History of Alberta Street

Alberta Street History

(Much of this content is based on contributions from Donna Guardino & Elise Scolnick, excerpts from a Masters thesis prepared by Meredith Rizzari (2005) and conversations with long time and former residents. If you have content to add or correct, please let us know.)

Alberta Street has a rich history, from newcomers fueling the renaissance, to activists who laid the groundwork, to old-timers living here for decades. First developed by immigrants in the 1880′s, Alberta Street has always been a street of pioneers.

historic alberta street car

Historic Alberta Street Car

1890s – 1920s: Streetcars began service along Alberta Street in 1903 (ending in 1948). Soon after regular service was established, businesses began operating along the busy street. Supporting residential developments were built near the growing commercial district. Pedestrian traffic increased concurrently with the trolley service, providing additional activity to sustain the economic vitality of the street. Many of the buildings incorporated second floor apartments that allowed business owners and their families to live above their establishments. Neighborhoods surrounding the commercial corridor along Alberta street began to flourish as well, filling up with modestly-sized homes built during housing booms of 1905-1913 and 1922-1928. Housing built in these newly established “stopover” communities provided homes for the many German and Russian immigrants who had settled at the western end of Alberta Street near Union Avenue. With their proximity to streetcar routes that provided easy and quick access to the city center, the residential neighborhoods eventually evolved from streetcar suburbs to “everyday neighborhoods” that housed families with moderate incomes.

With these neighborhoods established and the bustling commercial activity along Alberta Street, the community nearly became a city in and of itself. A wide range of services could be found along the street, catering to just about every need desired by the residents within the district. Food stores, barber shops, restaurants, a theater, and a library were only a handful of business types that operated on Alberta Street. Religious organizations had a strong presence within the community as well, with institutions providing places of worship for the vast diversity of ethnicities living in the area, several of which continue to maintain a presence today. The Saint Andrew’s Parish at NE 7th and Alberta completed the construction of its church in 1908, only to burn down in 1920 and then be rebuilt in 1928 (Rizarri, p 28).

(City of Portland Archives)

H.B. Olsen, Watchmaker, 1932. Mr. Olsen’s watchmaking shop was at 734 Alberta Street in 1932. After the street renumbering project, this became 2110 NE Alberta. The building still stands. (City of Portland Archives)

1920’s – 1950′s:  Transportation has played a significant role in the lifecycle of the Alberta neighborhood. The streetcar clearly had a positive impact on the livelihood of the district, as did Union Avenue, the primary thoroughfare from Portland to Vancouver, WA.

Alberta experienced significant changes during the 1940s when Interstate Avenue opened as the new artery for north/south traffic to Vancouver. Automobile traffic decreased along Union Avenue, which meant a decline along Alberta Street as well. The increasing presence and usage of automobiles led to a decrease in pedestrian activity. The advent of buses ended streetcar service in 1948, as the new bus routes followed the trolley line along NE 30th Avenue and onto Alberta Street. Many of the locally owned groceries and other neighborhood services were replaced by supermarkets and larger scale operations along Interstate Avenue.

The community also began changing demographically; the Vanport Flood of 1948 displaced many African-Americans and low-income families from their North Portland residences. Many of them relocated to the Alberta area, and it became known as an area where blacks and working class families could find less expensive housing. Albina was already the home of the majority of the black population in Portland in 1939, but from 1940 to 1950 their numbers nearly tripled in size from 1,600 to 4,500.  (Rizarri, p 29)

NE Alberta Street 1997 (Photo: Roslyn Hill)

NE Alberta Street 1997 (Photo: Roslyn Hill)

1950s – 1990s: Publicly financed projects throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s had detrimental effects on housing and transportation patterns in the Alberta neighborhood. Homes were cleared in the 1960s for the construction of the Minnesota Freeway, now known as Interstate 5.  Not only did this displace the households who lived within the path of the interstate, but the new transportation patterns significantly affected the Alberta community. The new freeway essentially shifted automobile traffic away from neighborhood arterial streets, which meant less travel along Alberta Street and more disinvestment.

