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.
There is a separation in Portland between the black people who have and the black people who have not. If there was ever a study of those separate demographics, I am sure we would find that the black families that owned real estate in 1980 have done much better in general than the families that did not.
As the older generation of black families died, their children showed little to no interest in keeping the homes or real estate investments that their mothers and fathers left them. More often than not, those black families sold because the values were always shocking. We did not start selling homes in inner Northeast for more than $100,000 (an incredible price for a home in the area) until 1992, and that caused a rush to sell by many property owners in the area, and of course that includes many black families.
Keep in mind that the increase in values was a reflection of the positive changes in the area—changes that many people did not take seriously. I wish more people had listened to me and others when we said things were changing for the better and that real estate values in all sections of the community would be increasing for many years to come. No matter what was said, no matter what changed, most people did not take what was occurring seriously until 2002, and by then it was economically too late for many homeowners.
There is another problem I hope to address. The gentrification of Inner Northeast Portland is a distraction to the black community, a huge portion of which were just kids while the changes were occurring. They now want to buy in the area but cannot afford it yet, so they choose not to buy at all. What Portland needs are young black people investing in real estate in Portland like their grandparents and great-grandparents did—and investing all over Portland, because we are too small of a community to prevent being pushed out of the city economically if we do not own much of what we live on and in. This is critical for the future of Portland.
What we see today was a slow train coming. The only people who are upset are the people who did not take the signals seriously or were too young to do so.
That does not mean the City of Portland is not at fault. It planned for the community to regenerate for wealthy people, and that plan never included people of lower means. (And until the mid-‘80s, the black community was prevented from maximizing their opportunities due to lack of access to capital and the ability to leverage their real estate.) What we are seeing now is a rapid economic turnover of property, influence, and wealth when it comes to Inner North and Northeast Portland, and we will see this happen again if the City does not start a more inclusive focus to its urban planning.
I would love to answer any questions you may have.
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?
It’s a complex question, of course, but the answer is probably both, to varying degrees. David Rogers, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, reacted to that February report and a more recent one from the Sentencing Project (PDF) by referring to “institutional racism in the criminal justice system,” while Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, was more circumspect:
There’s no clear reason why Oregon has such a high rate, Singh said. Socioeconomic issues, and implicit and explicit racial bias likely all contribute.
As far as the other side of the crime ledger—the victims—here’s a key stat from the Urban League of Portland (PDF): “African Americans are also disproportionately affected by crime; they comprise 7% of Portland’s population but 45% of the city’s homicide victims.”
If you have any considered views about these thorny questions, espec.ally as a Portland resident, please send a note and we’ll air the strongest points from all sides. Update from a very long-time resident of Portland, Jean, who replies to our first installment of the thread but who can testify to the crime in Northeast Portland:
I am glad that a subject that has been gotten so wrong by so many newcomers is finally seeing the light of day. I was born and grew up in Piedmont [a neighborhood in the Albina area] and became a homeowner myself in 1974. My father was born in North Portland and owned our home for many years before personal crime forced he and my mother (who was crippled by a stroke) to move to Vancouver, Washington, where my husband, my children and I eventually moved.
One notable error that seems to continue is saying that our neighborhood was “Black and white working class.” My father was a professional and there were white doctors and lawyers and business people all throughout the neighborhood. It has always galled me that this erroneous attitude started and now continues.
The crimes which were of a personal nature—molestation, robbery, burglary, all with guns—continued to worsen as I purchased my home with my husband. As a child, being chased home by girl gangs, and other personal incidents, finally made the neighborhood intolerable for even those as tolerant and liberal as my parents.
At one point, everyone’s parents—including the nuns and priests from the convent and rectory at Holy Redeemer Parish and School on what was once Portland Boulevard but is now Rosa Parks Way—had been robbed at gunpoint. I could list lesser crimes such as my father’s car constantly being broken into, even though it was always parked on our property.
We had wonderful Black friends who hated the conditions in our neighborhood as much as we did. Our neighborhood could be described as mixed race starting in the late 1960s through the 1970s and into the 1980s. When someone bought a house and fixed it up, nobody cared what color they were. If they were nice and cared about the neighborhood, everyone was happy.
