Racial Shift in Portland Spurs Talks
By WILLIAM YARDLEY
Portland, Ore., is encouraging black and white residents to
talk about gentrification and race, but even this
progressive city is having a hard time at it.
Tonight the Vernon Grade School Class of 1953 will have its monthly gathering in Portland, Oregon. This class was in third grade on May 30, 1948, and classes were dismissed a bit early so that the school could shelter the refugees from the Vanport Flood. All night long the sirens howled up and down Union Avenue, -- renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. later, when partly as a consequence of the flood, it became the center of a black part of town. Our class was the first I know of to have a black student and she only attended part of the year we graduated. Now the school is pretty solidly black.
Vanport flooding, which is now rightly compared to a little New Orleans Katrina event, destroyed housing occupied by veterans and shipyard workers from the south who were moved there during WWII and who kept their identity as Southern blacks, their culture and their style. This, in my opinion, had as much to do with developments as their skin color, which is really code. In much of the US north, “southern” codes as poor and uneducated.
When my parents bought their house at NE 15th and Alberta, there were no black kids in the neighborhood because there were no kids at all. Mostly the houses held older folks, many of them born in Europe. The houses were modest but meticulously maintained, unlike the houses later destroyed to make way for “renewal” in North Portland and NE, close to the river where the early houses had been rather grand and elaborate, but wooden and not maintained.
Jefferson High School, when my class was there, entered with a small black portion, and graduated with many more blacks, though I’m sure many dropped out. Some of them were quite brilliant and friends of friends, certainly classmates, but no faculty was black. Our student body president was a charming and (to use NA tropes) assimilated black man, with a style rather like Barack Obama.
By the time I left Portland in 1999, I did have black friends -- not “come over tonight” friends but people I would sit with on the bus and about whose lives I knew a bit. They were quite different from each other though all were City of Portland employees. Two characters used to stop by my desk to visit, one who was dark, wore that little crocheted beanie, and attended our rival high school at the same time that I did. The other was light, married to a white woman, raised in Washington, D.C., and constantly complained that life in Portland just didn’t meet his standards. They were both smart and funny and I liked them, considered them sort of like my reservation friends. But the conversations freaked out another man, a white man.
Commissioner Jordan was in office then. The Blazers were riding high. Chief of Police Moose was black and our former county sheriff was black -- both became nationally prominent. I write about all this.
Portland has made the most of its reputation and people who only visit see what they’re supposed to, but people on the “inside” worry a lot. About the infrastructure, for one thing. The bridges ALL need major work. Engineers will not willingly drive across one. When I left, the levees along the Columbia River were still not secure and people were finding a lot of little ways to evade the flood plain restrictions. I didn’t read this in the paper: it comes of working in the Bureau of Buildings. There’s the social infrastructure that comes of cultural difference -- now complicated by Asian communities, Hispanics, and people from Russian satellites that African Americans are not particularly pleased to see. Beyond that, the cultural revolution of the Sixties and Seventies has left a lingering paranoia and willingness to demand equity that makes politics veer and yaw in all directions.
The natural response of humans is to gather into enclaves of like with like. Even at universities that try to integrate their students, the kids themselves have soon migrated back into groups. It’s politically satisfying when they base those groups on common culture that is intellectually based, but worrisome when ethnic roots are obvious because of clothing or skin or language. It suggests pretexts for violence or at least dissention.
In a city the real reason people cluster is likely to be economic, because that’s what determines where and how people live. When I was a little kid, Alberta was a street of shops with the owners living above. When they prospered enough to buy houses separately, the upstairs apartments became rentals, not high end ones. I knew few kids who lived in those apartments and they were ashamed to invite me home. (None were black. Some were Southern or Appalachian.)
Later the property, which by now had changed hands many times, needed repairs the owners weren’t prepared to make. Fewer people were willing to live in such places over bars and cleaners, and those apartments began to stand empty, the very definition of urban decay. Also, the littler houses along the side streets began to become poorer, with the European pride in yards sinking until the city had to constantly pressure to enforce some minimum standards. The slum landlords moved in. The young new minister of the neighborhood church I had attended as a child found his ministry in war on those landlords who exploited the vulnerable by renting to them cheaply but never doing repairs. Crime follows poverty.
Then comes a tide-turning class of people who oppose such trends but don’t get much credit: artists. Often Class X, which is highly educated but not making money. Often from big cities back east. Sometimes immigrants or at least appreciative of ethnic difference, esp. if it involves food. Then the area becomes trendy and the poor and the criminal go elsewhere, probably the flood plain around Johnson Creek where original construction was outside the city limits and largely unregulated: Errol Heights -- “Squirrel Heights,” we used to call it. The police used to joke that the largest number of convicted felons were in north Portland (the black part of town) but the largest number of UNconvicted felons were in Errol Heights, because they were white and therefore more likely to get off.
A place is always kaleidoscopic, overlays of memory, hope, theory, politics, economics and always the underlying crust of the planet earth, which -- as the Chinese know well -- can transform a place over minutes. My theory of Portland is always informed by an evening I went for a walk in the Nineties, knowing it was dangerous, stood on the sidewalk by Vernon Grade School, and (possible because the school is on a high ridge) looked across the miles to and across the Columbia River at the lights of old Fort Vancouver where Doctor John McLoughlin, the White-Headed Eagle, used to trade for beaver skins. I could easily imagine an Indian standing on the same spot and looking across at bonfires of some celebration at the fort. Maybe that kinda puts it all in perspective. The Class of ‘53 is nearly seventy years of age now. What’s that: about half the age of Portland itself? One of the things we do best now is to tell the stories. I send mine via email.