Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Race Relations in Portland
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Readers and staffers, primarily from Portland, Oregon, discuss and debate the various issues surrounding race, ethnicity, and class in the city. (The ongoing conversation was spurred by Alana Semuels’s article “The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America.”) If you have something to add, especially as a Portland native, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

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The Many Communities of Color in Portland

I used to work as a reporter for a newspaper, and space constraints were a very real thing. At the Los Angeles Times, we measured stories in inches, and if a story was too long, we’d have to cut out some inches. Now, writing for the website of The Atlantic, there are no space constraints (!). I can write as much as I want for the interwebs without having to worry about how much room I have on a newspaper page.

Still, journalistic pieces can’t go on forever. I don’t think readers want all the information on a topic; they want me, as the journalist, to pick a representative and digestible amount of information, and pull it together into a story. As a journalist, every time I write a story, I have to figure out where to draw the line, what to put in and leave out.

On a recent trip to Portland, I wrote a story about Oregon’s racist past and did not include information about Latinos, Asian-Americans, or American Indians. The responses of some readers to this oversight are below. I agree with them that there are other racist parts to Portland’s racist history that I did not include. But in my defense, I have to draw some limits, or else the stories will be even longer than they already are. And they are pretty long, by The Atlantic’s standards. Blame a former print reporter finally set free of space constraints, who is learning the limits of longform.

This first reader, Andrew, is a longtime resident of Portland:

While your article has a fairly thorough history of anti-black racism in Portland, I am disappointed that it completely ignores the racism faced by Latinx, Asian American, Native American, and immigrant communities in Portland over the years. I don’t say this to diminish the racism faced by African Americans, but if this is “The Racist History of Portland,” you really left out some incredibly terrible things other people of color have faced in Portland past and present. A lot of your article was pulled from local scholarship and reporting others have already done, so it seems incredibly lazy to ignore the five other chapters of the Coalition of Communities of Color report you cited on racial disparities in Portland, or the notorious incidents of internment, displacement, and murder that have occurred for other communities.

More portions of that massive CCC report are featured below. Speaking of internment, another Portland resident, Lawrence, recommends a piece from The Huffington Post:

Here’s an important aspect of history regarding Portland’s hyper-support of the Japanese-American internments. It’s a story the current daily newspaper whitewashes to this very day.

From an Asian American reader and former resident of the city’s Northwest District:

So far in our reader discussion on race relations in Portland, Oregon, we’ve heard from many residents, including: working-class whites who lived in the Albina area during the pre-gentrified ’80s, a long-time black resident of Albina who sold real estate in that NE area of the city for decades, a middle-class white woman who bought a house there recently, and a half-Filipina woman who grew up in the racially-diverse, blue-collar neighborhood of St. Johns. This next email comes from a black woman who lived in the wealthier area of SW Portland during the ’80s:

Wikimedia

My family came from California. Alana Semuel’s article made sense of all the racial hostility my family and I experienced during our 10 year residence. The schools, the rise of the Skinheads ... I still remember Mulugeta Seraw [seen right] being murdered by Skinheads outside a local nightclub. Thanks for the history of a city I haven’t returned to since graduating from high school (Lincoln). In fact, no one in my family has returned.

She adds, “I am happy to add further comments in you have questions.” So I asked her why her family moved to Portland in the ’80s and if she would be willing to share the worst examples of racism she experienced back then. She kindly replied:

We encountered the most racism in the school system. Two memories that remain: being called “monkey” and “gorilla” and “primate” in school—two girls in particular were really hostile. They even showed me books of monkeys and asked me if I was related to them. My mother had to intervene because the teacher was ineffective at stopping the bullying.

More subtlety, when at my Catholic middle school, I was never invited over for birthday parties, sleepovers, etc. It was a pretty small school, so the kids were all close. While my classmates were kind to me during the school day, all of the relationship building I was not privy to. I was definitely an outsider.

We had moved to Portland from California because my father worked for Portland Community College as Vice President. We lived in SW Portland, where we were just one of a few black families, that I can recall. (If my memory serves me correct, N.E. was where the majority of blacks lived; Portland was divided racially by class as well.)

