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TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Foster area neighbors and business leaders gathered last Wednedsay for the neighborhoods first ever tree-lighting ceremony, a mark of a new era for the community. It was a picture-perfect evening — close to a Norman Rockwell painting.


Dozens of bundled-up neighbors gathered at Laurelwood Park last Wednesday evening, children in tow, hot cocoa and coffee in hand.

It was the Foster Area Neighborhood Association’s first-ever Christmas tree lighting, in partnership with the Foster Area Business Association and Venture Portland.

For many in the crowd, the symbolism was greater than just the merriment of the season and holiday itself.

It was a sign that the neighborhood has made it, most would agree.

“Things are actually happening,” says Kelsey Denogeon, 40, owner of the Pieper Café, a block from the park at Southeast 65th Avenue and Foster Road.

A neighborhood resident of 12 years, Denogeon was tired of her job at another Portland coffee joint, and walked into a spot five blocks from her house called Yo Mama’s Coffee and Tea House.

She and her friend spoke with the owner, who wanted to sell.

She had just been left an inheritance from her grandmother’s death, and decided to reopen it as her own coffee shop, named after her grandmother, Kay Pieper.

“Why not take a risk?” she recalls thinking. “We needed a good coffee shop.”

So she set out to transform the café, five blocks from her home, into a place the neighborhood would love.

It’s bright, warm, and cozy with a rotating art gallery and spaces for weekly story groups to meet. “You could bring your mom here,” Denogeon says.

She prides herself on knowing nearly all of her customers by name, since it’s a loyal bunch, as she pours their housemade caramel lattes, housemade Mexican chocolate and other specialties from her new secret menu.

The kitchen serves scratch-made food, including all of the soups, and sandwich ingredients including pesto, olive tapenade, carmelized onions, aolis and vegan options.

For the tree-lighting, Denogeon donated the hot chocolate for the masses, and other businesses pitched in with whatever they could provide.

Peggy Romero, the Allstate Insurance representative at 78th and Foster, donated pop-up tents for people to gather under in the rain; the neighborhood preschool, Circle of Friends and Family, offered a kids’ craft activity; and every child at the event took home a token for Red Castle Games, a hotspot at 64th and Foster.

Kids also took home a copy of the new Foster Winter Activity Book, compiled by members of the Foster Area Freelancers group.

The book includes neighborhood-themed coloring pages and poems for the kids, and winter articles and recipes in the back for their parents.

Funds from the city’s East Portland Pilot Project, administered by Venture Portland, also made the event possible.

Denogeon couldn’t be happier to see her neighbors come together — she introduces people to each other at her café all the time.

Finally, she lives in a place where she knows her neighbors.

“When I first moved in, it was kind of a little scary,” she says. “Nobody wanted to live here. I would definitely never leave my house and walk at night. Now it’s mostly young families and old people, and a smatterng of hipsters.”

What she loves the most, she says, is that it’s still on the cusp of transformation, yet it’s keeping its authenticity.

The Portland Mercado, at 72nd and Foster, opened earlier this year as a major cultural hotspot, with food carts and small businesses from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

Yet there’s still an abundance of bars along Foster, not as many retail shops that draw foot traffic.

That’s in part due to the traffic pattern, which city officials are addressing now with the Foster Transportation and Streetscape Project.

Portland Bureau of Transportation will start construction in 2016 on a $5.3 million effort to transform Foster — from 50th to 90th avenues — from a high-speed, auto-oriented corridor into a series of interconnected pedestrian-oriented spaces.

A road diet will include shrinking it from four lanes to two, plus a left-turn lane in the middle; the city will also add bike lanes, widen sidewalks, and make other improvements to create a Main Street of sorts.

Denogeon is thrilled to be part of the early transformation. But she hopes it doesn’t get out of hand.

Her favorite part of the Foster area? “There’s still a little bit of grit to our neighborhood. It hasn’t been gentrified yet.”

@jenmomanderson

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