History of Alberta Street

Alberta Street History

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. (Much of this content is based on contributions from Donna Guardino & Elise Scolnick as well as conversations with long time and former residents. If you have content to add or correct, please let us know.)

historic alberta street car1880’s: In the early 1880ʼs German and Russian immigrants migrated from California to find work after being terminated from the Union Pacific Railroad Company. Many settled along the Willamette River including the NE Alberta Street District. The area evolved into a prosperous community – markets and retail businesses were open for business, streetcars ran up Alberta Street and connected the community; the area was thriving and expanding.

1900’s: In the early 1900s African Americans began slowly moving into the Portland area and settling in the Northeast section of the city. With WWII came the establishment of shipyard jobs in Portland that increased the influx of African Americans to Portland around 1942. White community members refused to house the African American workers, which led to the establishment of a temporary housing solution in Vanport. But in 1948 a flood displaced many African American residents and the city designated the Northeast district as one of the only places where real estate agents were allowed to sell housing to African Americans. Over the next several years after the war ended, there was “white flight” out of the Alberta District and the commercial district began to go into further decline when the banks started to “redline” in this district and realtors were no longer allowed to conduct business in the area.

1970’s:  The area continued to decline into the 1970ʼs as gang violence and drug use on the street increased. Between the 1970ʼs and 1990ʼs, despite the presence of the old commercial buildings, very few retail business on Alberta Street were open for business. It went from a prosperous business district with a streetcar line to mostly light industrial with no public transit. Absentee landowners scooped up properties and held them during this period, leaving them mostly unkempt and in varying states of disrepair.

1990’s – Present

Revitalization Begins

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

Thirteen years ago 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. The goal has been to support and strengthen the neighborhood’s cultural identity and support community revitalization efforts. All of this helps promote Alberta Street as a healthy business district, which sees art as an integral part of community life.

For more history or to share your story visit Alberta Street Stories.