Mulugeta Seraw, the murder victim she mentions, was actually attending her father’s school, PCC, at the time of his death. Seraw was an Ethiopian immigrant who had arrived in Portland from Addis Ababa in 1981, and on the night of November 12, 1988,

Mieske (via Southern Poverty Law Center)

three skinheads [members of the White Aryan Resistance and a Portland gang called East Side White Pride] encountered Seraw and two of his friends as their two cars drove in opposite directions on SE 31st at around 1:30 am. A verbal altercation over the right of way quickly became racially confrontational and within minutes, [Ken] Mieske had pulled a baseball bat from his trunk and beaten Seraw in the head at least twice with it, according to news reports from the time. Seraw died in hospital eight hours later.

Two of the Skinheads were convicted of manslaughter and assault, while the bat-wielding one got a life sentence and died in prison in 2011. From The Oregonian’s retrospective on the murder:

I can’t imagine a better reader to contribute to our ongoing debate over gentrification and urban renewal in Portland, Oregon, than Fred Stewart. Fred writes:

I am a black man who has sold real estate in Portland for most of the past 30 years, and I’ve sold more real estate in Inner North and Northeast Portland than anyone alive today. I just recently closed on my 760th address, and I have well over 1,000 transactions just in Inner North and Northeast Portland (the area you call Albina). I have personally walked into more homes in that area than probably anyone else.

As of this week, I have lived in Albina for 40 years. I was President of King Neighborhood for nearly a decade. I come from a family that can trace its Portland roots back to 1935, so I know a lot of about the city’s black history. I am currently a board member of the Oregon Black Pioneers, which is a group that looks to collate and share Oregon Black History with the people of Oregon.

That’s Fred in the video seen above and the one below—two amazing artifacts from the recent history of the Albina area. “These two commercials, which I produced in 1990,” he writes, “might give you an idea just how hard it was to sell homes that were often given away to ANYONE who would take them.”

In one of the best emails we’ve gotten in a while, Fred has a lot of incredibly valuable things to say about his city, its race relations, and how class comes into play:

I read your series on gentrification in Portland. I think the story is a lot more complicated and multi-faceted than you and your readers have outlined so far.

When I started selling real estate in 1988, most brokers would not sell homes in Inner North and Northeast Portland. It was my hope to sell homes anywhere but that area. We had over 500 vacant homes, gang shootings daily, and a lot of social issues. We had no services, few stores, and no restaurants and bars anyone would hang out in—at least people who were not members of the criminal community. It was not a fun place to live once you left your house.

I started selling homes in Inner North and Northeast on my birthday (December 11). I had to not just sell the homes; I had to sell the community. So as a broker I had to sell the neighborhood’s present, its past, and, most importantly, its future.  

When I started my career, I could not give away homes that in some cases are worth over a million dollars today. Many times I did give away those homes. No one wanted them, and that includes the black people in the community.

In fact, the people in that neighborhood most interested in selling and least interested in buying were black people. That is understandable when you consider two facts about Portland history: 1) Black people were forced to live in Inner North and Northeast Portland (that fact dates back to at least the 1920s), and 2) The area was not a good place to raise kids, and the schools were all bad.

Black people back then were just like our white citizens; they wanted the best they could afford for their children and family. And that meant moving elsewhere—in the Portland market and often out of state. When the property and housing values of Inner Northeast Portland started going up, many black families cashed out and left.

A white reader in Portland pushes back on part of my initial look at the gentrification of the historically African American part of the city known as Albina. She’s an Oregon native and has lived in Northeast Portland for nearly a decade and bought a home there:

I read your piece on gentrification in Portland. It’s such a great, refreshing commentary on what’s going on—probably the least “hype-y,” most balanced piece I’ve read about the situation, especially calling out the class element. The piece has been blowing up in my Facebook feed, which is fun to see, and of course I’m super interested in the topic since I purchased a house in NE Portland in 2013; I’m one of the gentrifiers!