However, when crime discouraged good people from living in the neighborhood, flight of both Blacks and Whites became common. Who can live someplace knowing—as the police said to my parents after they were once again robbed at gunpoint on the sidewalk leading to their home—“we can tell you one thing for sure: they’ll be back.”?
Piedmont was a happy and safe place for many years in my childhood, for everyone. Crimes that my parents had endured in Piedmont with no attention or care given made front-page headlines in The Oregonian when it happened in the West Hills to prominent people such as the mother of the owner of Columbia Sportswear, Gert Boyle. [According to Wikipedia, “In 2010, she was tied up at gunpoint by an armed robber in her home in West Linn, Oregon.”] I felt terrible but had to pause and sadly remember that the same exact thing had happened twice to my parents and nobody cared at all.
I am glad that the truth about my very loved childhood home is coming to light. There is nothing worse that the years of articles in The Oregonian in which a reporter who is new to the city writes an article so full of error about a place that he/she obviously knows nothing about and does not care to check for mistakes. Piedmont is such a beautiful neighborhood with amazing impressive homes. I am considered elderly now, and driving through and seeing someone actually care for and love these stately homes like the one in which I grew up makes me so happy.
Of course, it is never good to be forced out of one’s home. I have a family member right now who was renting a house that is now being sold and is being forced out of the home and neighborhood she loved here in Vancouver, Washington. Finding an affordable home seems to be a fleeting dream now for so many.
We have a crisis, for sure, but to call what is going on in Portland “Gentrification” is flat-out wrong in my opinion. It’s Revitalization, and those of us who grew up there are, to a person, happy that the beautiful neighborhoods of our childhoods can once again be places of peace, harmony and beauty.
After I posted Jean’s story, she shared a pretty wonderful coincidence:
Funny thing: My first phone number as a kid in Piedmont was “AT 2-8472” which was short for “Atlantic”—so it stands that a publication like The Atlantic would take an interest. 😀
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.]
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.
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.
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.
We find significant heterogeneity in the effects of gentrification across neighborhoods and subpopulations [in Philly from 2002 to 2014]. Residents in gentrifying neighborhoods have slightly higher mobility rates than those in nongentrifying neighborhoods, but they do not have a higher risk of moving to a lower-income neighborhood. Moreover, gentrification is associated with some positive changes in residents’ financial health as measured by individuals’ credit scores. However, when more vulnerable residents (low-score, longer-term residents, or residents without mortgages) move from gentrifying neighborhoods, they are more likely to move to lower-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods with lower values on quality- of-life indicators. The results reveal the nuances of mobility in gentrifying neighborhoods and demonstrate how the positive and negative consequences of gentrification are unevenly distributed.
Lastly, I just came across the wonderfully named odoka.org, or the Oregon Department of Kick Ass, that houses the work of Portland artist Vanessa Renwick, who created the two signs seen above. She also put together a video installation called “The House of Sound,” about a local record store of the same name that went out of business years ago. Here’s part of the installation, which shows all kinds of scenes from the area of Portland we’ve been most talking about so far:
In the 1950s, Williams Avenue had the most significant concentration of blacks living in Portland. In the late ‘50s, pushing an ‘urban renewal’ policy and exercising the power of eminent domain, the Portland City Council condemned almost the entire neighborhood to replace it with the Memorial Coliseum, Rose Quarter and Emmanuel Hospital. With film and an edited 5-hour radio show dedicated to the memory of the House of Sound record store, this installation is a eulogy for the former community center and for all the places up and down the street that used to fill those empty lots, now unrecognizable as mixed-use, high-rise hyper-urban development.
A cozy living room features couches and a turntable where visitors are welcome to make themselves at home among the vinyl collections of the previous century. Beyond, votive candles surround the iconic storefront sign, ‘House of Sound’ in distinctive lettering and decorated with musical notes, while at the back of the room a screen portrays black and white images of the desolated neighborhood after the December 31, 2008 demolition of the building that housed the record store and cultural heart of Portland’s historic black neighborhood.
