By Margaret O’Hartigan
Over the past six months, many storefronts up and down MLK have remained boarded up after being repeatedly vandalized, some even looted. Homeless individuals are camped in front of many storefronts shut down by the pandemic, wherever there are nooks and crannies capable of providing some shelter from the winter weather. Named after the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the main street of Portland’s King Neighborhood, MLK Jr Blvd, now appears to be more of a dystopic reflection of a dream lost rather than a remembrance of the man whom the nation will pause to honor on the third Monday in January.
Dr. King’s invocation of a “beloved community” – which would meet the needs of all and discriminate against none – was echoed by Jeana Woolley recently as she discussed her forty-five years of living in, working and advocating to make King Neighborhood a better and more prosperous place. A woman of color and long-time resident of King, one of Jeana’s most visible accomplishments in the neighborhood is Vanport Square – the commercial condo development between Sumner and Emerson streets just across MLK from the Blazers’ Boys and Girls Club.
Jeana articulates a wholistic view of solutions that are needed to address racial injustice and institutional racism, including addressing issues such as voter empowerment, education, affordable housing, business development, wealth creation, workforce development, and community participation in institutions that impact residents’ lives – to name a few – and she herself has worked on many of these issues during her long career. As a young woman in the 1970s, she worked with grassroots community organizations to increase voter registration in North and Northeast Portland, and helped organize public forums in the community to vet and endorse local political candidates who would be more responsive to the Black community’s issues and needs. She served on the Community Coalition for School Integration in the late 1970s that successfully fought Portland Public Schools to end the policy of busing Black children from Northeast neighborhoods to schools all over the city. Later in her career, Jeana served on the Oregon State Board of Education for 9 years – including time as the chair – during the period that saw implementation of the 21st Century School Act, together with adoption of new curriculum content standards and graduation goals.
Under Bud Clark’s mayoralty in the late 1980s, the city drew up plans to revitalize parts of North and Northeast Portland in preparation for building the Convention Center in the Lloyd District. These plans were developed by a panel appointed by the Mayor with no real representation or input from N/NE residents. Organizations in the Black community rejected the city’s plan and organized themselves to implement a community-wide planning process to create an alternative, grassroots N/NE revitalization plan.
Woolley was a founding member of the North/Northeast Economic Development Alliance – together with Ron Herndon, Carl Talton, Sheila Holden, Edna Robertson and many others. This new non-profit organization, in partnership with the Black United Front, played a leadership role in managing the community planning process, and developing what became known as the Albina Community Plan. This Plan was adopted in October 1993 under Mayor Vera Katz. Jeana also was a founding board member of other community development organizations formed in the 1980s such as Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, Inc. (PCRI) and Albina Community Bank (now known as Beneficial Bank), which still serve the community today.
During the late 1980s, Jeana was working in development as operations manager for Pacific Development (a real estate subsidiary of PacifiCorp), which owned 90 blocks of property in the Lloyd District surrounding the Lloyd Center mall. She left this position in 1991 to start her own consulting and real estate development business, JM Woolley & Associates. Her first development project was Allen Fremont Plaza, an affordable senior housing project located on Northeast Fremont Street between Garfield and Mallory.
“It was serendipity how this first deal came together,” Jeana says. The Portland School District had donated the old Beech School site to the General Baptist Convention of Northwest, a coalition of African American Baptist churches in the Northwest states. She heard that the leaders of the Convention were meeting with various elected officials in City Hall to try to secure support and resources for redeveloping their site for affordable housing. She contacted the organization and told them she could help them develop their site. They asked her to prepare a proposal and present it to the Convention Board, led by Reverend O.B. Williams. The Convention eventually took a leap of faith and partnered with Jeana on the redevelopment of their site. The rest is history. Allen Fremont Plaza became the first low-income housing tax credit development in the state of Oregon by an African American organization. It was completed in 1997.
In 2001, Jeana teamed up with former Urban League interim president and current MERC Commissioner Ray Leary to develop what would become known as Vanport Square. Leary had played a critical role in the creation of Adidas’ first discount retail store in the U.S., at the corner of MLK and NE Alberta. Jeana and Ray competed in an RFP (Request for Proposals) process and won the development rights to two full blocks of property on MLK that had been purchased by the Portland Development Commission (now Prosper Portland) for community revitalization. Utilizing low-cost financing from the Urban Renewal and New Market Tax Credit programs, they developed a commercial condominium project that ultimately provided 16 ownership units for small, minority and woman-owned businesses on the north block. In the second phase of the project, they brokered the development of affordable single-family ownership homes that the community had wanted on the west side of the block. These two developers devoted countless hours to public outreach and community participation to best fulfill the stated needs and wishes of area residents during the development process.
It was at one of those community outreach meetings in the early 2000’s that I met Jeana’s son, J.T. Flowers. While his mother conducted the meeting, J.T. was at a side table, doing homework. Jeana’s face breaks into a glowing smile when asked about her son’s subsequent academic career. A graduate of Lincoln High School, J.T. attended and graduated from Yale University in 2017. He subsequently was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, and has since earned two Master’s degrees from Oxford University. He currently lives in London. Jeana sums up, “I’m so proud of him, what he’s accomplished and who he’s become. He’s truly a global citizen.”