Two steps forward for the rest of Portland, one step backward for us. That’s the view of many longtime black residents about “progress” in Portland’s inner north and northeast neighborhoods.
Paul Knauls Sr. operated a thriving soul food restaurant, bar and pool hall in Portland’s black business district in the late 1960s, but lost his lease when the building complex at North Williams Avenue and Russell Street was razed to make way for Emanuel Hospital’s expansion. The expansion was nixed in 1973 when Emanuel lost federal funding, and the site was used as a parking lot until recently.
Hundreds of residents and black-owned businesses were displaced for the construction of city-owned Memorial Coliseum in 1960. Scores more were cleared out when Interstate 5 was extended through North Portland in the early 1960s.
For those and other improvement projects, the traditional black community of Albina -a once-independent city in present-day inner North and Northeast Portland – was the path of least resistance.
“Those neighborhoods were essentially targeted,” said Darrell Millner, black studies professor at Portland State University. “The underlying, perhaps unstated motivation, was to rid the community of some undesired properties and some undesired populations.”
Even when the Alberta Street and Mississippi Avenue business corridors blossomed in recent years, many blacks say the city-aided renaissance left longtime black merchants and residents priced out of shops and homes.
Now the city vows to do things differently, as it launches a major new initiative to improve north and northeast business corridors and surrounding neighborhoods, said John Jackley, communications and business equity director for the Portland Development Commission.
After the city urban renewal agency plowed tens of millions to spruce up downtown, the Pearl District, Lents and other areas in recent years, Jackley said, PDC’s new mantra is: “It’s North/Northeast Portland’s turn.”
Study kicks off expansion
On Dec. 10, the PDC funded a $20,000 study to chart areas ripe for redevelopment and public investment. Among the likely targets: commercial spines of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Alberta and Killingsworth streets, Lombard Boulevard and the St. Johns business district.
One likely scenario is enfolding those areas into the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area, which has largely focused on supporting the new MAX line in North Portland. District expansion would provide PDC tens of millions of added property tax dollars for business assistance, developer subsidies and affordable housing, within the existing boundaries and the added territories.
The PDC also expects to approve a similar study this year to create a new downtown urban renewal district, possibly located near Portland State University or the Con-Way site in Northwest Portland, Jackley said.
The PDC made its mark managing large-scale downtown projects with big developers, but vows to employ a more neighbor-friendly approach in north and northeast, similar to its Lents urban renewal project in Southeast Portland. That means smaller-scale projects, Jackley said, and relying on community members for their ideas on revitalizing downtrodden areas.
But there’s a history of mistrust in North and Northeast Portland, especially among blacks.
Charles Wilhoite, the black PDC chairman, said community leaders remember the city’s past missteps in inner North and Northeast Portland. Now, there’s “an opportunity to fix it,” he said.
Count JoAnn Bowman and James Posey among the skeptics.
“I don’t have a lot of hope that giving PDC more money is going to benefit residents, either short-term or long-term,” said Bowman, executive director of Oregon Action, and a former state lawmaker and onetime African-American Chamber of Commerce officer.
“Guess who is going to benefit from this? It’s not going to be the people who are neglected and disadvantaged,” said Posey, a small-businessman and president of the National Association of Minority Contractors of Oregon. Posey wants to see job creation in the area, such as small-scale manufacturing or sites for black trades members, not just more barbecue restaurants and hair salons.
When former television reporter Lew Frederick campaigned door-to-door in his unsuccessful 2006 bid for a Multnomah County Board of Commissioners seat, he heard a litany of complaints about how the city neglected black business owners while Alberta and Mississippi bloomed. He heard tale after tale of predatory real estate agents and mortgage loan officers taking advantage of elderly and unsophisticated black homeowners.
Yet Frederick and other black leaders have detected a change in PDC’s approach since 2006, when dozens of blacks staged a protest at a commission meeting.
Since then, the agency has been more aggressive about assuring that minority hiring targets are met at city-aided construction projects, Frederick said.
Knauls, despite losing three businesses in Emanuel’s ill-fated “expansion,” is more hopeful about the urban renewal agency’s new direction.
“I think they’re finally, after all these years, on the right track,” said Knauls, who co-owns Geneva’s Shear Perfection barber shop and hair salon on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. “What’s needed is some space for lower rent so African-Americans can rent and stay in the neighborhood.”
Knauls also owns an empty lot on the boulevard, and seemed confident PDC will help him land a tenant and financing for a custom-built facility there.
Harold Williams Sr., a consultant and Portland Community College board member, is another former PDC critic now collaborating with the agency. “You can’t kill the golden goose and ask that it save you,” he said.
