SUNNYSIDE PIAZZA

Since 2000, neighbors of Portland’s historic Sunnyside neighborhood have come together every Spring to re-paint a huge sunflower at the intersection of SE 33rd and Yamhill, one block off Belmont. Originally, without City permission, neighborhood residents came together to claim ownership of their public space and create a vibrant community gathering place.

This was one of Portland‘s City Repair’s first projects that aimed to repair and reclaim underutilized space. City Repair facilitates artistic and ecologically-oriented placemaking through projects that honor the interconnection of human communities and the natural world. City Repair have been accomplished all around Portland, by a mostly volunteer staff and thousands of volunteer citizen activists. They provide support, resources, and opportunities to help diverse communities reclaim the culture, power, and joy that we all deserve. 

In an effort to create community-oriented spaces, local residents painted a huge orange sunflower, inspired by Fibonacci spiral geometry, in the middle of the intersection and installed multiple art pieces at each corner. Ever since then, engaged residents have turned this intersection into a space for art, expression and community building. Over 700 interviews with residents, in an academic study on the project in 2003, suggest that the community experiences more happiness, health and safety because of the repair. The Piazza has also become a a central point of the Sunnyside Neighborhood and Historic Belmont Main Street, in the heart of Southeast Portland. It has blossomed into a community cooperative movement that has cultivated social connectedness and a sense of community that gains momentum every year.

A lot of planning and effort goes into making this happen every year. Starting months before the event, organizers start planning. They canvas the neighborhood getting the required signatures for the block party permit, so they can close the intersection off to traffic and provide their community with a safe space to spend the weekend together, re-painting, talking, picnicking, and playing. They take inventory and order paint materials, repair benches, cob structures, clean-up poles, plant new flowers, coordinate a team of volunteers, and gather monetary and material donations from local businesses and the community. For the past few years, Portland Street Art Alliance has managed the project, along with fellow dedicated neighbors.

Several local businesses donate funds and supplies to help support this community event as well. Escape from New York Pizza on Belmont hosts an annual Piazza Pizza Party fundraiser in mid-May where 30% of all proceeds between 5pm-10pm go towards the project. Other local businesses, like The Sweet Hereafter and Dick's Kitchen, make significant monetary donations that help the communtiy purchase the paint and supplies needed to repaint the sunflower every year. 

What also makes Sunnyside unique is that in addition to the commissioned and organized art at the Piazza (like the painted sunflower, cob structures, mosaics, sidewalk trellises, and planter barrels), there are several un-commissioned street art interventions in the area. These unofficial pieces of art vary, but often include birdhouses, chalk boxes, metal sculptors, wooden plaques, yarn installations, and various forms of art adhered to the backs of signs and poles. Passersby tend to notice and be drawn to this community art, it is a real tourist destination. Visitors often ask questions, touch, and take pictures of these quirky interventions.

Brooklyn NY-based Portlandia star, Fred Armisen even commented on Sunnyside neighborhood’s distinct character:

At the corner of Southeast Yamhill and Southeast 33rd Avenue is the most Portland-y spot in the city. There is an artwork painted on the actual road. It’s like a sun or something. It’s too big for me to remember exactly what it is. It just looks cool and feels cool. I feel the most like I am in Portland when I stand in this spot. You’ll see what I mean. It’s residential, but there’s something about it that makes me feel very much at peace. Not like nature-guy peace. I hate that. I mean like “Hey, I am going to stand here for a few minutes and not think.” It’s quiet but you can still hear some cars go by a street over on Belmont. It feels European but still American. I stand by that description.

Along Belmont, there is a high-concentration of businesses between 33rd and 35th Avenues. Most of these mixed-use properties have high real-estate values due to their visibility and foot-traffic along this historic arterial roadway emanating from downtown. Through the 1980s and 90s, Sunnyside struggled with problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, crime, and vandalism. Younger creative were drawn into the neighborhood by its cheap rents, historic bungalows and Victorians, and its proximity to public transit. Just a few years ago in 2010, many of the businesses along Belmont were closed and boarded up. Now, all storefronts are occupied and business is booming. Sunnyside often teems with activity. On sunny days, people fill the sidewalks, eating, drinking, taking pictures, sitting on benches, and visiting local shops. When the sun sets, the night crowd descends, frequenting the bars and pool halls on the strip.

Whether it is authorized or un-authorized by the City does not seem to concern many Sunnyside residents. They see this as their community space and their responsibility to maintain. This is an active community that feels strongly about the power of community art and access to the public spaces around them.

Follow Sunnyside Piazza on Facebook and Instagram for updates! 

All Photos © PSAA