Cities united in nature
For years no one could figure out what to do with a plot of land in Main City Park.
The space was a crucial area to develop, right alongside the Springwater Corridor Trail and a few steps away from Tsuru Island Japanese Garden. Volunteers tried to seed grass and plant different shrubs, but everything seemed destined to die.
"It was this dead area in the park that was driving us crazy," said John Clark, who volunteers with the Japanese Garden through the Rotary Club of Gresham. "We were wracking our brains trying to find something that would fit."
After bringing in experts, they discovered gravel underneath the dirt. Whenever the temperatures raised, the stones were heating the soil and causing the greenery to decay.
"It was a green and brown mud pit," said Jim Card, who oversees the Japanese garden at Tsuru Island
So, the volunteers with Tsuru Island decided to use the space in a different way. In the process, they created a welcoming new entrance into the community, but also an oasis from which anyone can escape the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Saturday morning, Sept. 8, the community gathered for the grand opening of Ebetsu Plaza, 219 S. Main Ave., named in honor of the 40th anniversary of Gresham's sister-city pact with Ebetsu, Japan. The event featured refreshments, goody bags and music from a koto, or Japanese harp.
"We were originally going to name it Tsuru Plaza, but we realized it would be perfect to name it Ebetsu Plaza," Card said.
The plaza consists of thousands of stone tiles, with benches and lots of Japanese-themed fauna. The highlight is 12 Akebono Cherry Trees donated by J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. nursery in Boring. In 15 years, the trees will stretch 20 feet into the air. Every April, they will bloom with beautiful pink blossoms.
Ebetsu Plaza, made using recycled and repurposed materials, is now a visually striking gateway into the community. The tiles that make up the walkway were left over from the Japanese Garden, while stones surrounding the space were the original mile markers on the Springwater Corridor Trail.
"This plaza will be people's first impression of Gresham," said Clark, the owner of Stamp-Connection in downtown Gresham. "Some have a bad view toward our community, so this tips the opinion back to what we really are — a tight-knit community of hardworking people."
The groundbreaking for the plaza occurred almost one year ago when Gresham welcomed a delegation from its sister city halfway across the world. Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis was joined by Ebetsu, Japan, Mayor Noboru Miyoshi for a ceremonial tree planting at Main City Park in the future location of the plaza.
"A tree is very emblematic of our relationship — we have deep roots but continue to grow," Bemis said at the time.
The Gresham Sister City Association was formed in 1977 between Gresham and Ebetsu, and that same year former Mayor Elmer Summerfield led a delegation to Japan, where the connection was made official. Later, a ceremonial cherry tree was planted in Main City Park.
While two more sister cities would be added, Sokcho, South Korea, in 1985 and Owerri, Nigeria, in 1991, the unity with Ebetsu has always been unique.
"The Japanese people living here have been instrumental in building Gresham," Clark said. "It's important to have the exchange."
Located in the northern Hokkaido region, Ebetsu was settled in 1871, and earned township status in 1916 and city status in 1954. The city has a population of about 119,086.
The similarities between Ebetsu and Gresham are remarkable. Both are located close to nature, with Ebetsu abutting the extensive Nopporo Forest State Park — the world's largest park of virgin forest on level ground. Ebetsu is also known for enduring year-round wind, something Gresham residents should relate to as the Columbia River Gorge funnels the East Wind through the city.
Further strengthening the bond is that Portland is in a Sister City program with Sapporo, Japan — Ebetsu's larger neighboring municipality.
"We have shared a lot of history over the 40 years, with cultural and student exchanges," Bemis said during the visit last year. "This raises awareness that people are people no matter where they are from."
In Japan, cherry blossoms are more than just flowering trees. When in bloom they serve as a gathering place for people to enjoy festivals filled with food, drink and music. The cherry blossoms represent people coming together and joining as one.
Those behind Ebetsu Plaza have another way to bring the community together, and raise needed funds for it and the Japanese Garden.
The plan is to engrave each tile in the plaza through a touchstone-paver project, allowing community members to spend $100 and have their own messages and images shared. While there are suggested designs available, donors can have their own customized tile. The funds will be used to create an endowment to support the plaza and garden.
"It's such a unique way to support what we are doing here," Card said.
Some of the images already on the tiles include the U.S. flag, Mount Hood, sports equipment, flowers, animals, musical notes, the rotary wheel, bicycles, hearts and even a unicorn.
Clark has been the one making the inscriptions, and he has a lot of work ahead of him. There are 4,035 tiles in the main strip available to be inscribed, which will raise $250,000 for the endowment. Those who purchase a paver also can choose a partner to donate 20 percent of the funds to. Some of the options include the Gresham-Barlow Education Foundation, Meals on Wheels, SnowCap Community Charities and many more.
"I am so proud to be a part of this," Clark said. "This is something I can give back to the community."
They will sell larger tiles to bigger organizations, and the center of the plaza has been reserved for a special group. Those tiles are for friends in Ebetsu, so whenever they visit Gresham a piece of their home will already be here.
"We are reinvigorating the sister city pact, and remembering what it means to exchange culture and ideas," Clark said.
Ebetsu Plaza will continue to change in the future. Not only will the trees creep upward, but plans are in place to add more sections and landscaping. Another goal is to perhaps paint the tiles that have been engraved, turning the walkway into a virtual rainbow.
But that is in the future. For now, the people behind Ebetsu Plaza are happy enough to sit on the benches and enjoy a sunny afternoon.
"I have a lot of gratitude for the volunteers," Card said. "We couldn't have done this without them. All of this is for them."
Piece of Ebetsu Plaza
If you are interested in having your own tile at the newest entryway into the city, visit https://www.ebetsuplaza.com.