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Old drug den becomes neighbors’ cup of tea

Only the sign remains unaltered at the former Drive Thru Wake Up coffee shop in Southeast.

The concrete building stands gutted. Jackhammered chunks of pavement fill the back lot. And a line of marked birch trees, which snarl the power lines, are set to come down this weekend.

Slowly, change is overtaking 5633 S.E. Division St., site of the planned Atkinson/Tabor Community Commons. In 2003, the business owner was charged with dispensing pseudoephedrine — rather than coffee — out of the Drive Thru, across the street from Atkinson Elementary School. Pseudoephedrine is a prime ingredient in making meth.

Last year, neighbors collected money from area businesses and residents to buy the seized property from the U.S. Marshals Service. A single mom launched Cafe au Play, a not-for-profit cafe for parents and toddlers that will replace the former drug den.

Now the hard part begins: Applying for grants. Environmental cleanup. And plugging in volunteers with expertise in architecture, economics, green construction, landscaping, fundraising, community building, child and family services and more. Here are a few of the central players in the effort to transform the 14,000-square-foot lot and 900-square-foot building: Paul Leistner, 47: From his kitchen window, Leistner can see what he calls “a small lot that has to accommodate a lot of dreams.”

As chairman of Southeast Uplift’s board of directors, ex-research director for the City Club and doctoral candidate in urban studies at Portland State, he brings a wealth of experience shepherding community-based projects. This one has attracted scores of talented volunteers, he says.

“There’s the people who are focused on the elementary school and education. There’s the really cool environmental stuff that we’ll be doing there. There’s the rehabilitation of a drug property that has engaged some people. There’s the democratic ownership part, a chance to shape something that’s right in their own community,” Leistner says. “At the root, people want a place to gather.” Amy Gredler, 46: “It’s the essence of why I live in inner Southeast Portland — I want the neighborhood to work,” says Gredler, who moved to Mount Tabor with husband Marc Smiley when sons Sam and Tucker, now 13 and 9, were younger so the boys could walk to school.

Gredler has worked as a United Way youth volunteer coordinator, served on the board of Bradley-Angle House and, for 15 years, managed needle exchange and HIV/hepatitis C outreach for Multnomah County’s Health Department.

“I spend a lot of time fretting, despairing sometimes of all the times our children are isolated: listening to their iPods, watching TV. There’s the chance for them to connect in a new way with their community. Maybe it’s not a project that brings peace to the world, but it may to our neighborhood.” Kristin Heying, 37: Heying, a former schoolteacher who works part time for an arts nonprofit, is the force behind the self-sustaining coffeehouse that would anchor the commons.

Over the past two years, she has taken the Cafe au Play concept around the city, gathering youngsters and their parents at coffeehouses for networking, hot joe and lively play.

“We’ve been able to have growing pains along the way, rather than being thrust into a situation and have to learn on the go.”

She and daughter Sophia, 7, live in Ladd’s Addition, but their roots are in Mount Tabor, where Heying was raised by activists in the Friends of the Reservoirs effort, which derailed city plans to cap the reservoirs. Alissa Keny-Guyer, 47: Her nonprofit career was launched teaching English in Indonesia and continues with involvement on the county’s Commission on Children, Families & Community and with Mercy Corps, the Portland-based international aid agency her husband Neal Keny-Guyer oversees as CEO.

These days she’s pinpointing her focus on the tiny commercially zoned property on Division, tapping contacts in big business, government and the grant world to keep the momentum going.

“For a lot of us, this project is a model of process, of what can happen. We want to have a vision for what ultimately comes out of the work.” Laurel Singer, 48: The wish list for the commons includes rooms for language classes, SAT prep and job training; greenspace for a learning circle; a mini retreat center; short-term child care; and offices.

Singer, a facilitator in private practice and in conjunction with the Oregon Consensus Project, wants more voices to help refine how the property could be used. She’s looking for ways to acquire technology that helped residents of New Orleans envision what their community would look like post-Katrina as well as translation equipment that would enable members of local immigrant communities from Somalia, Latin America, Vietnam and China to contribute to the discussion.

“You have unlimited people that you can fold into the process,” the 20-year resident of Mount Tabor says from her kitchen table, as sons Ben, 15, and Zack, 12, prepare after-school snacks. “The more places we have as gathering spaces, the better we’ll know one another.” Brad Mersereau, 57: Mersereau was leaving a fundraiser at the elementary school last year when he glanced across the street at the vacant, run-down Drive Thru Wake Up.

He spied a fundraising thermometer and noticed that neighbors had raised half of their $49,000 goal. An impassioned substance-abuse fighter, Mersereau read a billboard describing how residents hoped to replace the drug property and vowed on the spot to match their contributions.

“I decided right there they should complete their project,” says the philanthropist, who lives in the Cedar Hills area of Washington County. His mission is to honor the memory of his sister, Laura Mersereau Pressnall, who died at 46 after battling alcoholism for 25 years.

“When the commons opens, I have asked for an hour a month to share Laura’s story, if allowed. Laura died because of booze, I don’t want other people to die because of booze.”

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