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?