But I have one question (do not feel obligated to respond to this!):

I’m a little unclear on how the data you present about crime being dispersed throughout Portland addresses the validity, or lack thereof, of the “sad fact” claimed by your reader (“sad fact: More white people = less crime of all varieties, from littering to murder” [CB: I called that “dubious”]). It seems like the reader is claiming two things: 1) that crime used to be pretty bad in his neighborhood [in the Albina area] and it has gone down over time since he’s lived there and 2) that more white people = less crime. I don’t think he was arguing that crime in his neighborhood was worse than in other parts of the city (at least not in the quote included in the article), so I’m not sure how crime dispersal relates to his statement. But maybe I’m missing the connection? Maybe if that’s true for me, other readers are missing it? I don’t know.

Indeed, I only scratched the surface of crime rates in Portland, how they have changed since the ‘80s, and how they have tracked differently among different racial groups. Below is a fuller picture of that recent history, and please send me a note if you have more to add. Update from the reader above:

I still remember when I moved to Portland in 2004, my parents told me in no uncertain terms: “You are NOT to move to N or NE Portland. Too dangerous.” (Of course I didn’t listen to them.) My dad was actually a loan collector for a short time in Portland when he got out of the military and I remember him saying he was scared stiff of knocking on doors in NE Portland.

***

First, I dug up a report from the State of Oregon’s Criminal Justice Commission  (PDF) showing arrest rates broken down by racial categories from 1986 to 2008—roughly the period of rapid development of the historically-black area of Albina. The report highlights four areas of crime and has corresponding charts for each. The first examines “person crimes”:

The OUCR (Oregon Uniform Crime Reports) program defines person crimes as willful murder, negligent homicide, forcible rape, other sex crime, kidnapping, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault. By far, simple assault is the most common crime in the person crimes category. As seen in the graph [above], the arrest rate for Blacks or African Americans is substantially higher than the other groups. In 1986 the arrest rate for this group was 6.3 times higher than the statewide rate; in 2008 it was 4.5 times higher.

The group with the lowest arrest rate historically is Asians and in 2008 the rate for this group was nearly one-third the statewide rate. In the late 90’s there was a steady decrease in the overall arrest rate. From 1994 to 1999 the largest percentage decrease of these groups was Blacks or African Americans with a 35 percent drop in person crime arrests.

The report goes on to detail three more charts—for robbery, for property crimes, and for DUII, or driving under the influence of intoxicants. On robbery: “In 1986 the arrest rate for [African Americans] was 17 times higher than the statewide rate; in 2008 it was 8 times higher.” On property crimes: “The arrest rate for Blacks or African Americans is the highest of the groups at 5.1 times higher than the statewide rate in 1986 and 3.6 times higher in 2008.” On DUII: “[H]istorically the group with the highest arrest rate is Hispanics.” Among all three crime categories (in addition to person crimes), Asian residents had the lowest rate of arrests. (If you’re interested in digging into the finer details of such crimes and more, this longer PDF report is helpful.)

As far as the subsequent stage for many arrestees—incarceration—the rate for African Americans is roughly aligned with arrests: African Americans comprise just 2% of Oregon’s population, but 9% of the state’s adult inmate population,” according to the Oregon Department of Corrections Inmate Population Profile for 2013 (PDF). (The majority of black Oregonians live in Portland.) That state-wide statistic is roughly aligned with city/county data reported in February:

Black people are overrepresented in each stage of Multnomah County’s adult criminal justice system [Portlanders are the vast majority of Multnomah residents]  -- from initial contact and arrest through prosecution, sentencing and parole or probation violations, a new report concludes. While they make up only 5 percent of the county’s general population, blacks represent 27 percent of its jail population, the Racial and Ethnic Disparities Report shows.

So: Are African Americans in Portland more likely to commit crimes, or are they just more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for crimes because of racial bias?

LOOK AT THE STICKER LMAO #NoCalifornians I like hella need a whole roll of these to give to students LOL

A photo posted by chrysanthius (@chrysanthius) on

Another native of the Albina area, Chris, adds a strong personal perspective to our ongoing discussion:

Thanks for your balanced post on gentrification. I was born and raised in the Irvington neighborhood [one of seven in the Albina area]. Both my parents grew up in North Portland and graduated from Jefferson High School, a traditionally African American high school. My first Portland public school experience was Boise Eliot.

