Urban Renewal, Negro Removal

Back in May of this year, I posted on Facebook and wrote, “A sobering, disturbing, significant article. While gentrification is a complex reality, we must work diligently to partner with vulnerable communities so that they are not displaced/replaced.”  The article itself begins with the words, “Portland, already the whitest major city in the country, has become whiter at its core even as surrounding areas have grown more diverse…Nearly 10,000 people of color, mostly African Americans, also moved out. They moved to the city’s eastern edges, where sidewalks, grocery stores and access to public transit is limited.”

One of my Facebook friends wrote, “Help me understand what white people are doing wrong, Paul. (I don’t like looking at things with ‘color’ in mind to begin with—isn’t this more a basic issue of economics?) If they move out to the suburbs it’s bad. If they live in the inner city it’s bad. What is the problem and what solutions do you propose?”  These are great questions.

I intended to respond in May, but then my Dad passed away.  I have not had the opportunity or emotional strength to write this piece until now.  I would like to begin with remarks made by Paul Kurth, who also wrote me in May in response to my post.  Paul is a designer at a Portland architecture firm.  Paul argued, “Architecturally, the city is an evolving organism and must change to survive—some buildings and neighborhoods get worn out and need to be fixed, but after reconstruction the neighborhood isn’t the same because it’s hard to make new buildings affordable without subsidies. Good city planning mixes uses and income levels. Affordable housing should be built alongside the more expensive homes. The segregation of higher income areas (the Pearl District) isn’t helping to ease economic tensions/imbalance. It’s up to the people who have the means and choice to make changes to integrate their own lives with people who are different than themselves and don’t have many choices.”

Sometimes we don’t determine to integrate our lives with people who are different because of lack of bandwidth and/or interest.  Sometimes we aren’t even aware of gentrification’s evolution and negative impact on some vulnerable (yet resilient) communities.  But if we are really about community, we must be diligent to diversify.  While people are often well-intentioned who claim that we should not look at things with color in mind, the lack of awareness of color is problematic for various reasons.  For one, we are not color blind; nor should we be.  Attention to color is attentiveness to the richness of cultural diversity.  Moreover, we often associate with those who are most like us.  So, if we are not intentional, we will not engage those who are of different ethnic backgrounds, especially when they belong to a different economic demographic.  And in America, race and class issues often track with one another historically and presently.  While I appreciate people’s desire to be color blind in the sense of not prejudging people, we must be intentional and see people for who they are in the fullness of their ethnic and cultural identity, including the color of their skin, though not exclusively so.  Moreover, given how racial profiling often occurs today in unimaginable ways (such as the racial profiling of a student I know in Portland by a white police officer last spring), we would be blind to injustices if we sought to be blind to matters pertaining to the color of one’s skin.

Back to my Facebook friend’s concerns.  I have no problem with people of diverse ethnicities moving into or out of Portland’s heart.  What I have problems with is when it is against their will.  There used to be a thriving African American community in what is now the Rose Quarter.  Then the community was displaced to Northeast Portland as a result of city planning endeavors.  I doubt if city planners would ever restructure thriving affluent communities on the Northwest side of town for whatever the reason, if such restructuring would threaten to displace them.  Given the recent migration of young Bohemians with bistros and art studios to Northeast Portland, African Americans living there have been displaced to places like Gresham and Beaverton.

My friend Robert Wall, a former Portland government official, reflects on Portland’s patterns of gentrification: “In most of these cases the driving force is the planning process without the incentives to remain.  I find it interesting that in almost every redevelopment there are huge profits made. Most of these profits are funded by the set aside tax dollars paid by the land owners prior to the redevelopment. So, in part we have a planning problem and a greed problem that adds up to racial discrimination. It used to be called red-lining. Now it’s mainly green-lining (of someone else’s pocket).”  Mr. Wall maintains that whenever a few people benefit economically from decisions that they know negatively impact many, it is greed.  Doesn’t that sound like greed to you?

The African American church has been significantly impacted by this trend.  So, what can be done?

