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Soul District plotted along MLK Boulevard

TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Empty lot at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Rosa ParksTake a moment to imagine what Northeast Portland along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard could look like in 10 years.

As you drive, you pass through a thriving community with ethnic businesses lining the streets. There are restaurants, markets, art studios and coffee shops, as well as community centers and learning spaces. They are owned by African-Americans from around Portland, promoting their culture while building a durable economic base in the city.

This is the vision the Black Investment Consortium for Economic Progress (BICEP) has for the neighborhood — which it’s calling the Soul District — where Portland’s black community can come together and celebrate its ethnicity.

“The Soul District conjures up a certain kind of vision, ethnic businesses and offerings for entertainment and education,” says Carl Talton, president of BICEP.

The district, as envisioned, will be both a physical and virtual place.

The physical side will manifest through a series of developments in the next few years that will provide an anchor for black businesses and entrepreneurs to showcase their products and services.

All along MLK there are vacant lots that aren’t being used to their full potential. BICEP hopes to persuade landowners to join together with the Soul District to provide wealth and revitalization for all involved. To do this, they are looking to partner with other nonprofits and co-developers who can help provide leverage for the more ambitious projects.

“Everything about the Soul District is creating an economic base for the African-American community, and anchoring it in the historic community,” says Jeana Woolley, secretary of the BICEP Board of Directors. “We are trying to preserve a foothold for the community from which we can essentially grow an economic base.”

The virtual side of the project is to create a network among black businesses spread throughout the city that won’t have the means to relocate into the district. The Soul District will serve as a hub that can provide financial and technical support.

“We aren’t thinking every black business is going to come be a part of it,” Woolley says, “so the virtual site is a way for them to participate.”

One way to build the virtual space is for the district to host community events. An example is Pitch Black — where black entrepreneurs could give a rapid presentation to try to win money to fund their ideas. That could showcase the impressive work being done by African-Americans throughout Portland.

“It’s important for our kids to see there are black people doing interesting things,” Woolley says. “To understand those are things they could do, too.”

Another way to connect the businesses would be through The Bridge. It would be a collaborative space devoted to helping entrepreneurs connect, with the end goal of fostering the success of minority and women-owned firms throughout the city. To do this, they will have a place within the Soul District to meet, as well as connections with like-minded people in the city.

BICEP also wants to incorporate spaces that will allow people to explore their creativity by folding culture and art into the district. Leaders envision cafes with open-mic nights that would function as venues to help young people feel like they belong in the community.

The concept for the Soul District has been around for awhile, and many of the members who make up BICEP have been working to revitalize North and Northeast Portland for decades. They are trying to ensure that the historic black community can continue to live and thrive in the neighborhood.

“There is a defensive component to this as well,” Talton says. “This is a community where a lot of people are being forced out. They aren’t able to keep up with gentrification.”

So the Soul District is an attempt to fight back against the rising cost of living by providing a means of income and identity.

“Ownership is the key — owning a job, a business and real estate,” Talton says. “This strategy supports all three of those things.”

The project is still in the planning and development stages. Organizers have been conducting surveys targeted at black business owners, community influencers and community members — trying to combine a wide array of opinions on how best to develop the district. The surveys will help create plans for the coming years.

“Certainly by the next year we need to have some visible, physical sign,” Talton says, “something to stimulate the process.”

For now, though, the group is working to bring more people in to advise the best way to proceed, and trying to generate more capital — all in an effort to transform the Soul District from vision to reality.

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