Mingus Mapps ’90
Mingus Mapps ’90

Fighting for Parkrose

Mingus Mapps ’90 is on a quest to revitalize one of Portland’s most divided neighborhoods.

By Romel Hernandez | May 22, 2018

Parkrose is the sort of place you drive through on the way to somewhere else. An out-of-time Portland neighborhood where every block tells a story about the past, present, and future—the weathered tombstones in the pioneer cemeteries bookending the commercial strip, the derelict bus abandoned in the weeds, the German/Romanian sausage joint. It’s seen better days. And it may see better days yet—if Mingus Mapps ’90 has anything to do with it.

Mingus is on an epic journey that has taken him from studying at Reed to teaching at leafy campuses in New England, and now back to Portland, where he is striving to revitalize the down-at-heel yet proud neighborhood.

The path might seem unconventional, but he sees it as a continuum.

“My academic career informs the work I do today,” he says. “I love teaching, but I was never addicted to the privilege and prestige of academia. I’m very happy to be in this world.”

This “world” is Parkrose, a diverse neighborhood on the fringe of Northeast Portland. Bisected by a mile-long stretch of Sandy Boulevard, the area is also home to a motley strip of hardware shops, gas stations, taverns, motels, and vacant storefronts.

On paper, his job as executive director of the nonprofit Historic Parkrose is to provide technical assistance and storefront improvement grants to small businesses sprucing up with a fresh coat of paint or new signage.

In practice, however, his day-to-day work is manifold—organizer, facilitator, mediator, booster. He serves as an unofficial liaison between residents (from homeowners to the homeless), businesses, police, churches, social services, and assorted community groups.

“We’re taking the traditional model of urban renewal and turning it on its head by shifting power from developers to the grass roots,” he says. “The mission is to go beyond ‘sticks and bricks’ to empower those who live and work here and want this to be a better place to live.”

Working out of a storefront on the strip, he plays a part in almost everything that happens in Parkrose. If there is a key to success in this sort of work, he says, it’s inclusivity.  In five years on the job, he has been involved in a wide range of initiatives, including wooing a long-needed supermarket chain to the neighborhood, commissioning a giant mural, rallying opposition to a lingerie modeling business called “Tush,” convincing bar and motel owners to hire private security to deter prostitution, and forging partnerships among police, church, and homeless campers to clean up trash.

“It’s a hard job,” he says. “A lot of two steps forward, one step back. But it’s so satisfying.”

Growing up in California, Mingus was connected to Reed through relatives who attended the college. His father worked for the state small business office and his mother worked for the welfare system,  so “government was never an abstract concept to me.” 

At Reed he majored in political science, played rugby, and wrote for the Quest. 

“I had a typical Reed experience as a student—intense, sometimes angsty,” he says. “I made lifelong friends and had excellent mentors,” including professors still teaching on campus, such as Prof. Darius Rejali [political science 1989–] and others who moved on, such as Prof. Jon Goldberg-Hiller [political science 1987–93]. 

“Prof. Steve Kapsch [political science 1974–2005] was a huge influence,” he adds. “He taught me political science, but also the nitty-gritty of public policy.  He helped me make the connections for my first job.”

After graduating, he remained in Portland, bouncing around various jobs on political campaigns and as a policy analyst for Multnomah County. Looking for a new challenge, he headed to Cornell, where he earned a PhD in government. He focused his scholarship on race in American politics, writing his doctoral thesis on electoral redistricting and pursuing postdoctoral work at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He joined the faculties at Bowdoin and then Brandeis—small schools that reminded him of Reed.

After his family moved back to Portland in 2015, he switched gears from teaching about social justice to making it happen. He says, “If you’re interested in urban politics and race and inequality in public policy, you ultimately want to put yourself out there. I reached a point in my career where I wanted to get involved in making policy.”

Parkrose has proved to be the perfect place for him to make a meaningful impact. Founded a century ago by German and Italian immigrants as a farming community, it was a middle-class suburb in the 1950s and ’60s before going into decline. The area was annexed by Portland in the 1980s, but has its own school district, where about 3 of 4 students are economically disadvantaged. The area’s population, which includes about one-third people of color, is more diverse than the rest of Portland.

He both fits into and stands out in the neighborhood, where his tall, preppy, bald-headed figure is a familiar sight strolling up and down Sandy Boulevard. Which is exactly what he was doing on a recent rainy day when he ran into Samantha Montanaro, a local entrepreneur. She was bouncing with excitement to tell him about a new building she was buying in the neighborhood.

“Mingus brings a calm, grounded, strategic approach to his work,” Montanaro says. “Before he arrived, the neighborhood was really divided; it felt like everyone was only out for themselves. Mingus has been instrumental in bringing this community together—and that’s no easy feat.”

Damian Crowder, a project manager with Prosper Portland, the government agency charged with economic development, also praises his knack for engaging a dynamic, but sometimes divided, community. “That’s where his experience is an asset,” Crowder says. “The issues are very intricate, and it takes someone with a critical perspective to understand the challenges you have to tackle.”

The job can be grueling, but Mingus is focused on the payoff. He’s working on attracting more family-oriented businesses; coffeeshops and brewpubs are on his wish list. He is also mustering support for more pedestrian crosswalks along Sandy Boulevard.

“You see so much tragedy in this job just walking through the door every day,” he says. “At the same time, it’s such satisfying work. I get to help people who really need it, and I get to work with partners who are genuinely optimistic about the future. We’re doing good things here.”

Tags: Service, Business, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Alumni