Another reader also touches upon a lost part of Portland’s music scene:
Your coverage of this issue has been fantastic and I hope my story for Flux Magazine about Albina’s once thriving jazz district [and his short documentary seen below, produced by Christina Belasco] can be added to the conversation. My name is Reuben Unrau and I am a journalist based in Chicago. I grew up in Portland and have long been interested in the issue of gentrification in my city. During my senior year at the University of Oregon, I collaborated with a photographer and videographer to tell the story of the rise and fall of Albina’s bustling jazz scene during the 1950s and ‘60s. Here is an excerpt from my article:
North Williams Avenue was the hub of all the late-night action in Portland—the epicenter of an integrated, around-the-clock spectacle of swing dancers, be-boppers, and street hustlers. The musicians of the 1950s and ’60s who came to play there affectionately called it “The Stem.” Clubs like Fraternal Hall, Jackie’s, McLendon’s Rhythm Room, and Paul’s Paradise lined the avenue and attracted such talent as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Louis Armstrong. “It was happening,” says drummer Ron Steen, who launched his music career at the tail end of Albina’s jazz heyday during the 1960s. “People from out of town would come up and couldn’t believe the energy. They said they’d never seen anything like this in other cities.
But a series of urban renewal projects, namely the construction of Interstate 5 and the Memorial Coliseum, destroyed many of the black businesses and music venues in the area. For my article I talked to musicians and club owners who grew up in the area. They reflect on their time in Albina and talk about the changes they have experienced in their neighborhood. “It was devastating,” Steen says of Albina’s changing landscape. “To me, that was like a death in the family.”
This story brings to light the intersection of gentrification/urban development and music. Jazz was not only the language of the black residents of Albina, it also promoted integration in an otherwise highly segregated city. White residents from other neighborhoods would come to Albina on the weekends to check out the music.
“The people who went there went there for the music, and that was the common denominator,” says Robert Dietsche, a jazz historian and author of Jumptown: The Golden Age of Portland Jazz, 1942-1957. “They didn’t realize what they were doing, but they were on the cutting edge of integration.”
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:
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.
Last year, city officials announced that a different store, Natural Grocers, would be built on the vacant lot—and that the development plan would also include building affordable housing on another city-owned lot nearby, addressing activists’ concerns about local residents’ displacement.
Meanwhile, St. Johns, the North Portland neighborhood where I grew up—historically blue-collar and racially diverse, though seemingly segregated from street to street—has been gentrifying rapidly too. The change is signified by the New Seasons, a regional, more affordable version of Whole Foods, that just opened up a few blocks from my parents’ house, replacing the short-lived, shuttered diner that had replaced a long-vacant McDonald’s. My mom, who’s been waiting for years for the stores nearby to carry more organic meat and produce, is thrilled. Yet she’s noticed the Fred Meyer supermarket around the corner has phased out its fish sauce and canned coconut milk, and drastically reduced its soy-sauce selection. What used to be a full aisle of affordable Asian and Hispanic foods has been cut down to about six feet of shelf space. To compete with New Seasons, a clerk told her, Fred Meyer has changed its stock—getting rid of brands targeted at local minority populations, while expanding its range of pricier, health-conscious products favored by young white professionals.
“It’s like they’ve segregated us,” my mom says, half laughing, about the shrinking shelf space. Of course, it’s complicated: She hasn’t made a habit of buying her soy sauce at Fred Meyer for years. Instead, she drives out to East Portland or Beaverton to stock up at the Asian stores, where the soy sauce and patis—Filipino fish sauce—comes cheaper and in bulk. Still, Fred Meyer, where the cashiers know her face and remember her college-age son as a toddler, is where she goes every week for convenience, when she wants to stay close to home. It’s where she used to shop when she had young children and no time to drive out to the suburbs, and where she’d have to shop now if she didn’t have a car or an artist’s flexible work schedule. It’s a neighborhood store, and that’s the point: Beyond the question of soy sauce, what cutting back on Latino brands means in an area with a growing Latino population is that this supermarket is failing to reflect its neighborhood, which makes my mom—and me—worry that it may be failing to serve those neighbors.
