If you could travel back in Portland’s history to Interstate Avenue, in the lower Albina neighborhood near the Steel Bridge in the early 1950s, you would find yourself in the heart of a thriving African-American community with jazz clubs, restaurants and many other black-owned shops and businesses. There were outdoor spaces for the kids to play and a strong sense of place and community. Even after the city determined this a blighted area, the community remained in upper Albina for a few more decades until the 1990s, when major redevelopment occurred and they were forced to disperse. This area eventually transformed into the Rose Quarter that we know today.
In the fall of 2018, I had the opportunity to sit down with Rukaiyah Adams, a fourth-generation Portlander, who recalled the sense of belonging she felt in the Albina and adjacent neighborhoods as a young, black girl attending MLK Elementary and Harriet Tubman Middle School in the 1980s. “I didn’t feel like an outsider here,” she noted. Rukaiyah remembers feeling safe walking from school to visit her grandmother, a seamstress, and playing double-dutch jump rope or basketball in the streets with her friends. While racism existed (and still exists), she said she felt strongly as a child that there was space for her in North/Northeast Portland. However, she says, these communities no longer exist in the same ways.
Rukaiyah and her families’ strong connection to Portland is a driving force behind Albina Vision, a design concept to create a more vibrant Lower Albina and Rose Quarter. The project aims to honor the neighborhoods’ history and to better serve communities, especially the African-American community. The concept incorporates bringing life into the area with much more public open space and the creation of affordable housing. Currently there is little green space in the area, and adding it is a key aspect of the design. The Moda Center and Memorial Coliseum will remain, but Albina Vision aims to reclaim unused or less efficient spaces, such as putting parking structures underground.
The revitalization concept began with a group of artists, environmentalists, nonprofit leaders, business leaders, lawyers and others brought together to brainstorm how space in these neighborhoods could be better utilized. Five from the original group, including Rukaiyah, have continued on to form Albina Vision Trust. The Portland Trailblazers and Moda Health are supporters of the project, as well.
“This is an opportunity for high-performance equity” Rukaiyah said, “where you go from talking about equity to actually doing the work.” Albina Vision will be a place for all Portlanders to enjoy, she said, but will also serve as a way to honor and remember the black community that once called this area home. Much of this community, which was redlined to the Albina area to begin with after Vanport flooded in 1948, was forced to relocate again due to city ordinances and redevelopment in the ‘90s. Albina Vision is “an encapsulation of the moral dissonance the community feels,” Rukaiyah said. The African-American community of Portland deserves to be heard and seen in a very physical way, she continued, a key outcome of the vision.
'This is an opportunity for high-performance equity, where you go from talking about equity to actually doing the work.' -Rukaiyah Adams
The first phase has primarily focused on getting the vision out to the community and mobilizing support. The Albina Vision will need more community and citywide buy-in, Rukaiyah said, so now the focus is on raising money and achieving investment support.
As the chief investment officer at Meyer Memorial Trust, Rukaiyah has seen first-hand how important nonprofit involvement is to ensure a healthy democracy, and how genius is expressed in so many ways. Meyer’s framework to build community, healthy environments, and affordable housing are all key values of the Albina Vision as well.
While Albina Vision will honor the historic Albina community as a whole, Rukaiyah feels a deep and specific personal connection that keeps her passion for this project going. Her great grandmother moved to Portland from Louisiana having completed only second grade. Her grandmother graduated high school, and her mother was able to complete community college here. Rukaiyah, who went on to get her law degree as well as an MBA, believes that her family’s generations have given her the foundation she needed to get to a place of power from which she can truly make a difference. She sees the generational progress of her and her family, she said, and carries their strengths, struggles, dreams, and accomplishments through Albina Vision.
Rukaiyah requires that any work she does be meaningful, which is demonstrated throughout her impressive resume. But this dedication has not come without sacrifice. Recently married, Rukaiyah, as you may have guessed, has a packed schedule. Between her full-time job with Meyer, supporting Albina Vision, and other responsibilities, she does not have as much down time as one might hope for. In the little free time she has, she enjoys running with her partner.
Rukaiyah is truly one of the most hard-working, inspiring, and passionate people I have ever had the chance to talk with. Albina Vision is not just about the built environment, it’s about building a space that supports healthy communities, where all of us feel loved and welcome. It will require time and many hands, including the hands of those who came before us and those that will come after us. Abina Vision will honor the many wonderful people who have called the Albina District home, like Rukaiyah’s great grandmother, and will create a space for future generations to use and appreciate.