Williams is hoping to see some PDC investments along Killingsworth, noting that voter approval of a PCC bond measure last November should fund some new construction at the Cascade campus on that street.
One sign of change in the winds is the abandoned gas station on North Albina Avenue, across the street from Peninsula Park, purchased in 1992 by Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. The black professional women’s sorority expects to break ground soon on a new “green” community center built from reclaimed cargo shipping containers, with help from the PDC.
“They even gave us a grant we didn’t ask for,” said chapter leader Chris Poole-Jones.
James Berry has been complaining since 1990 about outmoded residential zoning on a four-block strip of Killingsworth, which includes a cluster of black-owned businesses in his building on Killingsworth and 16th Avenue. The businesses couldn’t get bank loans because of the restrictive zoning, Berry said.
But with support from the energized neighborhood association, Berry said, the zone change finally was granted in 2008. With gentrification in the area, the neighborhood association has more clout, he said, and the city “started paying attention.”
The PDC offered him storefront improvement funds after the zone change, he said.
PDC leaders say they want to nurture local businesses and residents, not spur more gentrification, in this go-round. They note that the Hispanic population in the area is growing rapidly, so the community is becoming more ethnically diverse and less segregated.
But the city’s goal is driving up property values, because that’s what funds urban renewal, said Karen Gibson, an urban studies professor at Portland State University who has researched the history of Albina and the PDC’s role in the area.
The PDC is designed to spur “bricks and mortar,” she said, but revitalization also requires nurturing people and community institutions.
Recent population data shows North and Northeast Portland are luring more affluent and college-educated young whites, while their black counterparts from Portland are seeking other cities with larger and more vibrant black communities, Gibson said.
Posey, a leader of the Coalition of Black Men, said many young Portland blacks lack confidence to undertake entrepreneurial endeavors here. “There’s very little psychological conditioning for a bright future,” he said. “People are not willing to dream about what’s possible.”
Millner, the black historian, said gentrification of inner north and northeast is an inevitable outgrowth of the Portland-area’s urban growth boundary, which places a premium on land close to downtown. He predicts PDC’s latest initiative will result in Alberta- and Mississippi-style redevelopments, which have tended to be upscale, white-owned ventures.
“It’s impossible to control gentrification,” Millner said. “There’s very little that PDC can do to prevent that from happening.”
Most of Knauls’ Geneva’s employees can no longer afford to live in the area. Blacks now drive in from outer Southeast Portland and Gresham to get haircuts at his barber shop/salon, he said, and to commute to work.
Berry hopes to bring a restaurant to his Killingsworth building, now that the zoning is hospitable. But that may mean displacing some black-owned business tenants.
“My business can’t survive by just black people buying from me,” Berry said. “We need businesses that mirror the neighborhood.”
Jackley, who has patiently made the rounds of black community organizations to explain PDC’s new initiative, hopes PDC officials can allay concerns of skeptics like Millner by listening to residents and approaching redevelopment with community concerns in mind.
“In previous generations, urban renewal started with a poor neighborhood and a bulldozer,” Jackley said. “It’s just a different world today, and a different approach.”
North/Northeast: Urban renewal or urban removal?
Efforts and events that reshaped inner North/Northeast Portland:
Flooding overruns Vanport, a wartime city near present-day Delta Park in North Portland, destroying 5,295 housing units and displacing 17,000 people, 35 percent of them black
Memorial Coliseum completed; 476 housing units destroyed, 46 percent of them occupied by blacks
Interstate 5 freeway through North Portland completed; displaces 125 homes occupied by blacks and numerous black-owned businesses
Albina Neighborhood Improvement Program; Portland Development Commission spends $2 million on home-repair loans in inner North and Northeast Portland, builds Unthank Park near North Shaver Street and Kerby Avenue, makes sidewalk and other improvements
Emanuel Hospital urban renewal; with city’s assistance, 188 nearby homes and black commercial node at N. Russell and Williams are cleared to make way for hospital expansion; Emanuel halts work in April 1973 with loss of federal funding, leaving some blocks undeveloped for decades
Neighborhood Development Program – using $14 million in federal Model Cities funds, PDC pays for home-repair loans and community services in inner north and northeast neighborhoods
Oregon Convention Center Urban Renewal Area expanded to include part of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; city excludes residential areas because of bad blood left from Emanuel land clearing
PDC creates Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area, in tandem with extension of MAX line along Interstate Boulevard
PDC begins study to expand urban renewal in North and Northeast Portland
Sources: Fair Housing Council of Oregon, Brief History of Urban Renewal in Portland, Oregon, by Craig Wollner, John Provo, Julie Schablisky; Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment, 1940-2000, by Karen Gibson