Gentrification: The process of renewal accompanying the influx of middle class people into deteriorating areas that often displaces earlier, usually poorer residents – Merriam Webster Dictionary
“There is something about poverty that smells like death. Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in dry season and rotting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the fetid air of underground caves. The soul in sickly air. People can be slaveships in shoes.” — Zora Neale Hurston, author, 1891-1960
Headlines of North and Northeast Portland have erupted once again in newspapers across the city. For the most part, in what the city calls the most diverse neighborhoods in Portland, headlines have portrayed the region as a battleground of police shootings, homicide, and gang activity.
Of late, very rarely has the issue been talked about in the context of poverty, class, race, education, the current state of the economy and gentrification. North and Northeast Portland are not only home to many social problems most urban environments face, but they’re home to a growing number of, for better or worse, hipsters, yuppies, radicals, self-proclaimed freaks, hippies, yippies and young families.
“You know, they call it urban renewal, but I call urban removal,” said Charles Santos, an organizer with ROOTS, an acronym for Reclaiming Our Origins Through Struggle. ROOTS is an organization working to organize people of color in Portland. “It’s a shift of people from the suburbs moving into our neighborhoods. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Alberta corridor or the Boise-Elliot neighborhood, the Pearl district or all of downtown, poor people are being pushed out of this city.”
“They’ve got all these new businesses in the neighborhood (Boise-Elliot) being set up, said Santos. “I go to the video store, the coffee shop, the bar, the breakfast place, and I see no black people working in these establishments. There’s something wrong with that picture.”
Certain neighborhoods are designed to be kept that way in the name of urban renewal, Santos said. “When developers and the private sector come in they start making that money, money, money. It’s all about that money, it always has been.”
Santos is not the only person to echo these views. According to affordable housing advocates and other neighborhood members in Northeast Portland, the neighborhood has suffered from decades of segregation, redlining, racism, and false representation by the media.
“I have had discussions with long-time African-American residents who feel a sense of hopelessness about the high level of redevelopment over a short period of time,” said Jason Graf, co-chair of the Boise Neighborhood Association. “A sense that their community is breaking apart and there is nothing they can do about it.”
Graf suggested some creative solutions for the neighborhood. “Reducing crime through active neighbor participation is one way to coalesce as a neighborhood, because everyone feels the impact of crime,” Graf said. “There has been discussion about minority business recruitment and spreading the wealth through strategic action by using tools that are available and maximizing the benefits that have the potential to increase within the Interstate Urban Renewal Area.”
Patterns of history
In the ’30s and ’40s, the real estate industry began to define the meaning of a white segregated neighborhood as one that did not have a black-occupied residence within four blocks. Real estate agents held to their code of so-called ethics, and followed the condition on many deeds that homes in white neighborhoods were not to be sold to blacks. The result of such racial manipulation was a physical boundary dividing blacks from whites.
Vanport, a city named by combining Vancouver and Portland, was created in 1941 for the building of liberty ships for Great Britain and later the U.S during World War II. The city, no longer in existence, was sited on what is now the Columbia Slough. Vanport at one time had a population of 50,000 during the height of World War II. 35,000 people, mostly poor and jobless, migrated to the area to work in the shipyards.
By 1948, Vanport’s population had dropped to an estimated 18,500 people, including 5,000 African-Americans. That year, massive floods destroyed Vanport, leaving 15 dead, dozens injured, and 18,000 homeless. It was by far, the worst housing crisis Portland had ever faced.
When the flood turned Vanport into a lake, all available housing was pressed into service, but still many low-income people — many of whom were black — were left homeless. Some were taken in by families in the metropolitan area. The resettlement of the flood victims, in the absence of any direct action taken by the city housing authorities, created patterns of segregation with relocating the homeless into Northeast Portland.
The 1950s and 1960s were a time of revitalization in the diverse North and Northeast neighborhoods. On the surface, this goal promised to have a positive affect on the neighborhoods, much like the Interstate Light Rail project of today. In reality, the city of Portland leveled neighborhoods to allow for industrial growth, thereby adding to the housing shortage. For example, in the 1950s, people in the central Albina neighborhood lost their homes to the building of Memorial Coliseum and Interstate 5.
Development continues to push lower income people to the rim of the city.
“What we’re seeing is low-income people from North and Northeast Portland are being displaced into suburban areas, like Gresham, Beaverton and Clackamas,” said Teresa Huntsinger with the Coalition for a Livable Future.
“The communities that they are moving to are not equipped to handle the influx in poverty,” Huntsinger said. “There aren’t as many services for people living in poverty. One example of that is the lack of transit access for people encountering poverty.”
“The county needs to allocate funds for emergency rent assistance to people outside of the city of Portland, still living in Multnomah County.” said Kelly Caldwell, an affordable housing organizer with the East Multnomah County Housing Advocates.
“Right now the City of Portland funds the Transitions to Housing program through the county, which offers a variety of services for people in poverty,” Caldwell. “What is happening is that if you live on one side of the line you get services, but if you are on the other side of the line you don’t get services. This is happening to the same people who are being pushed out of Portland.”