Where do you shop for food? Does your grocery store help you feel connected to your neighborhood? Do you prioritize convenience or cost? Foods that fit your culture or lifestyle? When a supermarket opens up in a food desert, how should it work to serve the existing community? We’d like to hear your thoughts at email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org). 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 America—relevant 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:
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:
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.
We moved from the area before I hit middle school, but I can confirm many of the points in the article. Rentals proliferated through the neighborhood. The area was still rough when we lived there. Police presence was constant, and it wasn’t until we moved that I realized constant police presence isn’t a thing in all neighborhoods. Once in a blue moon there were gunshots at night. My parents gave me lectures about not picking up trash and avoiding the used needles that littered public spaces. I vividly remember an incident when the police sealed off our entire block and ended up pursuing a fleeing man directly through our backyard.
But there was definitely a community there. It was a mix of black and working-class white people who seemed to get along in a day-to-day sense.
I often wonder what became of our old neighbors. Several adjacent properties were owned by black people who seemed to be just holding steady. With property prices in that area increasing about 10x since then, I wonder if they could even afford the taxes for their places if they stayed.
Honestly, though, I don’t know if the breakup of the Albina black enclaves in Portland could have been prevented in any way. Portland in general is increasingly hostile to native populations from a financial standpoint. It’s overrun with wealthy tech money that dwarfs what used to be there. I recently visited part of my old neighborhood, and it’s a romping ground for Audis, Teslas, and people who buy $200 bottles of wine for dinner.
Myself and my extended family were long ago shoved out into the suburbs. Race aside, nobody with a “normal” job can afford to buy property in many locations mentioned in the article. I don’t know exactly what people think could have been done to “preserve” the neighborhood, other than making some sort of bizarre reverse-racism law that only allowed people of a certain race to live there.
The real problem in Portland for working-class people of all colors is a lack of affordable housing. And the city’s response to that has been typically bureaucratic and inept.
Here’s one more reader emphasizing class:
I lived in Portland in the 1970s and have a child who lives there now. Urban renewal was not motivated by race; it was motivated by money. If you lived in a cute or interesting neighborhood and someone with more money came along and wanted to live there too, they got to stay and you had to go.
I had to leave Portland because I did not have the money or the job to stay. I had lived there for four years. The first year I lived within six blocks of the medical school, but by my last year of living in “Portland,” I lived in Tigard. I could have either lived in Tigard or I could have lived in Gresham. I was not pushed out of the downtown area because of my race; I was pushed out because of money.
If you have also lived in Albina and want to provide any contrasting views and experiences, please drop us a note. Update from a reader, Rob:
Gang violence is something no one in Portland talks about. Outside of having a gang-related task-force team with the police, you would never know.
One question that arises from Alana’s article: Does gentrification ever increase opportunity for poor residents? Definitely, according to Lance Freeman, the director of the Urban Planning program at Columbia. In an email he sent me last summer for a piece on gentrification, Freeman described some of the upsides:
Gentrification brings new amenities and services that benefit not only the newcomers but long term residents too. Full-service supermarkets that carry fresh produce, restaurants where residents could dine in, and well-maintained parks are often lacking in poor neighborhoods prior to gentrification. For long-term residents who are able to stay, either due to housing subsidies, owning their home, or their own earning capacity improving, these changes are often appreciated.
And most residents are able to stay, at least according to a 2004 study that Freeman conducted with economist Frank Braconi; they found that low-income African Americans in New York City were more likely to remain in gentrifying neighborhoods than stagnant ones. They noted similar findings in Boston. And here’s how my colleague Yoni Appelbaum, in a post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, summarized another study, from the University of Colorado-Boulder: “In plain English, they’re arguing that gentrification isn’t forcing people out; it’s bringing in yuppies and hipsters, and hanging on to upwardly-mobile minority households that would otherwise have decamped for the suburbs.”
