16 February 2011

The Complex Nature of a Simple Chance

I turn a little more serious for today’s post. Recently, I have become involved in a series of discussions on racism in America. Since my historical focus is on the intersection of race in Portland and the surrounding Pacific Northwest, this is a topic that I spend a lot of time with. So maybe a little historical tale would help explain my mood.

In 1940, there were only about 1800 black residents in the state of Oregon. Historical discrimination, hostility, and laws had achieved their desired effect, which was to keep Oregon predominately for white residents. In fact, Oregon was the only state admitted to the union with a specific clause in the state constitution prohibiting blacks from even living in the state. During the 1920s, Oregon boasted the highest per capita membership in the Jazz Age Klu Klux Klan, which despite a furious PR campaign to the contrary, was not simply another civic organization. But the white citizens of Oregon had not counted on Hitler and friends. Ironically, it took one of the most notorious racists in history to crack open the white monopoly in Portland. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. By December of 1942, Henry Kaiser had imported 16,000 black workers to work in his three Portland area shipyards. The good citizens of Portland did not respond well to this forced integration. For the duration of the war, there wasn’t much to be done since the whole world was literally watching. But as soon as hostilities ceased and the shipyards shut down, old habits found familiar and fertile ground.

What followed was a series of Jim Crow laws, redlining, discrimination, and intimidation of the black families that chose to remain in Portland. The cumulative effect was that they were crowded into a “black neighborhood” along Alberta Avenue in the northeast sector of the city. Crowded in and forgotten by employers, politicians, education systems, and nearly everybody else. In fact, black residents were seemingly forgotten by everybody except the police, who poured an inordinate amount of resources onto less than 2% of the total population. They have the incarceration statistics to prove it to.

Until one day, they were remembered. It seems that with the exploding real estate market of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the old black neighborhoods were now becoming attractive to urban renewal and gentrification proponents. Driven by greed, developers swooped in and bought up large tracts of old neighborhoods. Displaced residents were scattered far and wide across the city, any sense of community shattered. Stop complaining they were told, if you don’t want to move, don’t sell. Except the prohibitive real estate practices and discriminatory mortgage lending of the subsequent 50 years had not fostered home ownership. These constraints combined with unemployment rates that were twice the state average to insure that the people living in those homes, didn’t own those homes. Absentee landlords gleefully cashed in.

Boutique bars, shops, and cafes replaced ethnic eateries and traditional gathering spots. Lofts and remodeled Craftsmen Bungalows sold for heavy prices; far beyond the means of their former occupants and neighbors. The social hipsters and trust fund urbanites moved in. Standing around with $6 pints of microbrew, they noshed on gourmet offerings and gushed at the awesome nature of the neighborhood. The families that had lived there for generations were relocated to places not so awesome. Out of sight and again out of mind.

There are no trendy nightspots, culinary delights, or stylish lofts in the new black neighborhoods. They spans a series of areas that are best described as human warehouses. Dense packed mass produced apartment buildings, interspersed with exploitive businesses, fast food pits, and soul sucking uniformity have replaced their tree lined streets and vintage homes. The only resemblance to their old neighborhood is that education options are still sub-par, unemployment rates are still more than double the state average, and nobody remembers them except the police.

Well not quite nobody. I remember my first home when I moved to Portland in 2001. Everybody said I was crazy to rent the 1909 Craftsman on the corner of Alberta and Albina Avenues. That area sucks they said. Only it didn’t. I made friends, shared some laughs, and spent more than a few nights on somebody’s front porch; sipping a drink and relaxing in the company of friends and neighbors. I remember running everyday past old boarded up buildings and thinking how cool it would be if somebody did something with them. It seemed such a shame to let that charming old architecture go to waste. Only the people that lived there couldn’t get the loans, the leases, and the block grants that outsiders had access to. So when my thoughts came to fruition, they killed the very neighborhood that I had grown to love. I left soon after for other parts of the city. I could no longer afford the housing costs in my old home. My landlord made a 200% return on his investment, so who could blame him when he took the money and ran.

And that is the crux of this whole post. It is not about blame or rehashing the sins of the past. It is about solutions today. These exceedingly complex issues are most often boiled down to some yapping head, trying to score a few political points by playing the affirmative action card. People just cannot understand why it should be their problem. They devise intricate legal arguments to rationalize their positions, but to me it all rings hollow. It rings hollow because I used to make those same empty arguments. It was settled a long time ago I said, stop playing the same old tune; except I was wrong.

Expecting a people who have been deliberately abused and marginalized for centuries by a system to suddenly merge into the mainstream of that system defies logic. The solutions are as complex as the problem and there is no magic bullet to slay the beast. All I ask is that the next time you hear a news story about a crime, or see some representation of poverty, pause before passing judgment. Pause and ask yourself if you really believe that what you are seeing is a person who just cannot get their act together. Or are you really seeing a person that has yet to be allowed the chance?


  1. I know exactly where you are coming from Paul. The same things happened here in the gentrification rush of the 90's.

    Places where there was atmosphere and life have become homogenised. I feel for all those who just don't get the opportunity to have a fair go.

    Cheers A

  2. Thanks AG. It's a tough topic that I think deserves more than the knee jerk response it often gets. Planners point to the erasure of blight via gentrification. Unfortunately, a lot of people end up being labeled, "blight."

    Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  3. Paul, this is so sad to realize that this has been allowed to happen in what is supposed to be the strongest country in the world. It is often easier for people to turn their head than to face a situation straight on in hopes to find a solution. I agree, there are no easy solutions to a problem such as this, but if the greed was eliminated, I believe it would be much easier:)

  4. Many countries face similar situations. In New Zealand and even Australia we face the legacy of earlier discrimination of indigenous peoples. Reflected in disproportionate amount of them in our jails.

  5. Mary and Jim; Thanks for stopping in, reading, and commenting.

    The issue is universial and it is always inflammatory. But as the old animated ad campaign used to claim, "knowing is half the battle." I believe information will overcome disinformation and eventually, good will come of it. No rational people oppose equality of opportunity.

  6. tremendous post paul, i can't apply my standard glib nonsense but i do know that i'm guilty of assumptions. the issues of the pricing out and removing communities is so very complicated the compromise is never going to be achieved with politicians. even we "the community" can't get it right, most of us don't try .. cheers alan