Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard Revitalization

Your Guide
Rachel Hill, ASLA

The communities that make up this part of inner NE Portland are in a seemingly continuous process of change, arguably more than any other part of Portland. Native American communities once lived here. Corner lots still contain neighborhood churches built by German and Scandinavian immigrants, some fleeing political repression in Europe. These structures became African-American churches in the early and mid decades of the 20th century. Currently, their congregations are moving, and the vacant churches are taking up new uses as multifamily housing and Montessori schools.

Some of the change occurred as the communities themselves assimilated into the broader city. The more controversial changes in the 20th century are due to forces outside the control of the communities. The area had become the hub of the African American community in Portland because of real estate restrictions and "redlining," but the construction of Interstate 5 severed transportation connections through neighborhoods, causing the Williams and Mississippi commercial districts to atrophy. "Urban renewal” and the construction of Emanuel Hospital further displaced thousands of residents. Land cleared for these projects has sat vacant in many locations along Williams Avenue for almost 40 years.

In the late 1980s, the area was blighted and had high crime rates. Union Avenue acted as a major north/south connector. Businesses suffered along the street because of the difficult pedestrian experience, the lack of on-street parking, and the perceived limited access due to a planted median.

In 1990, Union became Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard (MLK), commemorating the multiculturalism that this neighborhood has always had. In 1993, the Portland Development Commission extended the Oregon Convention Center Urban Renewal District northward to include MLK Boulevard and Alberta Streets. Tax incentives and funding for revitalization efforts followed. In 1996, efforts by a collaborative inter-agency program called the Community Solutions team, led by the Portland Development Commission, the City of Portland, and local groups, helped to improve commercial activity and the pedestrian experience as part of the “Urban Renewal District.” The Portland streetcar was extended across the river and up Martin Luther King Boulevard to the southern edge of these neighborhoods, improving connectivity.

This tour starts at Martin Luther King Jr. Gateway, which was designed by 2ink Studio to commemorate the neighborhoods diverse past. From there, walk west along Tillamook Street, a designated city bike boulevard, past a number of neighborhood churches. You can then visit Dawson Park, a newly renovated neighborhood park with architectural fragments of the neighborhood’s past and lots of present vitality. The tour will end at the Magnolia, an affordable-housing development that represents efforts to keep residents living in their neighborhood amid the fast-paced redevelopment.

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