In the case of Portland, whose black residents were historically confined to one area, wouldn’t the displacement of many Albina renters out to “The Numbers”—the city’s low-income outer neighborhoods, which are historically white—have, at minimum, a silver lining of more racial integration? And middle-class African Americans who own their homes in Albina are likely to remain, thus blending with the middle-class newcomers of all backgrounds. (More than 26 percent of Portland residents are not classified “white” or “black.”) That sort of gentrification—black neighborhoods becoming more white and white neighborhoods becoming more black, with at least more investment in Albina, if not The Numbers—seems like the least bad outcome.
The risk, in my mind, is if the movement of people and money occurs too quickly, without reasonable measures in place to mitigate mass displacement (e.g. rent control, government-subsidized housing, Section 8 vouchers). A 2015 report by Governing magazine determined that Portland is, in fact, the fastest-gentrifying city in the U.S.—something that should give everyone pause.
Do you have any strong views about gentrification, especially as it relates to Portland? Let us know. Update from a reader:
I’ve lived in the Portland area for 36 years, except for a short stint in the Midwest. I grew up in a multi-racial family, and my wife is African American. Alana Semuels’s portrayal of Portland is overly simplified. The gentrification she describes was not targeted at black people specifically; it targeted blighted areas, which were poor and largely black.
It was also happenstance the areas which received urban renewal initiatives were those closest to the downtown core. Part of the reason those areas got attention first was because of the crack epidemic of the late ‘80s; inner northeast Portland was a shooting gallery. If Lents (SE PDX) had gang violence, maybe it would have gotten gentrified and valuable. But it didn’t, so it remains white, poor, and ignored—as does a lot of the area near 60th and Killingsworth.
Urban renewal first happened in Northwest Portland, which is now a stomping ground for trustafarians from out of state. Nobody calls that gentrification though, because that area was mostly industrial and white before urban renewal. Nobody forced anyone to move from these areas, black or white. The real estate became valuable though, excessively so. Part of the reason is because of the restrictive land-use laws in this state. [This article from a progressive local paper and this opinion piece from The Oregonian blame Portland's housing crisis on its urban growth boundary, which Rosa has noted in passing before.]
What Semuels’s article doesn’t capture is the fact there is virtually no black middle class in Portland or in Oregon generally. There is an upper class, then very poor. The reason many of the very poor got pushed out “to the numbers” is because they don’t own their homes, or they sold them. They got pushed to an area in unincorporated Multnomah County, which already had other poor people and has been ignored by Portland City Hall for decades. The only development in that area in 30 years has been the MAX line and subsidized housing. Housing in inner NE PDX became too valuable, so anyone on Section 8 got pushed out east.
One more reader:
Your reader said: “With property prices in that area increasing about 10x since then, I wonder if [black homeowners in Albina] could even afford the taxes for their places if they stayed.” I have paid Portland property taxes and know that greatly increasing values do not lead to greatly increasing taxes. That is generally not a way for a property owned to be forced out. Here’s some information:
Our Goofy Property Tax System
. . . The answer lies in Measure 47, passed in 1996 (and slightly modified by Measure 50, a legislative referral passed by voters in 1997). Measure 47/50 said that the assessed value, for tax purposes, of a given piece of property cannot increase by more than 3% a year from its 1995 assessment, no matter how much the actual value of the property is going up. In Portland, property values in some recently gentrified areas, especially in North and Northeast Portland, have skyrocketed, far more than 3% a year on average since 1995. That means that property owners in those areas are paying very low tax rates—far lower than $10 per thousand real market value for cities and counties and $5 for schools.
Meanwhile, property values in outer Southeast Portland, for example, generally have not gone up very much, so many property owners in that area are paying the maximum -- they are “in compression.” In some cases, the differences are startling: you can literally have one property owner in the outer East Side paying $3,000 in taxes on a house that is actually worth $200,000, and someone in inner Northeast paying $600 in taxes on a house worth $300,000.
Further, unlike in some parts of the country, when a property in Portland sells, there is no change to the property tax. It’s a non-event for property tax purposes. The new owner simply begins paying what the old owner was paying, until the next scheduled 3% annual increase comes around.
