« The Socialization of Bureaucracies | Main | The Exploitation of Guestworkers in the United States »

The Rose City by Any Other Name Still Smells Like Segregation: Gentrification in Portland

An excellent research paper by Maggie Hodges Fall 2009

I admit it, I am a Californian transplant. Unable to afford the rising housing trends of my home state, I moved northward where rumors of better prospects existed. When I asked locals where I would be able to buy a house in the Portland Metro area, I was unanimously directed (by whites) to what was referred to as "the Ghetto," or the inner Northeast. I was informed that there was a revival of areas where the prices were cheap and the neighborhoods were on the "up and up."

After researching the history of the development of Portland, I now understand that "up and up" is code word for where young white professionals are buying up houses and remodeling the neighborhoods to reflect aspects of affluent white culture -yoga studios, art galleries, trendy hole-in-the-wall fine dining establishments, hipster coffee shops, and baby boutiques. This paper is an outsider's view on the history of gentrification in Portland's Northeast neighborhoods and the impacts on the longtime residents of the black community.

The ITS Geography Dictionary & Glossary defines gentrification as "the renovation of the housing fabric in an old, usually inner-city area, when more affluent groups displace lower income groups en masse over a relatively short period of time. May be triggered by a clear event such as the improvement or provision of a better transport link, or by something less tangible such as a fashion trend taking off in the housing market" (ITS, 2009.) Elizabeth Kirkland writes "in urban lore, the pre-gentrified neighborhood is inhabited mostly by African Americans or other people of color when the rumblings of change begin, and the rumblers are typically white--white, upper middle-class, professional homebuyers, displacing the original residents" in her article 'What's Race Got to Do With it? Looking for the Racial Dimensions of Gentrification' (Kirkland, 2008).

Through these processes, it is no far leap to surmises how gentrification could in fact re-enforce segregation as housing prices escalate and trendy consumer culture drives away cornerstone community businesses. Unable to afford rising costs, families move farther out to cheaper areas, which in effect dissolves the core of all neighborhoods- community. "As black residents leave the central areas of Portland and Seattle for the suburbs -- either because they have sold their homes or been forced out by higher rents -- their community is being splintered by geographic dispersal and racial integration" (Harden, 2006).

In class discussions we learned the importance of social structure on the maintenance of culture and how social institutions re-enforce our connection to culture. So if the social institution of Economy drives families and communities apart to different geographical areas, the culture as was defined prior will be in risk of losing power over identity of not just the culture at large, but of the individual as well. The loss of identity sparks depression, low self esteem, and isolation. In many ways, this can be seen as a means of controlling a specific population by stripping away aspects of power. Isolation in itself defies organization, which is a fundamental pillar of social change.

Last winter I took a job as a holiday delivery helper for UPS. The Mississippi/Emanuel Legacy Hospital is Curtis's (the driver) route. Curtis is a tall, thin, black man whose family moved to Portland in the mid-50's from the "deep south." He grew up in the neighborhoods where we were delivering packages and I was amazed at how many people he knew on a personal level. He called the elderly by their formal last names, who in turn greeted him with lifelong familiarity and called out greetings to pass to his family members. He pointed out cousins, childhood friends, teachers, old neighbors, old sweethearts, and congregation leaders of his past. And it was through Curtis that I learned Oregon was still segregated until 1964.

He told me about how he couldn't go into stores, movie houses, or restaurants when he was a young man and how it made him feel frustrated and angry, and yet it was perceived as normal at the time. He told me how the neighborhoods had changed and how many people had moved to other areas of Portland, including himself due to inflating housing costs. He embodied what I now recognize as a communal story of black displacement in Northeast Portland. As more white people move into these neighborhoods, that web of community is littered with gaps of connection and replaced with suspicion, doubt, and even a lack of introduction.

I have since moved into Northeast Portland over the last month and have literally not met a single neighbor on my street. And as I grow to understand the history on how parts of Portland became black communities, there is a deep sadness attached to my time with Curtis because I understand now that these communities were forced into these specific places, however, in these areas there was a vast network of family and extended family to serve as culture informers and a framework of support. And these communities had been thriving.

When Oregon became a state of the Union in 1859, the state constitution excluded the right of admittance and establishment of black Americans. This remained state law for more than 60 years (Yardley, 2008). In 1943, the "first influx of African American families moved into cramped quarters in the Guild's Lake district and... into the new wartime housing project at Vanport" to work in the shipping yards (Robbins, 2002). In the flood in 1948, Vanport- which had been the second largest city in all of Oregon- was under 15 feet of water and thousands of low income dock workers, both white and black, were suddenly homeless (McGregor, 2003).

Portland had restrictions on who could rent what and where. Ridiculously enough, this was written in what was called the real estate industry's "Code of Ethics," which forced black people into the Albina area of Portland (McGregor, 2003). If you were black, you could not rent or buy a home in any other area of the city aside from the Albina district. This was built into law and re-enforced by deed restrictions, bank loans, and policing. Even once the "Code of Ethics" had been amended to repeal these restrictions, in "1960, when over 10,000 African Americans lived in the city, 73 percent of them were still huddled together in Albina.  Because of this concentration, Portland's schools were as segregated as Alabama's" (McGregor, 2003).