Sister churches of diverse ethnicity can partner with them to minister effectively in their increasingly diverse context by working with African American pastors and congregations to reach out in these increasingly diverse settings.  This may include doing service projects together in the community, or sending a team of people to the churches in the historically African American community who would become members of those African American churches.

Moreover, one can work with one’s neighbors to keep the community intact.  A friend of mine who lives in Northeast Portland worked with his neighbors to make sure that one family would not have to move when the cost of living and taxes rose.  That family switched houses with another family: the family who could no longer afford their house moved into their neighbors’ house that was more affordable, and those neighbors moved into theirs, which they were able to afford.  While this is not often possible for a variety of reasons, it became reality for this neighborhood.

It is also important to be in contact with one’s city commissioner and one’s neighborhood association, advocating for equality and diversity.  When neighbors partner together in this way, the possibility exists that unjust forms of gentrification will occur less often.

It is also critical that we make ourselves aware of past and present tensions.  One reason why Portland’s central city is so white is because it was intended to be so historically, as one African American pastor reasoned with me recently.  A friend who teaches urban studies at a local university informed me that for many African Americans urban renewal is Negro removal.  He often cites the expansion of Emmanuel Hospital in the 1970s as one such example (See discussion on this expansion and its impact).  Moreover, red lining along with city developments historically in thriving African American sections of town along with laws on the books in Oregon and Portland in days gone by certainly made it extremely difficult for African Americans to live in Portland and Oregon generally.  The impact of those decisions is still felt in the city, even though those laws are no longer in place.  With this long-standing impact in mind, we need to restructure our laws and neighborhoods so that people of diverse ethnicities will feel more welcome and their businesses can survive and thrive. (See one recent proposal).  Cities and states offer such benefits for thriving companies to move to their regions.  The same kinds of incentives should be offered to those communities and businesses that have been impacted negatively from various forms of gentrification and urban renewal.  While some might take the following statement by an African American business woman in Northeast Portland for sour grapes, I take it to be more in keeping with what occurred to the migrants in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, albeit in a less overt and more subtle manner: “A black person’s property has no value until a white person owns it.”  It’s so easy to try and deny her view when one is white.  But one cannot deny her experience, if one has not lived in her shoes.

This point on experience and interpretation of events also calls to mind the statement made at a public gathering in one Northeast Portland neighborhood a few years ago.  A group of young white business owners of cafes and bistros and other such shops were meeting to protest the impending attempt of Starbucks to enter the neighborhood.  Those gathered there were recent transplants, and they were afraid that Starbucks would hurt their businesses.  It was almost as if they were saying, “A small business owner’s property has no value until Starbucks owns it.”  One African American man standing in the back during the gathering finally spoke up and said something to the effect, “To the traditional community (African American), you are the Starbucks.”  So, it is.  I often am.  So, now that I know that I am will I become more sensitive, as Starbucks has been known to do in many cases, or will I keep on pouring lattes laced with opium for the masses?

7 Responses to “Urban Renewal, Negro Removal”

  1. Michael Coe Says:

    Provocative, Paul. As a white male from an upper middle class background, I have found that my awareness of issues of gentrification and the changing SE landscape within our cities only increases when I take the time to be reminded that for certain populations, these issues are ever-present. Added to this discussion is just what is the role of the church in countering policies and general ways of thinking held by those in political/economic power. Well done to keep these points in our hearts and minds.

  2. Paul Louis Metzger Says:

    Hello Michael,

    Thank you for your response. I appreciate your serious grappling with this subject. We will be dealing with related issues at The John 17:23 Network. It brings churches together to engage these subjects. The structural realities we are discussing have a bearing on such matters as gang activity, I believe. Displacement makes people increasingly vulnerable. We will be addressing the subject of gang violence tonight at our first autumn meeting of The John 17:23 Network.