Huntsinger said that patterns of gentrification are continuing in North and Northeast. The Interstate Light Rail is one example, in that it is raising property values and pushing lower-income families further beyond the city. The Coalition for a Livable Future has been advocating for affordable housing in the area. But, Huntsinger said, “It’s too little, too late.”
Ironically, one of the new stops on the Max line will be the Expo Center, formerly the North Portland Stockyard and the site of an assembly center for the relocation of Japanese-Americans during World War II. More than 3,700 people of Japanese descent from the Portland area were detained there, many of whom lost their business and their homes due to relocation stategies by the United States government.
The line will then travel across a long viaduct over the Colulmbia Slough, the same area in which displacement occured by the floods more than 50 years ago. It will then descend into the Delta Park/Vanport station where travelers can view a memorial of the assembly center for the relocation of Japanese-Americans.
The 1980s began a long downfall for the residents of North and Northeast Portland. The Reagan era brought high unemployment rates, homelessness, and frustration, followed by dramatically reduced property values in the neighborhoods.
Redlining in North and Northeast Portland has gone on up until the 1990s. Redlining is the practice of refusing to serve particular geographical areas because of the race or income of the area's residents. While the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1976 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 outlawed the practice of redlining, there is evidence that the practice continued illegally in Portland into the 1990s. Some advocates believe it still happens today.
Today, after decades of struggle, the same frustrations resonate within the minority community.
“I believe there is mistrust of city agencies, especially PDC (Portland Development Commission), from long-time residents and business owners, and that this hinders redevelopment and the creation of new minority businesses,” said Graf. “A strategy and recruitment of minority business that coordinates the investment incentive from PDC and other grant programs, coupled with outreach and coordination from the African-American business association and other minority businesses, is missing in all of the gentrification of Mississippi Avenue and Boise neighborhood.”
“They come and want to clean up the neighborhoods,” Santos says. “The question is, who are they cleaning it up for? It sure isn’t all the good people who have been screaming, hollering, and kicking for all these years to clean up the neighborhood. They jack up the prices and suddenly we’re not kicking and screaming about cleaning up the neighborhood anymore. Instead, we’re crying out that we can’t pay our rent and we’re going to have to find a new place to live.”
On any given weekend morning you will find dozens of people sitting in front of the Fresh Pot, a local coffee shop, and Gravy, a new breakfast restaurant on Mississippi Avenue, reading books and congregating among themselves. Most of them are white.
“If there were 10 black people hanging out in front of the Fresh Pot, the police would be up in here,” said a woman who preferred to remain anonymous as she pointed toward Fresh Pot. “Then the neighborhood would say, ‘oh, we got a gang problem. We need to clean this up.’ It’s OK to hang out and talk music in front of the record shop if you are white, but if it was a hip-hop record store they would say, you all are gangsters. That’s racism.”
Some new residents in the Northeast have charged to the assumption that real estate agents have not properly warned new residents of the crime in the neighborhood.
“People need to do their research,” said Walter Garcia, Crime Prevention Program Coordinator with the North Portland Neighborhood Services. “The tools are all out there. If I go buy a product at the store I’m going to research the product that I buy.”
“I don’t think that (North and Northeast Portland) are worse than any other part of Portland.”
Garcia said he didn’t think race had anything to do with the perceptions of the neighborhoods. Although he did say there are perceptions of the poor. “It’s not a race issue, it’s a social-political issue.”
“The fact of the matter is we are a city and we are going to have crime,” said Art Hendricks, with Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement. “But if you were to compare today’s crime statistics with statistics in 1995, we are as safe today as we’ve ever been.”
Hendricks went on to say he felt the mainstream media has played a major role in creating fear in North and Northeast Portland concerning crime. “If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead,” said Hendricks. “If Channel 12 news doesn’t have a violent crime to report in Portland, they’ll report one in Salem. It’s sensationalized journalism. Do we have calls for people shooting off guns in Southeast Portland? Yes. Does that make the front page? No.”
Although, Hendricks did go on to say the police and the city often are blamed for mishaps. “Is it the police’s fault for answering calls for people committing crimes? No. It’s their job, that’s what they do, and that is never going to change.”
“We need an honest commitment to overhaul the system. We are still stuck in the 1980s in this city,” said Maria Johnson with the Latino Community Network. North and Northeast Portland is one of many pockets living with the larger problems of entrenched prejudices.
“I think within the police force and in the schools we see institutionalized racism,” Johnson said. “Minorities are not offered the same opportunities in our schools. Latino kids are herded through ESL programs and lose out because their skills are underestimated by the system. There are significant changes that government has to make. We hear a lot of promises from the institutions, but no implementations.”
Johnson went on to say that with the police, various groups have given recommendations over the years on how to deal with different cultures, minority groups, and the mentally ill, and yet nothing has happened.
“When people look at me they say, ‘oh look at that black guy,’” said Santos. “Before I’m a drummer, I’m a black drummer, and before I am a man I am a black man. I’m reminded of it every time I get on the bus.”
Published in April of 2004, Street Roots, Portland, Oregon