I had no idea that Portland was such a white city until much much later in my life.  I grew up surrounded by African Americans, and things seemed to be generally cool between most white and black people on a day-to-day basis. I did witness African American friends getting targeted by police for things that I could get away with, so I don’t want to paint a pure rosy picture, but in some respects it feels more divisive now than ever, despite seeing less racist stuff than was in Portland during the ‘80s skinhead movement. [Here’s a deadly episode of that period covered by The Portland Mercury, and we’ll follow up on skinheads in a future note.]

Vanessa Renwick and Sean Tejaratchi

I understand the frustration of having trouble living in the neighborhood you grew up in. I am faced with that struggle every day, and being white makes it no less challenging to write that ever-increasing rent check. I appreciate your article focusing on the money issue, because I feel that while Portland still has some race issues on the fringes of society, the biggest future problems for us Portland natives comes from the invading California / New York horde, and that boils down to money and class. They want a ticket for the Portland amusement ride, but the people who made Portland weird, cool, and fun have been leaving because of money.

It has not been doom and gloom for every African American family. An African American women on the block that my Grandma and Grandpa lived on for 50+ years bought four different “crack houses” on that block during the ‘80s/’90s, and I am sure that her and her kids will be well off for it. She was not rich by any means, but she worked hard, saved money, and invested her resources in property near her.  

I get the frustration of seeing friends and family not being able to afford to stay in the neighborhood as a renter; I get that 100 percent. But this doesn’t reflect the reality that lots of African American families have been able to get obscene prices for homes in disrepair and needing all kinds of work. The money generated from home sales has likely supported a lot of African American grandma and grandpas who were relying on their home as a major part of their retirement, and getting $200-400k for a beat-up two-bedroom bungalow is pretty sweet.

Artwork and photo by Vanessa Renwick: “Always bugs me when a neighborhood gets gentrified and suddenly all the ‘historic’ district signs go up. This house was a crack house in the early 90's. It was built in 1908 by the Millers, who were Volga Germans. This house sits on land in the Portland metro area, which rests on traditional village sites of the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla and many other tribes and bands. All of this land was under the ocean 50-70 million years ago.”

There are lots of ways to splice and dice the gentrification issue, so I appreciate you highlighting the resources issues and not make the story solely all about race, which it certainly is not. And since you mentioned the Trader Joe’s controversy, that deal was ridiculous to oppose. That specific area of Portland is lacking a grocery store. The Safeway is not too far away on MLK and Ainsworth, but a Trader Joe’s would have been a great addition to that area. They offer good food options at decent prices, and there would have been African Americans hired. A few groups have seemed to capitalize on the gentrification anger and pushed their own agenda—anti development in general—so we are stuck with a large blank field on a major arterial road for years.

Here’s an overview of that large blank field, on the corner of Alberta and MLK:

Google Maps

My colleague Rosa has much more on that Trader Joe’s controversy.

***

I just got an email from Owen Pickford, executive director of The Urbanist, who adds some conflicting nuance to the studies I cited showing that gentrification often improves the welfare of long-time residents and makes them more likely to stay. Here’s Owen with the helpful pushback:

I’ve been following the discussions on gentrification over at The Urbanist for awhile. I think the best study on this [“Gentrification and Residential Mobility in Philadelphia,” PDF here] wasn’t mentioned in your summary. This paper did find a small increase in mobility of lower income residents in gentrifying neighborhoods. Additionally, the benefits of gentrification that were found in other studies don’t appear to be spread evenly.

Gentrification can increase demographic sorting. Gentrification is obviously about a lot more than just income, but I focused on the economic findings in a longer piece here. Also, in case you missed it, Kristen Jeffers at The Black Urbanist recently touched on gentrification with reference to a lot of great links.

Here’s the abstract from that Philadelphia study:

Trader Joe's customers shop in Boulder, Colorado. Rick Wilking / Reuters

Alana’s recent piece on the racist history of Portland, Oregon, my hometown, cites a controversy that I remember:

One incident captures how residents are failing to hear one another or have any sympathy for one another: In 2014, Trader Joe’s was in negotiations to open a new store in Albina. The Portland Development Commission, the city’s urban-renewal agency, offered the company a steep discount on a patch of land to entice them to seal the deal. But the Portland African American Leadership Forum wrote a letter protesting the development, arguing that the Trader Joe’s was the latest attempt to profit from the displacement of African Americans in the city. By spending money incentivizing Trader Joe’s to locate in the area, the city was creating further gentrification without working to help locals stay in the neighborhood, the group argued. Trader Joe’s pulled out of the plan, and people in Portland and across the country scorned the black community for opposing the retailer.

