March 21, 2018

A new home for Meyer

From above, Meyer’s new property, 2045 N. Vancouver Ave., overlooks Interstate 5, grain elevators along the Willamette River, the Broadway and Fremont bridges and the skyline of Northwest Portland.

I've written a lot about change over the past decade at Meyer Memorial Trust.

There was the change, about six years ago, when Meyer began its first uncertain exploration of equity. Four years ago we promised change, in our equity statement, to make equity as much a part of our everyday operation as it was a part of our mission. There was change three years back, when we took time to reconsider Meyer's 33 years of responsive grantmaking, and two years ago with the launch of our new program frameworks, focusing our investments in Oregon into four areas Oregonians identified as crucial to making the state better for all its residents: housing, education, the environment and building stronger communities. Last year, the change became personal, when I announced that I'd be stepping away from the role of Meyer's chief executive officer this year. Michelle J. DePass will take over the helm April 30.

I've got one more change to announce, and it's a significant one: We've purchased a property in Portland's historic Albina community that we plan to redevelop into Meyer's new headquarters.

The property, 2045 N. Vancouver, sits at the corner of North Tillamook Street and North Vancouver Avenue.

We could have relocated anywhere. But this property felt exactly right. When I first arrived at Meyer, its office was at 1515 Market Square, where the Fred Meyer Charitable Trust, then led by Executive Director Charles Rooks, was established in 1982. We've leased and worked out of our current offices in the Pearl District for a dozen years. Our new offices will be Meyer's third, and permanent, home.

I don't have many logistics to share yet. We're imagining a three-story office building. Construction is expected to take about a year, and Meyer staff, many of whom live nearby in the North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods, will begin working in the building by March 2020. We've selected project^ to develop the project and Fieldwork Design & Architecture to re-imagine the property. An existing cinder block and metal sheet structure is in poor shape and will be removed, but timber supports inside will be creatively reused in the new design. Early plans are for roughly 20,000 square feet of workspace. An internal project team is working to finalize the timeline and key milestones until move-in, slated for the first quarter of 2020.

We're excited that our organization will be working in the same neighborhood with longtime stakeholders and partners, including the Urban League of Portland, Self Enhancement Inc., Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, North by Northeast Community Health Center, Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center + Rosemary Anderson High School and Portland African American Leadership Forum, to name just a few. Organizations focused on the well-being of communities that have long faced disparate treatment have deep roots in Albina.

As we decided on the property, we turned our attention back in time. We began to research the original Native inhabitants who called this land home. We dug into the archives, from fire insurance maps to Portland trolley maps, from U.S. Census records to county taxation records. We cracked open Portland atlases and accounts by local historians, namely Raymond Burrell III, E. Kimbark MacColl, Helen M. Casey, Kimberly S. Moreland and Roy E. Roos. We searched online to read about Volga Germans and to listen to the oral histories of Oregon's African American railroad porters.

Our plot sits at a crossroads of sorts, overlapped by school district designations and neighborhood association boundaries, at the southern edge of the city of Albina, which once outpaced Portland as Oregon's fastest growing city.

The area falls within the sprawling tribal grounds of the Kalapuya, who lived in an area that stretched from the Cascade mountains west to the Willamette River. This land had been occupied by indigenous people since time immemorial prior to the arrival of European Americans, and today the Portland area continues to be home to a vibrant urban Native community. We feel it is important that Meyer begin the process of buying the property and building its new headquarters by acknowledging that Native lands are still occupied due to deception and broken treaties.

After Native Americans were killed and pushed off their homelands, the U.S. government, through the Oregon Donation Land Act of 1850, gave the heavily forested land that became Albina to white settlers who agreed to live there and cultivate their claims for four years. The act explicitly excluded African Americans and Hawaiians and dispossessed Native Americans.

Here is how an advertisement published in The Oregonian described Albina in 1876:

above high water, and with a fine view of the City of Portland ... The location is unsurpassed for health and enjoys a cool breeze from the North in the hottest weather.

