by Anna Branche
While minority technically means less than half of something, living as such it can greatly affect one’s life, because there is less representation of you and others like you.
What does it mean to live in a place where your culture, beliefs and even existence may be questioned, more specifically, what does all of this mean here in Portland, Oregon? Portland’s history of segregation, redlining and then gentrification plays a large role in the lives and opportunities of Black communities and individuals to this day.
What does it mean to be Black Portland, Oregon? I have been a Black person in Portland for the past 13 years and I’m still unsure. My mother and I moved to Portland from St. Kitts and Nevis, a small country in the Caribbean, bursting with life and colorful beaches. My mother and I moved to Portland when I was 4. I didn’t much mind the change, we have a lot of family here and I was very happy to live with them. However, I didn’t really have any understanding of race or ethnicity before moving to Portland because in St. Kitts if you are Black you make up the majority. I didn’t even realize that the color of my skin was different then my mother’s until I moved here. This was when I had my first run ins with racism. The first one I do not remember, however it has been recited to me many times. My aunt was walking with me in a stroller downtown, and when she crossed the street a man walked up to her and pushed my stroller over and said “don’t touch that”. A little over a year later kids in my former neighborhood playground would tell me that they didn’t play with Black kids. So after moving here it became painfully clear to me that your skin color did make you different. In middle school, I straightened my hair every day so that I would look “pretty”, because that is how the pretty girls on TV wore their hair, and the pretty girls in the magazines too. Although I know more now than I did then, I still don’t have all the answers. So my question still stands, what does it mean to be a Black person in Portland? Portland has a very racially charged history, and it is important to understand that history before the results of it.
Before Oregon became a state, there were harsh laws to keep Black people out of the territory. For example, “in the 1840s, the territory passed laws prohibiting Blacks from living in the state and punishing those who tried to remain with whiplashes and expulsion” (Savitch-Lew). In 1858, “Oregon became the only state in the country admitted with a clause in its constitution excluding Blacks” (Savitch-Lew). So it is clear to me that Oregon was willing to take quite aggressive action to discourage/outlaw Black people living there. This was an account of Oregon’s history I had not learned about in the “History of Oregon” play I did in lower school. The plays told the story of how Portland exported lumber and became successful, but failed to mention hate and segregation. This type of exclusion did not go away; it left a deep red stain in Oregon’s history and we can still see it today. To support the creativity and pride of the current Black community in Portland, some people have made organizations and blogs that showcase the lives of Black people in Portland. One website in particular is run by a woman named Intisar Abioto.
Abioto moved to Portland with her mother and sisters from Memphis (Abioto). After already having a passion for photography, Abioto decided to use her talent to start Black Portlanders. The website showcases hundreds of photos of Black people in Portland just living their lives. Since its creation, Black Portlanders has been recognized and written about in the Oregonian, OPB and Oregon Live just to mention a few (The Black Portlanders). Abioto told me that the purpose of Black Portlanders is to show photos of Black people in all of their different forms, because being Black doesn’t mean you will be any one way (Abioto). She also told me that she wants her blog to encourage the Black population of Portland to be creative and to make a space where that creativity is embraced and appreciated (Abioto). Abioto spoke a lot about creativity, and how hundreds of years of slavery and oppression makes a person feel that their creativity isn’t important or valued by the community. She told me how important it is that we encourage the creative minds (Abioto).
I visited a place that Abioto told me she enjoys working. It is called Townshend’s Tea on North Mississippi Avenue. She told me that she doesn’t like to do too much work at her house, and that she likes to go into public places and feel the new energy of that space, and that if it is warm and positive, she will stay (Abioto). The tea house ceiling is covered with colorful tattered mandala clothes and old photos that have tattered over the years. The tea house has a lovely sweet aroma of all of the teas mixed together into one. It is filled with big loose knit couches and lazy boy chairs. It is a simple place, nothing fancy, and it is so sad to think that so many little places like this have been foreclosed and shut down because of the massive changes that have been occurring in our city and many like it since the days of segregation.