[Local historians] say that during that incident, critics of the African American community failed to take into account the history of Albina, which saw black families and businesses displaced again and again when whites wanted to move in.

A reader pushes back with a little more background:

In this particular case that was a local black developer who had long been very active in the Albina neighborhood community who had gone through a quite lengthy negotiating process to develop that piece of land. [RIS note: The developer, Majestic Realty, was in fact based in California, but had hired a local minority-owned company, Colas Construction, as general contractor.] That piece of land, by the way, was a large, undeveloped brownfield that sits along a primary commercial corridor that had been vacant for over a decade, and it STILL sits there fenced off and growing weeds. There was no notable “neighborhood opposition” to the Trader Joe's development UNTIL The Portland African American Leadership Forum [PAALF], a group virtually unheard of in the community until they challenged the TJ’s development.

I wasn’t living in Portland when the Trader Joe’s deal fell through, but I remember the vacant lot. It’s located at Alberta Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a busy thoroughfare that in the 2000s used to be lined with fast-food restaurants, parking lots, water-stained buildings, roadside bars—more of a street to funnel people through than one to build community over, and one where my parents were skeptical of a teenage girl waiting for the bus. In 2013, according to an interactive map by The Oregonian, that intersection (represented by a green dot below) was in the heart of a food desert, with a significant number of low-income residents living more than half a mile from the nearest supermarket:

A screenshot of the interactive map of “low-income census tracts in the Portland metro area where the U.S. Department of Agriculture has determined that a significant number or share of residents is more than a half-mile [in yellow] or a mile [in red] from the nearest supermarket in urban areas…”

That food-desert data makes this particular case—of a supermarket being shut out—feel like a loss. Whatever the problems in the process of opening this lot for development, Trader Joe’s could have brought affordable groceries to the area. From The Oregonian:

Grayson Dempsey, an 11-year King resident who can see the vacant lot from her window, said she tried offering her support at neighborhood association meetings, but her voice was drowned out by the opposition. “I moved here when there were gunshots out the window,” Dempsey said. “I appreciate that (PAALF) is trying to talk about the origins of gentrification. That’s really essential, but they can’t stand up and say, ‘As residents of the King neighborhood, this is what we want.’ The residents of the King neighborhood want this to happen.” …

“We shouldn’t leave lots empty in the name of preserving the neighborhood,” she said. “Are we preserving the vacant lot history or do we want to bring it back to a vibrant neighborhood where people know their neighbors and feel safe walking around?”

Fortunately, it’s looking now like the controversy will have a happy ending.

The historic Frederick Torgler Building was built in 1894 in the city of Albina and is now listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. The lower level is currently occupied by an American bistro/bar called Mint. Wikimedia

Alana Semuels wrote a popular piece last month called “The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America.” Towards the end of it, she writes:

Yet as the city became more progressive and “weird,” full of artists and techies and bikers, it did not have a conversation about its racist past. It still tends not to, even as gentrification and displacement continue in Albina and other neighborhoods. “If you were living here and you decided you wanted to have a conversation about race, you’d get the shock of your life,” Ed Washington, the longtime Portland resident, told me. “Because people in Oregon just don’t like to talk about it.”

Scores of Atlantic readers in Portland have been talking about Alana’s piece and emailing their views, so we’ve decided to convene a conversation about race in the city (via hello@theatlantic.com). To start things off, we’re focusing on Albina, the northeast area of Portland that historically housed the vast majority of the city’s African American residents. Albina now comprises the neighborhoods of Eliot, Boise, Humboldt, Irvington, King, Overlook, and Piedmont, plotted on this map:

Here’s how Alana introduces Albina in her piece:

As the city becomes more popular and real-estate prices rise, it is Portland’s tiny African American population [6.3 percent] that is being displaced to the far-off fringes of the city, leading to even less diversity in the city’s center. There are around 38,000 African Americans in the city in Portland, according to Lisa K. Bates of Portland State University; in recent years, 10,000 of those 38,000 have had to move from the center city to its fringes because of rising prices. The gentrification of the historically black neighborhood in central Portland, Albina, has led to conflicts between white Portlanders and long-time black residents over things like widening bicycle lanes and the construction of a new Trader Joe’s.

