Woody Guthrie Place: a home for dignity

Named for the famous folksinger, Woody Guthrie Place will soon be home to 64 families in the Lents neighborhood of Southeast Portland.

Most weekday evenings you’ll find Lori and me at “yappy hour” — a time when our little Charlotte can run around with her fellow terriers and any other dogs that show up at our neighborhood school.

On Thursday, I deviated from the routine for a good cause. I attended a grand opening celebration of an affordable housing project in Southeast Portland and a fundraising dinner to benefit the nonprofit agency that led the way in developing it.

The development is called Woody Guthrie Place, named for the famous Depression-era folksinger who once lived two blocks away from the site in the Lents neighborhood. The agency that made it happen is ROSE Community Development.

A ROSE staff member I’ve come to know through my work invited me to attend as a way of becoming more familiar with the organization, which has provided valuable work experience to several Communications students I’ve had in an internship class at Portland State University.

Jami LeBaron, communications manager at ROSE, organized Thursday’s grand opening celebration. She also mentors Portland State student interns.

To say I was impressed would be an understatement. I came away with a handful of positive takeaways about the great work being done by the public, private and nonprofit sectors to provide affordable housing — and dignity — to people who live in a part of the city that really needs it. My takeaways:


No. 1. Rose CDC rocks. For nearly 30 years, this nonprofit agency has been a beacon of hope to residents of outer-Southeast Portland through development of good homes, youth and family programs, and community support. With a 9-member staff, a volunteer board, and a dozen partnerships with public agencies and community organizations, ROSE CDC typifies the vital work that small nonprofits do, often flying below the radar.

The agency is perennially honored as of the Best 100 Nonprofits to Work For in Oregon Award as named by Oregon Business magazine, and its work has earned recognition from the governor’s and mayor’s offices, as well as other state and local awards.

No. 2. Meeting a basic need. With the completion of 64 mixed-income units at Woody Guthrie Place and 48 fully affordable units at Orchards of 82nd, another ROSE development recently opened in the nearby Jade District, ROSE is providing more then 100 families with a safe, affordable place to live. Most are seniors, single moms and people of color, all of whom are on limited incomes. The two new projects will bring to 465 the number of rental units, including single-family homes and and apartments, managed by ROSE.

For all these tenants, affordable housing means more than just a roof over their head. It means a safe place to call your own and raise a family.

I joined a tour of Woody Guthrie Place near the intersection of SE 91st Avenue and Foster Road and was impressed with what I saw: a four-story building offering 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom units with brand-new appliances, fresh carpeting, ceiling fans in every room, and a laundry room on each floor. Amenities include a community room, rooftop patio, an outdoors play space, car and bike parking, and ADA accessible units. The building is LEED Gold certified, has a solar rooftop and electric car charging stations.

No. 3. The right kind of housing in the right kind of place. As the third affordable housing development to open in the past year in this area, Woody Guthrie Place is the latest manifestation of the city’s plans for the urban renewal area known as Lents Town Center. Long disparaged as a mishmash of sketchy and outdated businesses just off Interstate 205, the district is taking on new life as a hub for affordable housing, brewpubs, restaurants and retail businesses. (Never imagined I’d see a Planet Fitness in this long-struggling area.)

Thursday’s fundraising event was held at the Asian Health and Service Center, a gleaming three-story building that is also a new addition to Lents Town Center. From the covered third-floor deck, you can look across the street to Woody Guthrie Place or further south toward Oliver Place, a two-building development comprised of apartments and ground-floor commercial space.

All of this development is the result of public investment led by Prosper Portland, the city’s urban renewal agency, and supported by the Metro regional government, Multnomah County and Home Forward, the city’s housing authority. Private sector involvement has come from a variety of construction companies, architectural and engineering firms, banks and utilities, notably Portland General Electric.

Bob Stacey, the elected official representing Metro’s District 6, which includes Lents, was among a half-dozen speakers Thursday night. He called Woody Guthrie Place “an amazing asset” for the region and the community. He said because it is close to public transit, it will serve the new residents well and make it “the right kind of housing in the right kind of place.”

No. 4. Why Woody Guthrie? The new development is named in honor of the prolific songwriter who lived briefly in the area while writing songs for the Bonneville Power Administration about the benefits of hydroelectric power being developed on the Columbia River. Originally from Oklahoma, Guthrie moved from Los Angeles to Portland with his young family in the spring of 1941 and wound up writing 26 songs in 30 days, including “Roll On, Columbia.” During that month, he lived with wife and three children in an apartment on SE 92nd Avenue.

Woody Guthrie and his family in 1941 (courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Museum)

Guthrie wrote more than 1,400 songs during his lifetime, including the famous ballad “This Land Is Your Land.”

This land is your land, this land is my land
From the California to the New York island
From the Redwood Forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

And all around me, a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me

According to a 2018 magazine article, it was during his time in Portland that Guthrie wrote a song that many view as his masterpiece: “Pastures of Plenty,” about poor migrant farm workers leaving Oklahoma to look for work picking fruit in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s clearly drawn from Grapes of Wrath, a book Guthrie read for the first time in Portland, but the fact that he wrote it while tromping around Oregon in the springtime reveals the masterpiece in a new light,” said the writer, Isaac Peterson.

No. 5. The music and message of Simon Tam. More than one speaker at Thursday’s event invoked the spirit of Guthrie’s work as a voice for justice, equality and civil rights. Among them was keynote speaker Simon Tam, an author and musician best known as bassist and founder of the Asian American dance-rock band, The Slants. In his remarks, he skillfully touched on music as a connector of people and places, and on dignity.

Keynote speaker Simon Tam with Travis Dang of SERA Architects, project designer of the Orchards on 82nd apartments.

Tam recently moved to Nashville but lived in Portland “just two blocks from here” for 15 years. In 2006, he founded an all-Asian American band and later applied to register a trademark for the band’s name, a move that triggered an eight-year legal battle with the federal government that ended in June 2017 when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in his favor. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had rejected the band’s name as “disparaging” but Tam said he and his bandmates “were re-appropriating this term and injecting it with our own power.”

If that fight over a racial slur was about self-identity, it was also about justice and dignity.

Tam said he loves ROSE precisely because of the sense of dignity that permeates its work, whether it comes from staff, board members, volunteers or donors.

“Music is both a ceremony and a time capsule,” tied to specific events and memories, Tam said. When you support ROSE, he declared, “you’re helping write that song of justice, community and dignity.”


Want to know more?

Here is the ROSE CDC web site: https://rosecdc.org/

Here’s a Washington Post story about Simon Tam and his memoir “Slanted: How an Asian-American Troublemaker Wound Up Before The Supreme Court.” https://wapo.st/2ZAez0g

Here’s a piece from 1859 Oregon’s Magazine about Woody Guthrie and his time in Oregon: https://1859oregonmagazine.com/think-oregon/history/woody-guthrie-oregon/

2 thoughts on “Woody Guthrie Place: a home for dignity

  1. Thanks George for spotlighting some of the really good stuff in our city that I would not have otherwise known about

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