Uptown would be a far different place without Jean Sundborg.

Some of her efforts were small in nature, like her frequent efforts to paint over graffiti in the neighborhood.

“Walk around and look on the traffic control boxes and power poles, and you’ll see Jean’s work,” said her husband Pierre. “And she loved doing that.”

Other work, like the creation of Counterbalance Park, or convincing the developers of the mixed-use Tribeca Condos/Safeway development on 1st Avenue West to use red brick on its facade, were larger undertakings.

But as tangible as that work was, Sundborg is now being remembered for her personal presence in the community, after her sudden passing in late June at the age of 78. Sundborg (née Penrose) was on a two-week Baltic cruise with her husband, when she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while the boat was docked in Tallinn, Estonia. Pierre said they had just completed a full day exploring the town, and had made plans for the evening when Jean said she felt a headache.

“She was bubbling along, and we were going to go dancing that night,” he said.

Within minutes, she was unconscious, and passed away the next day in a local hospital. Her husband said he does take some comfort in the abruptness of her passing, coming after a full day of exploring, while planning ahead for what would come next.

“We had a good life, and we enjoyed it greatly,” he said.

The Sundborgs were married for just over 50 years, after meeting in Juneau, Alaska in the mid-1960s. Pierre’s career with IBM first took them to Seattle in 1968, with the city becoming their home off-and-on from that point forward, with stints in New York, Texas, England, and France (all while raising two children). Jean was no stranger to travel before they met either, having spent a year abroad with her family in Iran after graduating from high school, and a spell in Israel living on a kibbutz as part of an exchange program.

When they moved to Uptown in 1992, it didn’t take long for Jean to get involved.

“Jean, as she always did, found out what was going on in the neighborhood, and who were the movers and shakers, and she went to work,” he said.

She soon co-founded the Uptown Alliance, and was active in numerous other community efforts, including the Friends of Lower Kinnear Park.

That’s how Debi Frausto first got to know her more than a decade ago. She said Sundborg saw something good in everyone.

“She knew people,” she said. “She’d walk down the street, she’d always knew the people who were walking toward her most of the time, she had no problem talking with people, she loved talking with people.”

Pierre said that’s a trait Jean got from her parents, particularly her father.

“She learned early on to be unafraid of just walking up to people and talking to them,” he said.

Frausto also said that Jean was always looking for ways to involve the community on a personal level.

“It’s a generosity of spirit of hers that was very communal, and I think that that really set some of the core values as we were doing the urban design framework, as we were doing some of the other things, that we all wanted to make sure that we never lost in Uptown, but she humanized that,” Frausto said. “She was a person who humanized those values. That was her.”

A park cleanup was also how the Rev. Ann Pearce first met Jean.

“There really wasn’t anything having to do with the Uptown community that she wasn’t deeply involved with,” she said.

Pearce called her “one of those rare individuals who are the backbone of a community.”

“She had a great wealth of knowledge about everything to do with Uptown, whether it was zoning issues, whether it had to do with [Lower Kinnear Park], there was nobody like her in terms of her activism and what she did for the community, and what she knew about it, because she walked it on a daily basis, she was concerned with all of the issues that were going on in the community, and that’s one of the things we miss about her so much, not just seeing her out and about in the community but just that wealth of knowledge she had.”

That knowledge allowed her to influence the design of several neighborhood developments, like the aforementioned Safeway project. Though she couldn’t sway the backers of the CVS Pharmacy project to incorporate brick into their design, they did add the Uptown sign on the corner at her urging.

And as work continues on the future South Korean consulate building just a few blocks away, her impact will be felt once more.

"You wait until a few months from now, and you’re going to see some brick on the outside of that, and Jean will be so proud, and I will know that it’s from her, and it’s her last piece of architectural legacy.”

Pierre said his wife’s remains will be buried next to her parents — Lynn and George — and daughter Lynn in a small Oregon Pioneer cemetery. She is survived by her husband, her son George, brother Larry and sister Nancy, among other family.


Sundborg, second from left, poses with one of the storage bins purchased for clients of the Roy Street Shelter last year. Photo by Joe Veyera