The original dimensions of Albina encompassed an area from Tillamook Street (then known as Grant Street) on the south, north to Russell and Morris streets, and from the Willamette River east to Union Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard).

A plat for the new town was filed in 1873, planning out its first streets.

In 1880, there were only 143 people living in Albina. Within a decade, the population had grown to more than 3,000. Even as racist gangs blew up a pair of Chinese-owned laundries and burned the homes of Chinese farmers on the slopes west of downtown Portland, threatening all people of Chinese descent with more bloodshed if they didn't leave the city, waves of northern European immigrants were welcomed into the Portland area, with Irish and then Volga German-Russians, Swedes and Poles moving into Albina.

In 1891, as the last of the streetcar lines were being electrified, voters in Albina and in the nearby towns of East Portland and Portland approved a measure to consolidate into a single city, Portland.

According to Fred Leeson, the former reporter for The Oregonian who wrote My-Te-Fine Merchant: Fred Meyer's Retail Revolution, Frederick Grubmeyer arrived in Portland from Brooklyn in 1909. The German immigrant rented a single room near the eastern end of the Broadway Bridge, in the working class Eliot neighborhood, just a few blocks from an elaborately trimmed Victorian house built by Charles and Charlotte Schulenburg at 2013 N. Vancouver, at what would become, more than 100 years later, the southern end of Meyer's new property.

There, Fred Grubmeyer conceived of a coffee and tea delivery business while around him Portland boomed as a shipping town.

Most of the state's African American population lived in the lower section of Northwest Portland. A small number of African Americans also lived in the historic Albina community, making up less than 1 percent of the population in the 1910 census. But real estate covenants and redlining pushed African Americans into lower Albina, between North Russell Street west of Williams Avenue and lower North Broadway near what is now the Moda Center.

Gradually, black Portlanders pressed to the north and east, moving into neighborhoods previously occupied by European immigrants, many of whom, including the man who now called himself Fred Meyer, moved on to more affluent neighborhoods further from the city center. African Americans turned lower Albina into the city's cultural capital. At its core, it was an inclusive, fully functioning residential neighborhood, serving as a center for the arts, small businesses, schools and faith institutions. The majority of Portland's black residents lived there by 1939.

Housing was cheap and close to a good transit system, and black men found work nearby as railroad porters, dining car waiters, clerks and in other railroad jobs. Black people weren't welcomed in other areas of Portland until the creation of the large housing development called Vanport in 1942. Built in North Portland to house shipyard workers, it welcomed many African Americans recently arrived from the South. Around the same time, our research discovered that William Gordon, a railroad waiter from Paris, Texas, moved into 2013 N. Vancouver. His descendants still own property in the neighborhood.

When the Columbia River flooded in 1948, destroying Vanport, more than 10,000 African Americans were forced to resettle. White people displaced by the flood could choose where to live, while many of the black flood victims were steered back to the historic heart of the old city of Albina, where homes and industry rubbed shoulders.

Our new property was typical. It sits on a pair of tax lots that were used for residential and industrial purposes through the 1950s, before turning over to exclusive industrial use as an ironworks, sheet metal shop, foundry and school bus maintenance depot. It has been the site of Sergeants Towing's main impound yard and automotive repair shop since 1995.

Across the second half of the 20th century, civic ambition and disregard alike made their mark on the historic Albina community. The state cut a two-block wide chasm through the community for a new north-south freeway, now known as Interstate 5, replacing homes, businesses and boarding houses with six lanes of pavement. More Albina homes, schools and shops were razed for new municipal buildings, a hospital and an arena.

The disruptive impact of those and subsequent urban renewal efforts continue to reverberate through the historic Albina community.

Familiarizing ourselves with Albina's history is helping us to understand the land and people who have lived and worked there.

Meyer has endeavored to be a thoughtful funder for Oregon for 36 years. Now we're taking seriously the prospect of becoming the kind of neighbor that makes respectful, meaningful contributions to its community. We intend to honor the historic Albina community through our ongoing commitment to equity.

Doug