Imagining the future in a building with a sordid pastGrantee Stories

Living Cully’s efforts to purchase the Sugar Shack aim to ensure that Cully residents can stay and rise with the neighborhood at a moment when gentrification is displacing low-income residents priced out of urban communities around Oregon.

Back in 1998, the year Street Roots started publishing a newspaper focused on homelessness and poverty across Portland, residents of the Cully neighborhood in Northeast Portland got some bad news: The old Young’s Marketplace building, about two miles south of Portland International Airport, was about to become an adult video store with "related businesses," as The Oregonian reported.

That set off alarms. The neighborhood had been fighting a crime problem for years and making progress. A porn shop was a step in the wrong direction.

Neighbors tried to stop the plan, but couldn’t. Over the next few years, the L-shaped building turned into a sort of porn supermarket, featuring not only videos but strippers, dancers and, reportedly, prostitution. The black-and-white checkered Sugar Shack building was a neighborhood black eye. Neighbors groused but had little recourse.

Then in 2014, the owners of the Sugar Shack were indicted on charges of tax fraud. It was the opening the neighborhood needed. The building and land went up for sale and a community organization called Living Cully, a collaboration between several groups representing Latinos and Native Americans in the neighborhood, rallied support to buy the lot for $2.3 million, putting up the first $55,000. Hundreds of Cully residents raised another $50,000 towards the purchase.

Meyer Memorial Trust awarded $200,000 to secure the loan to the collaboration of Verde, Hacienda Community Development Corporation (Hacienda CDC), Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) and Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro East.

Today, what was once a neighborhood blight is a vessel of hope for the Cully neighborhood, one of Portland’s most racially and economically diverse neighborhoods. While the area around the Sugar Shack is becoming increasingly gentrified, making it harder for low-income people and people of color to stay in the neighborhood, the new Living Cully Plaza aims to ensure that Cully residents can stay and rise with their community.

Tony DeFalco, the Living Cully coordinator for Verde, said local stakeholders will define the future uses of the site.

"We’re looking at a whole range of things," DeFalco said. "Community-serving retail, potential for job and economic activities for people to work at or grow their businesses out of."

DeFalco said the 26,000-square foot building will reflect the character and face of the neighborhood and its goals. For months, volunteers have been cleaning up the property, picking up trash, landscaping, and even painting a mural. In 2016, they expect to decide how to use the space.

DeFalco said what’s happening with the Sugar Shack property shows what can happen when groups work together.

"The biggest thing it shows is the power of a real collective impact model," said DeFalco. He said that when groups with a variety of interests merge their thinking and their power, they can attract the support they need to make change happen.

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Solutions-oriented Conversations About PovertyGrantee Stories

Poverty is a familiar bedfellow in Oregon. Statistics tell the alarming trend. Theater helps shift the numbers into dialogue.

In the first decade of this century, the numbers of people living in areas of concentrated poverty in the state grew to make Oregon home to one of the most severe increases in the nation. Proximity to clusters of poverty is a cruel amplifier: low-income families living in concentrations of poverty face higher crime rates, poor housing conditions and fewer job opportunities.

The problem is both rural and urban: A recent report estimates that roughly one in three of Multnomah County’s 760,000 residents earn less money than required to meet their basic needs. Children, communities of color, immigrants and refugees, single-parent households and persons with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by poverty — with poverty rates for these populations far higher than their rates in the population as a whole, according to a 2014 county report.

A Portland theater recently took on the issue of poverty, with solutions in mind.

Founded in 1999, the Sojourn Theatre blends performance and dialogue to engage communities in conversations about race, class, leadership, demographic change, public education, civic planning, housing and community sustainability.

Their February 2015 run of “How To End Poverty in 90 Minutes," turned the Portland Playhouse into a social-science laboratory. The goal of the experience of the play/lecture/workshop/theatre piece/public conversation: to erase the silence around poverty and provide a starting point for dialogue. Meyer was proud to support the theater's work with a $25,000 grant in October 2014.

During performances, the ensemble members gave each of 100 attendees the opportunity to learn about and actively engage with the realities of poverty in Multnomah County. Together, they decided how to best direct $1,000 of each evening’s receipts — $17,000 total over the run — toward poverty eradication.

“We wanted to host a conversation about poverty where we invite different perspectives and ideologies into a room to wrestle with this often silent issue,” Sojourn Theatre founder Michael Rohd told PDXMonthly. Rohd left Portland in 2007 to teach at Northwestern University, where he developed the show.

After each 90-minute performance, each audience member was handed a ten-dollar bill and asked to spend it on one of five approaches to ending poverty: System Change, Education, Direct Aid, Making Opportunities, and Daily Needs. The exercise aimed to help participants overcome the sense of helplessness that comes from being overwhelmed by issues of poverty.

A reviewer in the Oregonian wrote of the sell-out production: “Sitting alone writing a check to alleviate poverty feels like throwing a pebble into the abyss, while passionately exploring the issue with 99 other theatergoers leads to action with real weight behind it. The revolutionary insight of this production is that solutions are to be found only when we work as a community.”

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