During the 1950s, the Portland Development Commission (PDC) created an urban renewal area just south of the historic center of Albina to make way for the development of Memorial Coliseum, an area that housed a predominantly minority and poverty-stricken population. Hundreds of homes were leveled in the process, forcing those lower income households to find new residences.

In the 1970s, PDC began another redevelopment project to construct Emanuel Hospital just north of Memorial Coliseum resulting in displacement issues similar to those experienced in the 1950s. Many of these displaced families relocated to the Alberta neighborhood where they found affordable housing close to the central city. Gangs, vandalism, and violence resulted from the increased concentration of poverty in the newly settled community.

Following this demographic reshuffling, neighborhood conditions became increasingly poor, and banking institutions refused to provide mortgages for dwellings within a broad area of inner Northeast. While lenders never admitted to the practice, many members of the community believe Alberta and much of North/Northeast Portland to have been “redlined” during the 1960s and even up through the late 1980s. Even though some prospective home buyers qualified for loans that far exceeded the value of homes within the area, banks would not finance homes within neighborhoods of Northeast Portland. While lending institutions claim that this resulted from the low value of homes and the fact that they did not provide mortgages for such low amounts, those who were rejected believe it was simple racial discrimination. As a result of the low homeownership rates in the area, the appearance and vitality of the neighborhoods continued to deteriorate, along with hopes for a healthy vibrant community.

Not only did the residential areas lack investment, but the commercial buildings along Alberta Street began to show signs of neglect as well. Many structures sat vacant and boarded up because of Alberta’s reputation as an unsafe neighborhood and the low amount of capital available to its surrounding residents. As storefronts remained unused, crime increased because of the lack of street activity, thus reinforcing the cycle of disinvestment.

During the 1960s, racial discrimination was on the rise throughout the country resulting in increased levels of crime, vandalism, and arrests. This racial unrest reached its boiling point in Portland on two days in July 1967 when many businesses on Alberta street were looted and vandalized. The demise of Alberta was confirmed in 1981 when the neighborhood landmark Rexall Pharmacy that had been operating for sixty-six years at NE 24th and Alberta closed its doors, unable to survive in the rapidly declining community.

Gang activity reached unprecedented levels in the late 1980s when the Bloods and Crips of Southern California moved into the Alberta district, bringing with them drug use and violence. Feuds were at the heart of Alberta centered near NE 26th and Alberta where many of the gang members lived. Gun shots sounded regularly well into the 1990s and drug deals were not an uncommon sight. (Rizarri, p 30-32)

If you had to point to one person who jump-started Alberta’s Revival, it was Roslyn Hill (Photo: Oregonian, Nov. 26, 2006, Stephanie Yao).

1990’s – Present: As crime and neglect reached intolerable levels, members of the Alberta community took action. The groundswell of activism resulted in two organizations critical to the redevelopment on the street: the North/Northeast Economic Development Task Force and the Sabin Community Development Corporation.

The N/NE Economic Development Task Force formed in 1989 as a collective group of community members who envisioned a healthier, more prosperous Alberta Street, similar to its historic uses. Upon its inception, the organization published an “action plan” that formed the basis of the Albina Community Plan that was adopted by the City of Portland in 1993 and revised in 2000. The Albina Community Plan highlighted Alberta Street as a corridor that should be centered around the development of small neighborhood oriented businesses.

The Sabin Community Development Corporation (Sabin CDC) was established in 1992 to assist in providing low income housing to the residents of several neighborhoods within the Alberta Area.

Several additional factors contributed to the revitalization of the Alberta corridor. In 1993, PDC established the Oregon Convention Center Urban Renewal Area (OCCURA) that included the western end of Alberta Street up to NE 15th Avenue. The incorporation of Alberta Street into the OCCURA stemmed in large part from efforts of the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs. This inclusion allowed for tax increment funds generated from increased property values to be used toward further redevelopment efforts along the street and made properties within that area eligible for the Storefront Improvement Program.

