Portland’s best view of Mount St. Helens at sunset is from a dump.
Well, technically Thomas Cully Park hasn’t been a dump since 1990. For two decades it sat like another industrial blob off Northeast Killingsworth Street – until Portland Parks & Recreation cleaned up the brownfield site and transforming it into a 25-acre urban park that opened in 2018. From atop a hill on a winter’s afternoon, St. Helens presides over a view that encompasses young ponderosa pines, a suspension bridge leading to slides and oil trains sliding down a railway line. It’s a view that shows how much the neighborhood has changed and how far it still has to go.
Over the past decade, Portland has witnessed extraordinary civic investment in the parks of its easternmost neighborhoods. Since 2013, the Parks Bureau has spent $84 million on parks east of 82nd Avenue. (Because Cully Park is northeast of 72nd Avenue, it’s not even included in that total.) The result is one of City Hall‘s most tangible achievements in decades to make the city more fair to low-income people of color, who disproportionately live on the eastern edge of Portland.
Spurred on by then-City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, city officials decided they had a duty to address what could be called a gap in parks.
“2017 data shows that citywide, 1 in 5 households do not have easy access to a park or natural area within a 15-minute walk, or 20% of all Portland residents,” says Mark Ross, spokesperson for Portland Parks & Rec. “But in East Portland, the access gap jumps to 2 in 5 households.”
The campaign to correct this imbalance has resulted in some works of public architecture that could easily go unnoticed unless you find yourself strolling along Northeast 127th Avenue. There, nestled in a modest residential area, are 16 acres of paradise: Luuwit View Park. (“Luuwit” is a Chinook name for Mount St. Helens – and the view of the summit here makes me re-evaluate my previous award for best view.) Nationally acclaimed firm Skylab Architecture designed the trails, basketball courts, and , the skate bowl, and a geometric, yellow picnic shelter that resembles a newly landed spaceship.
It’s a landscape one would expect to see on a revitalized waterfront or the Nike campus, places built to attract and celebrate capital. Instead, it was planted in one of the most neglected parts of town.
Two years of the pandemic have taught us the importance of common outdoor spaces. Yet East Portland’s parks have only made headlines when they host a gun homicide or a homeless camp. It’s worth taking a moment to consider that the very existence of these places – Gateway Green, Gateway Discovery Park, Leach Botanical Garden – is one of the few signs that Portland is headed in the right direction: east. .