The intersection of N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and N.E. Alberta Street in Portland, Oregon, looks like a busy crossroad in any large city. Multistory buildings anchor the northwest and northeast corners. On the ground floor of the building on the northwest side, there is a bright and spacious coffee shop with large windows. A butcher shop sits on the southwest side. The entrances faces Martin Luther King Boulevard and the shop is graced by two colorful murals. The painting, titled Still We Rise, depicts an African American man cradling a small child and pointing off into the distance surrounded by scenes of Black history, resistance and life. The other mural, Until We Get There, shows people of all ages reading, working, and resting amid a vibrant backdrop of water, plants, birds, and sky. On the southeast side of the street, there is a small, corner plaza paved with uneven bricks. Two picnic tables are set up against a one-story building that houses a national pizza chain delivery service and a new, local restaurant. Bus stops dot three of the four corners, and people hurriedly dash across the street when the walk sign flashes.

Even a casual passerby can see that there is a lot happening in this ordinary corner of the city. If they were to linger for a few hours, they might discern some patterns in how people ride the various transit lines. They may discover new images or hidden meanings in the murals. They might learn something about the community by wandering into one of the shops or chatting with someone hanging out at the plaza.

But there is more here than what is visible to the casual observer. This intersection has a rich history. The land the butcher shop sits on was acquired by the city for an urban renewal project. It sat empty for years. When the city finally started the redevelopment process, community members protested and successfully halted the urban renewal agency’s original plans to build a commercial development that included a national grocery chain. This historically African American community had been displaced by urban renewal projects since the 1950s. Although the development that was ultimately built includes a grocery store, it is also home to the butcher shop and other Black-owned businesses. In addition, the agreement between the city and community members resulted in the construction of new affordable housing complexes located about a mile south of this intersection.

This intersection is also part of the Columbia River and Willamette River watersheds. Anything that washes down the drain here might eventually end up in the Willamette River to the west, which empties into the Columbia River that sits just a few miles north. The Columbia’s once abundant salmon runs and the Willamette’s Pacific lamprey population supported the indigenous communities who have lived in this region for at least 10,000 years.

The name of the busy, four-lane street itself tells a story. Formerly Union Avenue, the street was renamed to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1989. The effort to name a street in honor of Dr. King began years earlier and sparked an ugly backlash. Threats were made to a local Black newspaper that launched the renaming campaign and a national white supremacist organization got involved. After the city council unanimously approved the name change and successfully defeated the renaming opponents in court, the street became MLK Boulevard. Since that time, streets have been renamed to honor other civil rights pioneers, including Rosa Parks and César Chávez.

There are many untold stories waiting to be discovered at this intersection and at the crossroads of your city. The purpose of this book is to provide you with the background you need so you can read the stories in the city around you. This book is designed to introduce you to some basic concepts and theories about how cities function and develop. The book is organized into thematic chapters that highlight different aspects of urban life, from the environment to culture to housing. There is a set of questions at the end of each chapter that you can use to test your understanding of the concepts presented. There is also a set of activities that you can use to apply what you have learned to your own city, so you can uncover the hidden stories in its streets, structures, and communities.


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Urban Literacy: Learning to Read the City Around You Copyright © 2022 by Leanne Serbulo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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