For continued reading on Albina, a reader recommends a history published in 1993 by the Portland Bureau of Planning:
As someone who lived in Portland for years, and now lives elsewhere in Oregon, I was glad to read the article by Alana Semuels. One book I would recommend to anyone who wants to read about this history at greater length would be Portland’s Albina Community, available online from Multnomah County. Despite the provenance, it’s unvarnished. It dates from the ’90s, though, before gentrification, when Albina was still two-thirds black and had a different set of problems.
Another reader points to a much older chapter in Portland’s history:
I’ve been an Oregonian my whole life, and can attest to Semuels’s article. I’ve been doing some work on local history, and something that may be worth bringing up is the foundation of the Portland Police, largely by James H. Lappeus.
Lappeus was a former soldier that, after the Mexican-American War, helped form other veterans in 1849 into the Hounds. To quote a 1920 article by Rockwell Hunt, “In short, the Hounds were a band of desperadoes, or public robbers, who committed repeated aggressions and offenses upon the people of San Francisco under the flimsy pretense of opposition to foreigners, given colors by General Persifer Smith’s declared intention of driving off all foreigners. The gang paralyzed the town with terror.” Hunt gives too much credit to the Committee of Vigilance that expelled the Hounds, but several of the Hounds—Lappeus included—went to Portland. Lappeus, as noted, started the Portland Police.
The distant infrastructure in a relatively unpopulated part of the nation ended up continuing to be a good-old-boy infrastructure with more than a little splash of white criminal activity (see [crime boss] Jim Elkins, for instance). The perception that the police, and general infrastructure, in Portland is racist is a historic fact. The only way to really change it is to recognize and address it. There has been movement to that direction, but it has—and will be—slow going.
Why have Republican leaders abandoned their principles in support of an immoral and dangerous president?
On a cold March afternoon in 1949, Wolfgang Leonhard slipped out of the East German Communist Party Secretariat, hurried home, packed what few warm clothes he could fit into a small briefcase, and then walked to a telephone box to call his mother. “My article will be finished this evening,” he told her. That was the code they had agreed on in advance. It meant that he was escaping the country, at great risk to his life.
Though only 28 years old at the time, Leonhard stood at the pinnacle of the new East German elite. The son of German Communists, he had been educated in the Soviet Union, trained in special schools during the war, and brought back to Berlin from Moscow in May 1945, on the same airplane that carried Walter Ulbricht, the leader of what would soon become the East German Communist Party. Leonhard was put on a team charged with re‑creating Berlin’s city government.
Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.
It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president's visit outside St. John's Church. I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump's leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.
Whatever Trump's goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.
The president’s photo op outside St. John’s Church was emblematic of his appeal to the religious right.
He wielded the Bible like a foreign object, awkwardly adjusting his grip as though trying to get comfortable. He examined its cover. He held it up over his right shoulder like a crossing guard presenting a stop sign. He did not open it.
“Is that your Bible?” a reporter asked.
“It’s a Bible,” the president replied.
Even by the standards of Donald Trump’s religious photo ops, the dissonance was striking. Moments earlier, he had stood in the Rose Garden and threatened to unleash the military on unruly protesters. He used terms such as anarchy and domestic terror, and vowed to “dominate the streets.” To clear the way for his planned post-speech trip to St. John’s Church, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators.
The president is stuck in a vicious downward spiral.
We are in the Götterdämmerung now, the final phase of the Trump era. We began with the axis of adults that imperfectly constrained him. We then entered the age of hubris and action during which he systematically rid himself of the adults and was free to follow his whims. The third phase was the reckoning as he began to bump up against the contradictions of his own approach, on China and Iran in particular. Now we have finally arrived at the long-feared crisis and unraveling.
For three chaotic years, Donald Trump muddled through, at least in the eyes of Republicans, buoyed by the strong economy he inherited from his predecessor and powered forward by the long GOP wish list, which included, among many items, judicial appointments, deregulation, and the undoing of the Iran nuclear deal. Virtually every consequential and sympathetic analysis of the Trump administration, though, included a caveat: A serious crisis would upend any Republican progress and test the ill-equipped and vindictive president. Deep down, we all hoped the country would get lucky and slip through these four years without a paradigm-changing incident. But if luck is earned, we had no right to it.
