Thursday, September 14, 2017


This post is a reaction to “Portland Isn’t Portlandia. It’s a Capital of White Supremacy,” is an article in the Washington Post by Keegan Stephan, a writer, political organizer and law student in New York City.  He doesn’t name the “suburb” where he grew up, but I suspect it is Lake Oswego, an enclave of high income people.  Young righteous crusaders tend to feel sheepish about living there.

This morning, after a summer of ninety-degree heat and forest fire smoke from conflagrations far too close, I woke up to rain — not driving monsoon rain, but rain like Portland rain, the kind of rain I grew up in.  I started my day as usual, with a run through my enews on the computer.  I hadn’t decided what to write about yet — two posts require research before I can finish them, but then I ran into Keegan Stephan’s article in the Washington Post.  It’s an "old" article, dating back to June, when a psychotic man murdered two women of color on the light rail line near the Lloyd Center.

Stephen’s premise is that Portland, where he grew up in a “suburb” has run all the black people out of Portland and the city’s claim to be progressive/inclusive is empty.  I grew up at NE 15th and Alberta, within walking distance of downtown.  Aside from that, I had two other working stints in the city as an adult.  I want to reflect on these periods.

1939-1957 are my growing up years.  There were no black kids in Vernon Grade School until 8th grade at the very end when Etta May, a large dignified girl (woman really) showed up.  Being my bookish earnest self, I tried to be friends with her.  She said gravely, adult-to-child, “You don’t have to be nice to me.  I’m fine by myself.”

At Jefferson High School (1953 to 1957) during my freshman year, about a fifth of the student body (2,000) was black but by graduation we were up to one-third and rising.  During WWII Kaiser shipyards had brought in hundreds of workers from the deep South.  In 1948 the levee along the Columbia collapsed, destroying the housing built for them.  They moved into the shabby older houses along the Willamette in the North and Northeast parts of town, where they were part of the Jefferson High district.  Some boldly claimed a place in the student body, some kept their heads down, and some dropped out, becoming the underclass.  Two were particularly fine students and one of them rose to the highest ranks of the Air Force.  One was a spectacular dancer and made a career of it.  In my freshman year, a handsome dark mixed-race man from Hawaii was our student body president — shades of Obama!

After college (Northwestern University, School of Speech, 1961) I went to the Blackfeet Reservation to teach high school English.  After that (1973 - 78) I was back in Portland as an animal control deputy sheriff.  The sheriff was Lee Brown, who left to Atlanta which was struggling with a serial killer of children, Wayne Williams

By this time N and some of NE Portland were largely black, but my assignment was SE Portland which included the major “granola” and hippie neighborhoods, as well as Reed College.  No blacks.  The officer assigned to the black neighborhoods was a small, tough blonde who got along well.  

I left to attend seminary in South Chicago where students were white in a sea of black.  Then I was a circuit-riding minister, then in Saskatoon, then back on the Blackfeet reservation, and finally back in Portland 1991-1999.  Just before I returned I was teaching in Heart Butte and the kids, who had giant dishes, were used to watching a TV show about a county deputy in Portland who was sort of the Crocodile Dundee of Multnomah County.  They begged me not to go to Portland where I would be killed.

This time I was hired by the City of Portland, Bureau of Buildings, Nuisance Department.  There were black employees and a black City Commissioner, Charles Jordan, a progressive and popular man whose special field was Parks.  

1991- 1999 was when I got to know black people by working with them.  They ranged from a 300# woman who insisted on wearing the most spidery little high-heeled sandals in spite of constant sprained ankles, to a sensible father who had a dumb job maintaining the database on abandoned cars next to where I was doing the same thing with trash, empty houses, and general complaints.  We had a lot of time to visit.  

One day I made a joke about God being female and he rebuked me for being disrespectful.  As a former UU minister, I was abashed.  He invited me to attend his church, so I did, and it was impressive.  No messing around with “multicultural” in those days — they were black, splendid and supreme.  My friend came along to make sure I was respected and respectful, and his wife sent their little boy along to make sure his daddy was the same.  

Some of the inspectors of housing and traffic were black and specifically assigned to the black parts of town.  One was just beginning to move up to the management classes by becoming a golfer.  He would stop by my desk daily to ask for some hand cream.  I enjoyed talking to him.  But I bought him his own tube of hand cream, thinking that was a welcome gift, and he looked at me strangely, didn’t stop by any more.  He thought he was being pushed away.