Rosa Inocencio Smith, our new assistant editor for Notes (and writer of our Daily newsletter) will be posting a note soon about that Trader Joe’s controversy. Her hometown is Portland, so she will have a lot of great insight to share during our ongoing reader discussion. For my part, Portland has become an adopted hometown since my family moved there more than a decade ago, next to Albina, so I’m especially interested in this topic as well.

But for a much closer firsthand perspective, here’s one of many readers who grew up in Albina:

I lived in this neighborhood in the late ’80s. I still do. The first thing this article (and Kamau Bell’s CNN show [United Shades of Americarelevant clip here]) gets wrong is that this was a “black” neighborhood. Even when it was the center of black culture in Portland, it was still 40 percent white.

Here’s a breakdown of that demographic over the decades:

From a paper by Karen J. Gibson, a Portland State scholar cited in Alana’s piece

Back to our reader:

The second thing is that blacks some how have a “historical claim” to Albina because they as a majority occupied it from roughly 1947-1990. Hell, you could make the claim that neighboring Overlook is a “Polish” neighborhood if you want to go back far enough, and that the city should implement policies to promote Polish ownership, but nobody ever does.

The third thing is over just how much safer (though in some respects less fun) this neighborhood is now. I too have had suspects pursued through my backyard, blocks cordoned off, gun fights in front of the house, I had to dive behind a car because of a drive-by [reported examples here and here], been witness to and a victim of arson, and I can attest to this sad fact: More white people = less crime of all varieties, from littering to murder. As a homeowner here, amen to that.

That “sad fact” seems dubious. Gun crimes, for one, are dispersed throughout Portland, not just the Albina area, where most of the black population is concentrated:

Criminal Justice Policy Research Institute, Portland State University

Residential burglary is similarly dispersed, while street robbery and non-domestic assaults are mostly concentrated downtown, across the river from Albina. (Update: Here’s a fuller picture of crime trends in Portland among difference racial groups.)

Overall, according to an April 2015 news report that featured the crime statistics cited above, crime in Portland has “plummeted since the 1990s,” much like the rest of the country:

Portland State Professor Kris Henning said many residents don’t realize that crime has declined considerably over the past 20 years. Henning said they devour so much crime news they think the city is more dangerous than it is. “Of the 13 crimes we looked at, the only one that increased significantly was bike theft,” [PSU student Kelsey] Baleilevuka said.

Overall, gun-related crimes in Portland have dropped 84%. Residential burglaries are down 61%, motor vehicle thefts dropped 70%, home robberies are down 76% and street robberies are down 70%. … Excluding homicides, crimes involving guns have moved from inner Northeast Portland toward Gresham.

Another reader who lived in Albina makes a distinction between renters and homeowners in the neighborhood:

Per the claim that 10,000 African Americans were “forced out” of inner N/NE, I lived in the neighborhood starting in the late ’80s. Yes, it was crime-ridden, dangerous, and full of abandoned houses. Yes, I witnessed quite a few drive-bys. But many of my neighbors who were black and owned their homes were ready and willing, as prices increased throughout the ’90s, to sell out and move without being forced out.

If you are a renter who can’t afford the rising rents, then you are forced to move. And this has happened to quite a few of my renting friends who have lived in the neighborhood for over 20 years, and yes, they are white.

This next reader also attests to the crime in Albina in the ’80s, and the exodus of both black and white neighbors as development and higher prices arrived:

It’s weird to read an Atlantic article about something I personally experienced. It’s a bit of a trip down memory lane. I’m white, and my parents moved to the Albina area in the late ’80s. They purchased and refurbished a 1920s bungalow as part of an urban renewal program. This made them the tip of the spear for gentrification, and the breakup of a historically black neighborhood.

Like all people who kick off gentrification, they soon complained bitterly about the later newcomers who shoved property prices into the stratosphere.