To be black and conscious of anti-black racism is to stare into the mirror of your own extinction.
It happened three months before the lynching of Isadora Moreley in Selma, Alabama, and two months before the lynching of Sidney Randolph near Rockville, Maryland.
On May 19, 1896, TheNew York Times allocated a single sentence on page three to reporting the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Constitutionalizing Jim Crow hardly made news in 1896. There was no there there. Americans already knew that equal rights had been lynched; Plessy was just the silently staged funeral.
Another racial text—published by the nation’s premier social-science organization, the American Economic Association, and classified by the historian Evelynn Hammonds as “one of the most influential documents in social science at the turn of the 20th century”—elicited more shock in 1896.
On who looters are, what they want, and why some protests are more likely to include them
For many Americans watching the country erupt in protests, the looting is the rub. Over the past week, thousands of people have taken to the streets in cities across the United States to denounce institutional racism and police violence after a Minneapolis man named George Floyd died when a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. But the breaking of windows, burning of property, and stealing of goods that has accompanied peaceful demonstrations make somepeople hesitant to throw their full support behind the protesters.
As protests multiply, uncertainty abounds—and Trump is using it to frighten Americans far from any violence.
Like most Americans, I am nowhere near any violence right now. Nevertheless, I am hearing and seeing violence on a series of screens: television screens, smartphone screens, computer screens. Even in a room as quiet as mine—outside the window I can see grass and trees—the cacophony is almost unbearable. It’s as if different choruses are all singing at the same time, and not in harmony.
In Salt Lake City, police knocked down an elderly man who was walking with a cane. In New York City, two police SUVs drove into a crowd. In Houston, on the other hand, the police chief told a multiracial crowd, “If you’ve got hate in your heart for people of color, get over it.” In Camden, New Jersey, police officers marched together with protesters. On Sunday, rioters in Washington, D.C., burned shops and lit a fire in the refectory of St. John’s Episcopal Church, just across Lafayette Square from the White House. On Monday, completely peaceful demonstrators in the square were teargassed so President Donald Trump could have himself photographed in front of that same church with a copy of the Bible in hand.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
Clyde Ross was born in 1923, the seventh of 13 children, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the blues. Ross’s parents owned and farmed a 40-acre tract of land, flush with cows, hogs, and mules. Ross’s mother would drive to Clarksdale to do her shopping in a horse and buggy, in which she invested all the pride one might place in a Cadillac. The family owned another horse, with a red coat, which they gave to Clyde. The Ross family wanted for little, save that which all black families in the Deep South then desperately desired—the protection of the law.
In the 1920s, Jim Crow Mississippi was, in all facets of society, a kleptocracy. The majority of the people in the state were perpetually robbed of the vote—a hijacking engineered through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob. Between 1882 and 1968, more black people were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state.
The pandemic has exposed the bitter terms of our racial contract, which deems certain lives of greater value than others.
Six weeks ago, Ahmaud Arbery went out and never came home. Gregory and Travis McMichael, who saw Arbery running through their neighborhood just outside of Brunswick, Georgia, and who told authorities they thought he was a burglary suspect, armed themselves, pursued Arbery, and then shot him dead.
The nationwide protests against police killings have been called un-American by critics, but rebellion has always been used to defend liberty.
Since the beginning of this country, riots and violent rhetoric have been markers of patriotism. When our Founding Fathers fought for independence, violence was the clarion call. Phrases such as “Live free or die,” “Give me liberty or give me death,” and “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” echoed throughout the nation, and continue today. Force and violence have always been used as weapons to defend liberty, because—as John Adams once said in reference to the colonists’ treatment by the British—“We won’t be their Negroes.”
Black rebellion and protest, though, have historically never been coupled with allegiance to American democracy. Today, peaceful demonstrations and violent riots alike have erupted across the country in response to police brutality and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Yet the language used to refer to protesters has included looters, thugs, and even claims that they are un-American. The philosophy of force and violence to obtain freedom has long been employed by white people and explicitly denied to black Americans.