While this public sector involvement was critical to the Alberta renaissance, credit is often given one individual, artist and community activist Roslyn Hill, who opened of the first new business in 1993. In order to maintain black ownership on the street, she purchased a dilapidated building at 14th Place and Alberta from a county foreclosure. She sought to establish roots in a community in which she saw a future. With the assistance of a Storefront Improvement loan from PDC, Hill transformed the building into a cozy garden cafe for residents of the community.

Soon thereafter additional businesses open and the revitalization began, as others shared similar visions of Alberta’s future. Magnus Johannesson purchased the Rexall Pharmacy building in 1993 and began renting the upstairs space to artists and a small coffee shop on the ground floor. Around the same time, Richard Sanchez opened a small taqueria behind his Mexican grocery store at 28th and Alberta that quickly attracted large crowds for cheap burritos. Across the street, Chez What? served as the local watering hole for residents until it moved down the street to 22nd and Alberta in 1996 and Bernie’s Southern Bistro took its place. Donna and Sal Guardino opened their gallery at NE 30th in 1997. From 1996 to 1999, business activity nearly doubled from 60 to 112 establishments providing services from boutiques to groceries to hair salons.

“If you had to point to one person who jump-started Alberta’s Revival, it was Roslyn Hill”. An interior and landscape designer, Hill bought a building in foreclosure at Alberta and 14th Place in 1993, rehabbed it and opened Roslyn’s Garden Coffee House. She turned the garden adjoining the cafe into a community project. Media coverage drew customers from around the city, some of whom sat facing windows as if uncertain about their safety. Neighbors came out of their houses and sometimes spent hours at the cafe, happy for the gathering spot. Hill went on to buy and fix up a dozen buildings. She insists on community-minded tenants (no barred windows or locked doors during business hours!) who rely on foot traffic and help build the street’s lively nature. Among her tenants are The Tin Shed, Alberta Street Coop and The Bye and Bye. (Source: The Oregonian, In Portland, Thursday, November 23, 2006)

Becoming the Alberta Arts District, by Donna Guardino

Donna Guardino (Guardino Gallery)

In 1997, what you would have seen on Alberta Street was boarded up buildings and alleyway drug deals.  Alberta had a reputation for gang violence, disinvestment and crumbling infrastructure.  From a working class commercial street, it had become, as one television reporter stated, “the most killing street in Portland.” (Spring 1997)

Reversing the trend didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t happen by accident.  A dedicated group of Alberta residents and merchants have worked hard to bring it to where it is today. To put the emergence of Alberta Street as an Art District in context, a little history is in order.  As far back as 1989, the eyes of the community were focused on Alberta Street.  Neighborhood residents and businesses asked the city how to improve the street and fulfill the vision of the neighborhood.  In 1996 the city’s Bureau of Housing and Community Development, along with the Portland Development Commission made Alberta Street part of the Corridor Target Area Program to help neighborhood commercial corridors revitalize.  Funds were provided to Sabin Community Development Corporation to hire a coordinator and start organizing community members for action.

In June 1996, over 100 community members attended a meeting organized by Sabin CDC. A session on creating a new vision for Alberta Street was coupled with identifying weaknesses and opportunities that existed on the street at the time. Out of that meeting, three citizen committees formed – Commercial Revitalization, Street Beautification and Streetscape.  Each took on tasks to clean up the street, make it look better and attract business and investment.  A number of design workshops were put on by the committees before the city became involved.

The Streetscape Committee wrote a grant for Transportation Growth Management funds to plan infrastructure improvements.  After submitting it to the city and the Oregon Dept. of Transportation, the Alberta Streetscape Project was born.  Planning began in 1998 with the Streetscape Advisory Committee, made up of concerned local residents and business owners. Even in those early stages the community said loud and clear that they wanted art to play a central role on the street through murals, public art and beautification projects. The Streetscape Project was officially adopted by the city in 2000.