Redlining was used in downtown Portland, as in many other cities to separate the Black communities from the white communities. This included “Red lines drawn on a city map would dictate where people of color could live, buy property, or secure a bank loan, relegating them to a tiny, economically depressed eastside district called Albina” (Portland Housing Bureau). This split up Portland into chunks, pushing the Black communities into small areas, isolating them completely. The image to the left is a historical illustration of red lining in portland from M.G. Miles. In the top right portion of this image you can see the key that explains the colors on the map. The colors indicate which “grade” of people are permitted to own land in each area (Miles 2014). The colors range from grade one, which is marked in the color blue, to the grade 4, which is marked so infamously as red (Miles 2014).
Intisar reflected on the effects of this type of segregation when we sat down together. She told me, “I feel like that creativity, that choice, to feel like we can choose the path of our lives, choose what your gunna day, who we fall in love with, what we eat, also our capacity to come up with things that have never been seen”(Abioto). She paused and pulled one of her long dreads from behind her back and began to twirl it in her finger, then continued, “We’re endlessly creative but like, there’s something about our recent history in time through colonialism or enslavement that messes with your creativity” (Abioto). After sharing this insight Abioto placed a second hand around her boba tea and continued to enjoy. She sat across from me, her feet dangling down not quite touching the floor, looking back at me. Abioto spoke frequently about how the creativity of the Black community in Portland suffers because of this history (Abioto), but another large part of the history (and present) is gentrification. The need to find housing and affordable/sustainable food would come before the your artistic and creative interests.
One area that was open for Black people as a result of redlining was Vanport. However, “On Memorial Day in 1948, the Columbia rose 15 feet, turning Vanport into a lake and leaving 18,000 people homeless” (Portland Housing Bureau). This flooding was a catastrophe for the people living in Vanport, and it obviously left them in an extremely vulnerable place, without home or security. Later in our conversation, Abioto would tell me, “So many times our presence in places, but also in the world is questioned, we have to find a reason to be here ‘why are you here’ ‘why are you there’” (Abioto). As she was speaking, I thought about Vanport, and how the newly homeless people must have felt completely exposed, after being dislodged from the small area that they had been designated. Following this tragedy, “Ten years after Vanport, the redlining policy had been removed from the real estate code, but the practice itself persisted unofficially. Seventy -three percent of Portland’s Black population, now in the tens of thousands, was concentrated in Albina. Limited employment opportunities for Blacks meant that Albina was home to some of the city’s lowest income households”(Portland Housing Bureau). This shows the lasting lasting impression of redlining, even when the laws were lifted, people still had very limited options, and were financially stuck where they were.
Redlining, and its lasting effects, are not exclusive to Portland. Jeff Chang spoke about his experiences as a man of color growing up in San Francisco (more specifically the Bay Area) this week when he spoke at the annual Ray Warren Symposium on Race and Ethnic Studies at Lewis and Clark College. He explained the cycle that acts of exclusion and segregation create. Chang explained the pattern “Crisis, reaction, backlash, exhaustion, crisis.” To give an example, he said that the dominant or majority race wishes to protect themselves from the minority and secure their dominance. In doing so, the majority paints the minority out to be bad, unsafe and untrustworthy. In turn, the minority is hurt by this, protects and takes action to attempt to right the system. This worries the majority and starts the cycle over again (Chang). After years and years of this cycle, everyone involved is tired. Chang stood down behind a podium, around which he tended to walk back and forth gesticulating to the crowd.The pieces of silver in his Black hair shimmed when the light hit them just right .Chang said that as minorities in America, “we crave a home in this nation that has said so many times that they don’t want us”(Chang). Powerful, moving thoughts like this received a head nod of consensus from nearly everyone in the echoing auditorium. Followed by the gentle buzz of college students and teachers sharing their opinions with the person seated next to them.