It wasn't too long until the city of Portland began increasing the density of residents to smaller neighborhoods by reclaiming areas for urban renewal, beginning with the construction of the coliseum of the Rose Quarter in 1956 (Hyatt-Evenson and Griffith, 2002). The city claimed the housing in this area was substandard, and presumably the people living there too. If the norms of a culture, in this instance white elite Portland developers, is to regard the black community as insignificant, than the range of acceptable behavior is to ignore or possibly even fail to acknowledge the impact of literally wiping out neighborhoods for the sake of a sports arena. It is highly possible that the attitude atmosphere at the time was one of complete ignorance and lack of caring towards the displacement of black residents. William Toll outlines the city's continual moves against the black community over the next twenty years of development:

"Between 1956 and the early 1970s a series of massive construction projects decimated the Albina district. In 1956 voters approved bonds to build the Memorial Coliseum, which was located on the oldest portion of the neighborhood. In the 1960s the interstate highway to Seattle was routed away from downtown Portland to the east bank of the Willamette River through central Albina. In the 1970s Emanuel Hospital expanded to absorb still more housing, and construction began on the Fremont Bridge. Its ramps to Interstate-5 shredded the southern end of Albina, pushing still more black families to the northeast (Toll, 2003)."

And Portland isn't the only city to take such actions against the black community. Birmingham, between 1926 and the mid 1970's, zoned and constructed highways directly through the center of black neighborhoods to perpetuate racial segregation (Connerly, 2009). This was happening to black communities all over the nation- it was purposeful and damaging to the integrity of the established neighborhoods.

So it is no wonder why in the 1980's so much of the inner Northeast of Portland was falling into disrepair and abandonment with empty lots and boarded up houses. The people who had been living here had been forced to relocate multiple times! With so many empty houses, the property values of the neighborhoods fell which attracted many developer's eyes. "In the mid to late 1980's, it was possible to buy houses in Portland that were in sound condition for under $30,000" (Howe, 2004: 187). However, the unwritten policy of banks financing mortgages set the loan minimum to $25,000, as such, "someone who could qualify to buy a $25,000 car could not obtain a loan for a $16,000 house. It was a system of red lining without the red lines (Lane, 1990)" (Howe, 2004:193).

The 1990's brought more of the me's (that is Californians) to Portland in the form of Dot-Commer's (not me) who were young, 20-34, with pockets full of fast made money. This influx of population drove prices higher, and moderate to low income families weren't able to participate in the property purchasing. "Between 1990 and 1996 housing prices rose so rapidly that north and northeast neighborhoods saw prices double and in some places triple" (Gibson and Abbott, 2002) (Seltzer, 2004:69). With African American homeownership growing only 1.6% compared with white homeownership's 6.9% increase in the 1990's, it is clear that the accumulation of equity in the form of property was slanted toward white favor (Howe, 2004:190-191). This directly affects the social class and social stratification placement of the large group of black families that could not afford to purchase a home, and as we discussed in class, the access to control over resources is closely tied to power and prestige. These neighborhoods were primed for the reverse of white flight in the form of white flood. And as I write this from my apartment just off of Mississippi Ave, I know I am part of the problem facing the black community in Portland.

So what is to be done regarding gentrification in Portland? There are many currently working on this issue. The Restorative Listening Project is designed to provide the opportunity for those affected by gentrification to engage in dialogue with the "gentrifiers" in an effort to establish an understanding of the experienced impact. How much will this help? I can't imagine it will stop gentrification or black displacement but it may provide an awareness to the white people moving into these historically black neighborhoods. As for me, when the time comes to buy a house, I think I will look into other areas of Portland. Until then, it's about time I meet the neighbors and find a way to engage in the community around me. While I will always be considered "white," although it wasn't too long ago that my Hungarian ancestors were not, I can be considered a good neighbor and a part of the community.

Works Cited:
Connerly, Charles E. 2009. "From Racial Zoning to Community Empowerment: The Interstate Highway System and the African American Community in Birmingham, Alabama." Portland State University Urban Planning Department class notes.

Curtis, the UPS driver. 2008.

Harden, Blaine. 2006. "In Parts of U.S. Northwest, a Changing Face: Economics Drive White Gentrification of Core Black Neighborhoods of Seattle and Portland." The Washington Post. Monday, June 19.

Howe, Deborah. 2004. "The Reality of Portland's Housing Market." The Portland Edge: Challenges and Successes in Growing Communities. Edited by Connie P. Ozawa. Pages 184-205. Island Press: Washington, DC.

Hyatt-Evenson, Tania and Sarah Griffith. 2002. "Albina Residents Picket Emanuel Hospital." Oregon Historical Socitey. http://www.ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/historical_records/dspDocument.cfm?doc_ID=0004CBF8-16F2-1ECD-A42A80B05272006C

ITS Tutorial School. 2009. " 'G' , Geography Dictionary." http://www.tuition.com.hk/geography/g.htm

Kirkland, Elizabeth. 2008. "What's Race Got to Do With it? Looking for the Racial Dimensions of Gentrification." The Western Journal of Black Studies. 32(2):18-30.

McGregor, Michael. 2003. "The Vanport Flood & Racial Change in Portland." Oregon Historical Society. http://www.ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/learning_center/dspResource.cfm?resource_ID=000BC26B-EE5A-1E47-AE5A80B05272FE9F

Robbins, William G. 2002. "Cramped Quarters." Oregon Historical Society. http://www.ohs.org/the-oregon-history-project/narratives/this-land-oregon/oregon-depression-war/cramped-quarters.cfm

Seltzer, Ethan. 2004. "It's Not an Experiment: Regional Planning at Metro, 1990 to the Present." The Portland Edge: Challenges and Successes in Growing Communities. Edited by Connie P. Ozawa. Pages 184-205. Island Press: Washington, DC.

Toll, William. 2003. "Subtopic : Portland Neighborhoods, 1960s-Present: Race and Progressive Resistance." Oregon Historical Society. http://www.ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/narratives/subtopic.cfm?subtopic_ID=220

Wolf, Rowan. 2009. SOC 204 class discussions and notes.

Yardley, William. 2008. "Racial Shift in a Progressive City Spurs Talks", New York Times. http://www.srwolf.com/wolfsoc/articlearchives/2008/06/racial_shift_in_a_progressive.html