhile, a thorough Portland State University displacement study commissioned by neighborhood groups recommended quickly setting aside land for affordable housing.

“There aren’t that many big sites left in Cully,” says Verde’s Tony DeFalco, who leads the Living Cully initiative. “We’ve got to get them.”

That’s where Living Cully’s next ambitious project comes in. In recent months, the coalition has set its sights on purchasing the large block in one of the neighborhood commercial centers occupied by the Sugar Shack strip club. Spurred by a vigorous crowdfunding campaign that raised over $50,000, Living Cully partners are working to line up financing to purchase the building for $2.75 million, and transform it into a facility that serves the neighborhood. Affordable housing is right at the top of the list of options, joined by retail space, a gym or workout facility, and a community center. The partners and neighborhood leaders are optimistic they can put the pieces together to pull off their biggest project yet.

As Rich Gunderson, head of the Cully Association of Neighbors says: “In the 13 years I’ve been in the neighborhood, the things that Living Cully, as well as Verde and Hacienda, have accomplished are amazing.”

For community members like Yoni Peraza, those accomplishments have also added up to a living.