Alberta Street was poised for a change.  More and more artists were finding studios in the area and small first time businesses opened up in storefronts that had been boarded up.  Cheap rents and a feeling of new opportunities spurred on commercial growth. In terms of the focus on art, 1997 was a pivotal year in Alberta Street’s history. The story goes that a local developer encouraged several businesses that were showing art to open their doors on First Thursday for the traditional Art Walk usually held on the west side of town.  Those businesses discussed the possibility and decided that since the action was on the west side of the river on that night, it was unlikely that people would come all the way over to Alberta Street. But the idea grew and the group decided that they should limit the art walk to just Alberta Street and pick a different night.  Last Thursday was jokingly referred to as more appropriate for the street and “Last Thursday” was born.

The first Art Walk, held in May of 1997, was off to a shaky start. That first year less than ten destinations were added to the monthly-published art map.  As the years passed the number of participating art venues fluctuated, but the event grew in participation and attendance. Street vendors, musicians and street theatre have added a unique element to the atmosphere of Last Thursdays.

From the very beginning of the Art Walk the phrase Art on Alberta” was coined to identify the street and the Last Thursday function.  The “buzz” that Alberta Street was a place where things were happening was fueled by the monthly art walks, the first Street Fair in 1997 and by media attention.  Old buildings were slowly being renovated and converted and more and more businesses and art studios were locating on the street. Small independent and first time businesses set the tone and art galleries began opening their doors.

In this mix, art and artists are featured prominently.  There are studios on both the street and the surrounding neighborhood and art is displayed prominently in various venues (from galleries and coffee houses to a wine shop and a shoe store).  Public sculptures range from a large-scale mosaic sculpture to smaller funky scrap metal constructions; with an abundance of murals. Colorful metal banners line the street.  Art is everywhere.

The make-up of the street is varied – from hipsters and punks to African Americans and Hispanics, from struggling artists to solid businesses.  Alberta Street is also unique in the number of shop owners who live in the neighborhood, as well as women owned businesses. Alberta revels in the mix and, although gentrification issues often come up, the people on the street have worked together to pull the street out of its economic decline.  “Grass roots” is an appellation that truly applies to the Alberta Street phenomenon.

More and more foot traffic began appearing on the street daily. There was a sense of community within Alberta Street’s vibrant multicultural community. Monthly art walks encouraged businesses to show art. Slowly the area became known as an art district.  Actually, the first time words “Art District” seen were on a local realtor’s brochure. The term stuck.

During this time the pressure on Alberta organizers was to join in the larger east side area marketing efforts.  In hindsight, they wisely chose to work on developing Alberta Street as a recognizable name. Group advertising, brochures, special events grew out of the many, many meetings that were organized by local merchants and art enthusiasts.

Art on Alberta, a non-profit arts organization, was formed by a small group of art businesses and artists who first met in 2000 to secure a grant for fabric banners for the street and organize the first spring Art Hop (an art fair). Their initial meetings provided the momentum to set up a Board of Directors and start meeting monthly to work on projects, from distributing fabricated metal sculptures built by teens, affectionately known as Art Agogs, to organizing the “Shovel Art Project” for the groundbreaking ceremonies for the Streetscape Improvement Project. Art on Alberta received its 501(c)3 status in March, 2002. The organization was organized exclusively for charitable and educational purposes, more specifically to enrich the artistic and cultural life of the Alberta Street corridor and to promote, develop and preserve Alberta Street, through community involvement, as a viable and desirable place to work, live and shop.

Alberta Main Street formed in 2010 to continue this important work. Read more about our mission, vision and work.

Additional Resources:

Re-Imaging a Neighborhood: The Creation of the Alberta Arts District by Meredith R. Rizzari. A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Masters of Science in Geography Portland State University, 2005.

Alberta Street Stories.