  3. Cliff Chappell Says:

    Paul, thank you for writing such a thought provoking piece. So much of white America can’t even relate to this article and especially to the depth of the despair that racism and gentrification causes. The American Dream is always presented, but with the unpublished caveat “but not for you Blacks.” The Dream is waved in front of our faces but held just beyond our reach. This comes in many forms and the end result is high unemployment, violence, hopelessness, drug use, frustration, despair and depression. I know these conditions can be explained away by many whites, but try experiencing these just because of the color of your skin. That’s racism, and that’s what the Black Community and the Black Church must deal with every day.

  4. Gloria Young Says:

    Racism as with most ISMs is responded to in the same way as a disease; the immediate response is to eradicate it from our bodies and society. As with cancer, tumors or strokes or heart attacks – nobody wants it. Our society has been built on the foundation of racism and foundational habits are hard to break. Miracles abound when whites such as Dr. Paul Metzger, Robert Wall, Cooky Wall, and other whites take up the cause and act with their brothers and sisters of other ethnicities to raise these issues, provoke emotions, thoughts and actions, and allow for a cure.

  5. Joe Enlet Says:

    Thanks Paul. I was impacted by that comment about the African American lady where you said, “…one cannot deny her experience, if one has not lived in her shoes.” As I continue to think through these issues I am finding more and more how Christians (such as myself ) have become calloused to the plight of our fellow brothers and sisters who often get the short end of the stick in the name of development or progress. A reason why our hearts become calloused and we don’t care about others’ situations is because we do not live in their shoes nor are we even willing to take the time to know where they walk.

    I think that it takes getting to know other people in order to be more sensitive and compassionate to others. We need to make time and space for people and really walk with them in their shoes. We will realize that they are real people just like us. I agree that we should see people in a sense as color-blind so that we don’t judge and be prejudiced but we also need to see them as richly and particularly people of unique color.

    Getting to know people however can become tokenistic and harmful. Even in the church it is easy to hail the banner of “multi-ethnic” but make these ethnic peoples into charity cases or blank slates. Churches make them out to be people who ‘need us’ and are treated as ‘sub’-members of the community. They are there as a show to others that we are multi-ethnic or inclusive. Sometimes, colored people are a good commodity in the desire to be multi-ethnic because pluralism and diversity sell in our postmodern culture. It is often the case that churches try to include ethnic peoples in what they consider “our” churches, “our” services, “our” communities, “our” programs. When will the day come when people of color can say to their white counterparts in the community, “come and be part of “our” community, “our” services, “our” programs” ? Even in the church white Christians must relinquish their powerbrokering and their cornering the market on Christianity. We must come together white and non-white at the table of mutuality, solidarity, and a willingness to give up for the other. Maybe it starts with a simple: Hi, I’m Joe…what’s your name?

  6. Rachel O'Brien Halbach Says:

    Thanks Paul Louis Metzger. I live very near where Vanport used to exist. My community is economically homogeneous but ethnically diverse. Basic things keep the families divided, language barrier, culture and religion. I worry someday the land I live on will be deemed valuable and sold and my friends and neighbors will be displaced. I don’t like it but its true that that wouldn’t really negatively affect me, but others who I live with. I worry that every time we pay our rent, we draw that reality closer because we can afford to live here and afford to pay when our rent goes up. Our hope is to be with people, not outside their lives, looking for solutions to someone else’s problems, I want to own the issue, and have buy-in in my neighborhood with my neighbors, not over and against them. If our house is nicer and some one else has to move, that is a small failure. One thing I have noticed is how much pride my neighbors have in their home and neighborhood. Iit might not look like something to me worth caring about, it might seem worn out or cheap, but its theirs and that’s valuable. I appreciate the post, it encourages and convicts me.

  7. Bruce Ruffin Says:

    I found the article sobering but not surprising. I find the African-American and voices of other people left out of the conversation. Portland is a city of many different views and ideas, but it seems the white liberal is the only one heard. If you do not fit within the confines of those belief systems, you are often shunned and isolated.

    If Portland is to be the city of diversity, it must listen to the voices and interest of other groups not just cater to the white, liberal, and upper-class. Ultimately, I do not think the city really wants diversity.

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