Portland’s — Portland’s! — Complicated Racial Legacy

Home in Portland’s Albina District.  Source: portlandrealestateblog.com

A common point made by urbanists when explaining the explosive growth of western cities since World War II is that, among other factors in their favor, they did not inherit the legacy of deep racial divides the way cities in the Northeast, Midwest and South did.  Coastal cities like Seattle, Portland and San Diego, and inland cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Denver did not have to deal with the complicated tangle of tensions that burdened and even stunted the growth potential of older American cities.  Presumably this allowed many western cities to focus on growth.

Closer to the truth is that western cities had every bit the racial legacy as the rest of the country, but were better at sweeping that legacy under the rug.

Via Urbanophile Aaron Renn (thanks, Aaron) I came across a paper published in the academic journal Transforming Anthropology in 2007.  The paper, titled Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment, 1940-2000 and written by Portland State University urban studies professor Karen J. Gibson, details the systematic discrimination, segregation, disinvestment and subsequent gentrification of Portland’s small black community.  The paper’s abstract:

Portland, Oregon is celebrated in the planning literature as one of the nation’s most livable cities, yet there is very little scholarship on its small, Black community.  Using Census data, oral histories, archival documents and newspaper accounts, this study analyzes residential segregation and neighborhood disinvestment over a 60-year period.  Without access to capital, housing conditions worsened to the point that abandonment became a major problem.  By 1980, many of the conditions associated with large cities were present: high unemployment, poor schooling, and an underground economy that evolved into crack cocaine, gangs and crime.  Yet some neighborhood activists argued that the redlining, predatory lending and housing speculation were worse threats to community viability.  In the early 1990s, the combination of low property values, renewed access to capital and neighborhood reinvestment resulted in gentrification, displacement and racial transition.  Portland is an exemplar of an urban real estate phenomenon impacting Black communities across the nation.

The paper then goes on to detail a series of events and policies in Portland — Portland! — not unlike what was seen in Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago or St. Louis.  While Portland’s African-American population never comprised more than seven percent of the city’s total population, the Albina District that was the heart of the African-American community was the target of strategies employed in much larger cities with much larger African-American populations.  Yes, Portland was subject to redlining,  blockbusting, and restrictive covenants just as much larger cities were.  Portland and similar cities were simply better at erasing or ignoring that legacy because it impacted fewer African-Americans.

What I find interesting in the paper are the quotes from the interviews done with Portland residents.  They highlight the hardships African-Americans experienced when trying to buy property in Portland:

At that time it was almost impossible to buy property anywhere other than around Williams Avenue . . .

Portland was really a very prejudiced city.

—Maude Young, 1976

To even the City Club of Portland’s study in response to the Kerner Commission:

The range of deficiencies and grievances in Portland is similar to that found by the Kerner Commission to exist in large cities in general…

To the extent that its problems differ from those of Watts,Newark, or Detroit, the differences are of degree,not of cause and effect, or urgency. 

Interestingly, the study captures Portland’s version of the same controversy currently surrounding Spike Lee and his rant on gentrification, from the perceived sentiment of the Albina District’s new residents:

We never envisioned that the government would move in and mainly assist Whites. They came in to the area, younger Whites.  [The Portland Development Commission] gave them business and home loans and grants, and made it comfortable and easy for them to come. I didn’t envision that those young people would come in with what I perceive as an attitude. They didn’t come in “We want to be a part of you.” They came in with the idea, “We’re here and we’re in charge.”

to the lament of loss even in the face of community improvement:

Of course it’s nice and fixed up now, and the crime rate is down. We wouldn’t want to have it the other way. But everyone wants home. Where is our place then? People know where they want to live if their culture is represented there.

The entire paper is worth a thorough read.

Many people like to suggest that certain regions of the country, or certain cities, are worse or better in terms of race relations.  The South is worse; the North and West are better.  Birmingham or Chicago are worse; Phoenix, or say, the Bay Area are better.  I’ve never believed that.  There are two distinctly American ways that African-Americans have been subjected to discrimination in our cities.  There is the direct way that the South employed for nearly a century after slavery, creating a physically separate society.  Then there is the indirect way the rest of the country employed, East, Midwest and South, creating a socially separate society.  The only differences were in levels of engagement due to the numbers of African-Americans in a given area.  This paper on Portland proves that.

Only one of these paradigms has been defeated.

3 thoughts on “Portland’s — Portland’s! — Complicated Racial Legacy

  1. I've been enjoying your blog since last spring when I found it while looking for information about the upper mid-west in prepration for my first trip out that way. I wound up liking the midwest so much I moved. I'm settling into an apartment in Eau Claire, WI at the moment. Nice town. Enough density to actually have a town, but suburban enough to feel laid-back and not at all claustrophobic.

    I'm pipping up now as I'm from the Portland-Tacoma-Seattle area and the idea that the area doesn't have much in the way of racism is laughable. People must have missed that bit about the interment camps for American's of Japanese decent during WWII. Or the fact that the KKK had store front offices in all three cities. Or that Tacoma's China Town was burned to the ground and its residents were chased out of town. Or that race issues are part of the reason the federal DOJ is now helping run the Seattle police department.

    But, maybe part of the issue is that people are using the back experince as a starting point when they should be using the asian? I wonder what would happen if you asked these same people about the asian experince in the PNW and then shift the conversation to the back experience.

    I also thought you might want to checkout this article about Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood.
    It says Ash Street Shoot Out, but everyone called it The Hilltop War.


  2. I really enjoyed this post. So much so that I wonder what your thoughts are about a place like Houston, who likes to see itself as the complete opposite of a top-down planning city like Portland. As much as it will talk of letting the “free market” make its decisions, I think most people fail to see the continued disinvestment of black and Latino areas hidden within a greater construction boom. Good urban planning linked to economic development sounds like common sense but far too often it doesn't when our communities are concerned.


  3. One of the points I'm trying to build is that the conditions of cities are as much a social phenomenon as an economic one. Typically people try to explain the conditions of low-income, particularly minority, areas in economic terms, when in fact many social factors are better at explaining poor black and Latino neighborhoods.

    The point I make about Portland is that even with a small black population, city leaders made some of the same social decisions familiar in other cities. As for Houston, pro-market champions would argue that the market creates the best city possible for their tastes, but I'd argue back that Houston has a long history of making social decisions that lead to disinvestment, and that the pro-est pro-market environment hasn't changed that.

    Thanks for following the blog.


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