Another man with a white wife was always telling me how small Portland was, how there was no housing good enough for his father, who was living in Washington DC.  There were no “estates,” he said, not that they were red-lined (which they probably were) but that they didn’t exist.  The Blazers were shining and lived in a rather fabulous apartment complex but he said those weren’t good enough.  I shopped where the Blazer’s wives shopped, the black ones, and it was easy to tell when they were there — they were loud and proud.

One of the Blazer investments was a barbecue place on MLKJr. and my mother took me there for lunch to show her solidarity with minorities.  They tied bibs on all customers so we could dig in, and the image of my mother having a bib tied on her by a giant black Blazer was pretty impressive.  She had a couple of black neighborhood friends, notably a woman on the back of our block who worked three jobs to pay for turning her backyard into a swimming pool to keep her kids at home.

One of my fav black colleagues was Eddie, who had previously made silicon wafers for a computer company and kept a lump of silicon on his desk.  He was genetically Somali, tall and with that lovely symmetrical face.  His job was tagging abandoned cars and standing by while they were towed.  Of course, some of them were “stored” at the curb until the owner had enough money to get them running, and that person would come storming out, offering to fight.  “Well, all right,” Eddie would say.  “If you really insist.”  He’d make a huge ceremony out of putting aside his clipboard, taking off his coat to fold neatly, rolling his sleeves up his long arms.  He wasn’t a heavy man, but he was in shape.  Usually the car owner would back off.  When Eddie retired, he achieved a lifelong ambition: a catfish farm in Mississippi.  In fact, there was a pervasive home-nostalgia for the Deep South.  Probably not entirely realistic.

At the time there was a big drug problem, but it was mostly Latino youngsters, running in the streets even downtown, and shooting at each other even in daytime.  I did notice when I went to the Walnut Park post office, which I had done since childhood, everyone seemed to have bad colds, runny noses.

Walnut Park as I first knew it.

When I went to my beloved Vernon branch library, it had been painted-tomato soup-red with black running silhouettes, now an African athletic center.  My old neighborhood was solidly black with shooting at night.  In fact, the first night I was back and sleeping in my van at the curb, a shotgun blast woke me — it had been about ten feet away from my head but not aimed at me.  There was a “Blood” gang household across the street and the “Crips” were driving back and forth on 15th, taunting.  So the “Bloods” had hid in the bushes and blasted them.  Later the father of the “Blood” gang’s leader had made him angry, so the aggravated son shot up his house on the corner.

My mother and brother instructed me that if I heard shots, I should turn out the lights (it was always night) and sit down on the floor.  Once I couldn’t resist looking to see what some squalling was about in front of the house and since the cops were there with lights flashing, I figured it was safe.  A black teenaged girl was on the sidewalk with a not-much-older white officer shining a flashlight down the back of her neck under her shirt.  She was claiming some kind of wound or invasion back there.  He was plainly torn between finding his search improper and worrying about being blamed if she were hurt.

Once, nursing a coffee mug while I cleared my head by standing at the window of the high floor on the Portlandia Building and looking across at the new Justice Center, I saw a young white officer pull a black passenger out of his squad car.  The man seemed drunk and he was totally naked, but wrapped in a clear plastic sheet.  Was he filthy?  Cold?  Where were his clothes?  The officer treated him almost tenderly.  But if he were hurt, wouldn’t he be going to the hospital? Probably he was insane. 

Being in a community as divided as black/white meant always getting the beginning of the story — but never the end.

In those days the chief of police was Charles Moose  He and his white wife bought a house close to the shopping center called “Walnut Park,” just off MLKJr, in hope of bringing it back into shape and influencing the rest of the street to improve.  He’d sit on the porch in the evening and chat with kids and other passers-by.  My mother had known the elderly white sisters who previously lived there and had been to luncheons in that house many times.  About the time my mother died and I moved back to the rez, Moose was hired away by Montgomery County Maryland and got there just in time to deal with the DC Beltway snipers, the ones who shot from inside the boot of a car.  The publicity fest over that resulted in a book, a movie, and a lot of controversy.

When my mother died in 1999 the neighborhood was gentrifying.  It wasn’t aggressive real estate dealers — it was expensive gasoline.  Only people living in places like upscale Lake Oswego could afford a long commute.  By then the South seemed to be opening up to blacks, so they cashed in their old houses to YUPpies, and went back home.  I don’t know what happened to them there.  

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