These problems haven’t gone anywhere in the last 50 years, and it has not gone unnoticed. Anti gentrification graffiti is shown in the image to the left from Savitch-Lew’s article on gentrification. Black people in Portland are still struggling to find affordable housing, “Though they make up only 7 percent of Portland residents, Black people constitute a disproportionate 25 percent of the homeless population”(Savitch-Lew). This statistic speaks a lot to the dwindling amount of low income housing and affordable housing for Black people in Portland. The price of housing is rising and finding a job isn’t getting any easier. Because of this, “ From 2000 to 2010, the city’s core lost 10,000 Black residents. In the historically Black neighborhoods of the Northeast such as King, Woodlawn and Boise-Eliot, Whites became the new majority in most census tracts” (Savitch-Lew). This displacement of Black people is incredibly common in downtown Portland, and gentrification isn’t modest, it doesn’t hide itself from you in the shadows. In downtown Portland, you can walk down one street and it will feel like an entirely different part of town. Jeff Chang explained that to him, “gentrification is a smaller part of a larger problem : resegregation” (Chang). I found this to be really interesting, because it acknowledges that maybe instead of gentrification being some relatively modern idea, it is just ta more casual version of an older one. I think it acknowledges the historical significance of gentrification, and the repetition of old tactics.
You can see the stains of segregation in the new high rise apartment buildings and high priced boutiques, placed one street over from the little one story homes. The obvious financial discrepancies are apparent the Portland residents, especially those who have been here their whole lives. Myesha Abdulrahman spoke about her experience with gentrification with Intisar Abioto. In their conversation she shared that “We’ve [her and her mother] seen a lot of the changes that have happened in NE Portland: gentrification, how the businesses have come in and taken over, and how it just looks completely different than what I’m used to and what I grew up knowing. You walk down the street and it’s nothing like it used to be” (qtd. In The Black Portlanders). Gentrification is affecting local families in our community, changing neighborhoods, and taking away the housing options for Black communities. You can walk one block in downtown Portland and experience a complete change in scenery. I remember a little restaurant that my mother and I used to go to when we bought our first apartment in Portland. The restaurant is called Byways Cafe and it is in the Pearl District. A few months ago my mother and I went down to the Pearl to walk around the old neighborhood and get blue corn pancakes at Byways. When we arrived the entire block was completely transformed, high end shops and modern restaurants surrounded what used to be a little dingy apartment complex.
What does it mean to be Black person in Portland? Well there isn’t any one answer to this question because there isn’t one way to be Black in Portland. However Oregon’s history of exclusion and segregation is still visible in the streets of Portland today. I believe the most important take away from what I have learned in the past mount is that segregation and gentrification are not just things of the past, and they are not ashamed of their existence. These patterns still largely affect the lives of today’s Black residents, be it through the struggle to find housing or the ability to express your creativity. Unfortunately these ideas of exclusion are still accepted by some. When we have a presidential elect speaking about building walls between people, and people supporting them, to me it is clear that as a country we are not ready to let go of those restrictive patterns.
Abioto, Intisar. Personal interview. 19 Oct. 2016.
Abioto, Intisar. “BLACK PEOPLE. PORTLAND.” THE BLACK PORTLANDERS. N.p., n.d.Web. 23 Oct. 2016.
Chang, Jeff. “’You,’ ‘Me,’ and “We”: Difference, Belonging, and Community in the Era of Black Lives Matter.” Ray Warren Symposium on Race and Ethnic Studies. Lewis and Clark College, Portland. 10 Nov. 2016. Speech.
Miles, M.G. Reparations for Red-lining? Digital image. Those Who Can See. N.p., 23 Aug. 2014. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.
Portland Housing Bureau. “Displacement in North and Northeast Portland – An Historical Overview.”https://www.portlandoregon.gov/phb/article/517236.
Savitch-Lew, Abigail. “GENTRIFICATION SPOTLIGHT: How Portland Is Pushing Out Its Black Residents.” Color Lines. Race Forward, 18 Apr. 2016. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.