Lessons from a leader

After a long workday, the last thing many Portlanders have on their mind is learning about urban planning for two-and-a-half hours in a windowless room. Unless your instructor is Vera Katz.

After a long workday, the last thing many Portlanders have on their mind is learning about urban planning for two-and-a-half hours in a windowless room.

Unless your instructor is Vera Katz.

Katz, 74, served as the mayor of Portland for 12 years and is one of just three women to hold that position. Now, as an honoree in the forthcoming Walk of the Heroines and as a course coordinator for the urban studies department in the College of Urban and Public Affairs, it’s small wonder that Katz commands such interest at Portland State.

The course she teaches at PSU, a night class called “Portland Urban Renewal and Redevelopment,” focuses on teaching students about urban renewal, not just through lectures but also from Katz’s experience. The course, currently in its fourth year, is funded by the Portland Development Commission (PDC) as part of a public participation program that offers scholarships to people involved with community design, according to the course’s graduate assistant Kelly Howsley.

Katz, who is revered for her urban renewal work during her tenure as mayor, said that she got involved with the course because of her active interest in education. She said that her 12 years of involvement with the PDC, among other ongoing ties to the community, has been a powerful instruction tool.

“I’m trying to give students a perspective,” Katz said. “It’s a political perspective, a practical perspective, a historical perspective…just some means of telling students how things really work. And I think offering them that perspective and background is really working.”

This fall marks the third term that Katz has served as the course’s coordinator. She works alongside Kim McFarland, a PDC program specialist who has served as the course’s city liaison for three years, and Howsley, who has been involved with the course since its inception four years ago.

Course enrollment has hovered around 35 students a term, usually comprised of about 25 community members and 10 undergraduate urban studies students, Howsley said.

“I love being involved with the course, and Vera is such a rock star when it comes to community involvement,” Howsley said. “She’s very honest, and I’ve learned so much from her it terms of economic and educational development.”

Katz, who identifies as a Democrat, was the first female speaker of the Oregon House, a title she held from 1985 until 1990. Katz served as Portland mayor beginning in 1993 until 2005, and though she was a heavy favorite for a fourth term, she did run not against current mayor Tom Potter.

Among her reasons for political retirement was her health–Katz has been in a years-long battle with cancer, beginning with breast cancer in 2000 and later adenosarcoma of the uterus, a rare form of reproductive cancer. She also receives dialysis treatment for her kidneys regularly, though she said that her medical history does not fetter her drive to remain communally involved.

“Well, after 32 years, I feel good about what I have done politically,” Katz said. “I’m still very involved, and I’m somewhat addicted to Channel 30 these days.”

Channel 30 is a local station that broadcasts meetings held by the PDC, the city council and other civic groups. Katz said she enjoys keeping up with the various activities of those groups and that watching the meetings is a great way to keep up on Portland goings-on.

Katz said she remains involved by serving with various community groups, including the Oregon Ballet Theater’s board of directors. She said she is also co-chairing an upcoming committee to oversee the construction of a light rail that will connect the east and west sides of Portland via light rail. The project will include the construction of a bridge between the western waterfront-based Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU), and the eastern bank-located Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI).

“The new light rail between OHSU and OMSI is very exciting and I’m helping sort out the interests so that, when it’s done, everybody involved is smiling,” Katz said.

Jeff Reaves, a student in the course and an architect for the local group, is involved with the redesign of the River East Center, a warehouse conversion at the eastern end of the Hawthorne Bridge. He said that his involvement with Katz–as both a community member and as a student-has been very educational.

“She teaches in a way that offers the viewpoint that only experience can teach,” Reaves said. “She has been there and done it, and now she’s helping other get there and do it.”