PORTLAND, Ore. -- "About the best one can say about Portland is that it wasn't any worse in displacing blacks than other major cities," says Darrell Millner, Portland State University emeritus professor of black history.
The dismantling of Portland's African-American community over the past 25 years has its roots in the city's early history.
Technically, African-Americans weren't allowed to live in Oregon at all until 1926, when black exclusion laws passed in 1844 through 1847, before Oregon achieved statehood, were overturned. Meanwhile, the Portland Realty Board, whose Code of Ethics prohibited its members from selling property in white neighborhoods to blacks and Asians until 1952, assured that African-Americans were corralled in poorer parts of the city.
In the late 19th century, Portland's tiny African-American community was clustered along the west bank of the Willamette, close to Union Station, and later spread across the river to inner North/Northeast Portland. Portland's black community remained under 2,000 people until 1942, when massive defense industry labor shortages during World War II brought thousands of black workers to Portland shipyards.
The government built temporary housing in Vanport, a separate city hastily constructed on marshlands near the present-day Portland International Racetrack. But when a Columbia River flood destroyed Vanport in 1948, realtors and lenders redlined flood refugees to inner North/Northeast, in a district commonly called Albina after a once-separate city there by that name.
Eighty percent of the city's 18,000 African-Americans lived in Albina in 1960. A tightly knit black community now comprised thousands of homeowners, many on streets with handsome bungalows, and a robust black-owned business district boasting retail stores and dozens of churches.
The city's black residents chafed at the lack of opportunities for them in the rest of the city, but inside Albina itself, a cohesive world developed where the black culture thrived and some, not all, benefited from the same economic gains that most whites received in the booming 1950s and early 1960s American economy.
Then three successive blows hit Albina: professional sports, the Eisenhower administration's federal freeway system and urban renewal. In the early 1960s, the Portland City Council and pro sports team developers, including future Trail Blazers executive Harry Glickman, pushed through construction of Memorial Coliseum. Construction of the coliseum, and the city's assemblage of adjoining property near the present-day Rose Garden, leveled some 476 homes, mostly owned by black residents.
Next came construction of Interstate 5, the first federal freeway to reach Portland. Federal and city planners could have taken other routes, such as up the Highway 30 industrial area, but they chose the path of least political residence: the Albina community and working class white neighborhoods north of downtown, near the Columbia River. Hundreds of families lost their homes to highway lanes and ramps.
Third, a massive publicly funded development project — begun in the early 1960s as part of a nationwide urban renewal movement (called "Negro removal" by some cynics) intended to clear "urban blight" — bulldozed the historic black business district and 300 homes to make room for Emanuel Hospital.
Albina's proximity to a noisy, dirty interstate highway, a sprawling hospital and sports-event parking depressed property values deeply and coincided with white flight and white business disinvestment.
And then a lending scandal erupted in North/Northeast Portland. In the late 1980s, the Oregon attorney general's office filed suit against mortgage giant Dominion Capital, which had sold hundreds of seemingly low-cost homes in inner North and Northeast Portland to unsuspecting buyers, disproportionately black. Dominion structured sales contracts with balloon mortgages that many buyers could not pay; some contracts maintained Dominion's ownership entirely. Fined and punished, Dominion declared bankruptcy, creating an avalanche of more than 2,000 abandoned properties.
Community development corporations (CDCs) and other non-profits, such as Habitat For Humanity, jumped in to help.
Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives (PCRI), one of the first and most successful CDCs, took over more than 350 Dominion properties in the early '90s and helped families refinance mortgages and purchase new homes, and restored additional derelict properties into affordable rentals, according to PCRI director Maxine Fitzpatrick
At that time, she said, most white home buyers and investors wanted nothing to do with North/Northeast Portland.
"Then we came in and took out the weakest links, the biggest eyesores," Fitzpatrick said, "and all of a sudden — wow — the neighborhood is attractive."
Gradually, more whites began scooping up bargain-priced 2,000-square-foot Victorians and bungalows, driving up prices that, over time, few prospective African-American buyers could pay.
By year 2000, the flood of newcomers was unstoppable.
The city created the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area in North Portland in 2000, producing a tax-increment funding stream from local property taxes to help build a new MAX Yellow light rail line and to make housing and transit investments alongside it.
Under the direction of then-Mayor Vera Katz, the project proceeded without property condemnation or forcible displacement of area residents, but the city's investments sped the process of gentrification in North Portland by making it a more desirable place for wealthier, white residents to live and do business.
Tensions between the needs of existing residents and newcomers erupted in 2014 when black neighborhood activists stopped a Portland Development Commission decision to help site a Trader Joe's store on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The controversy energized black leadership and sympathetic whites to negotiate the city's committing $20 million, largely from remaining Interstate urban renewal monies, to fund investments in affordable housing.
The latest city effort will include a bold "Right of Return" policy that allows residents with generational ties to North/Northeast Portland to receive preference for city-funded housing opportunities; the preference policy applies to "current and former residents of specific areas ... that were subject to high levels of urban renewal, and their descendants."
The first test of that policy will be the future 80-unit Beatrice Morrow Building low-income apartments on MLK Boulevard, where Mayor Ted Wheeler and Fitzpatrick joined in the groundbreaking ceremony in April.
Fitzpatrick acknowledges the belated city action, but says that a dozen years after the MAX Yellow Line opened, "the city still hasn't kept its promise to stop displacement."
Published June 6, 2017
Secondary sources consulted for this story include:
• Portland Housing Bureau "State of Housing" report, 2015
• Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives Pathway 1000 Displacement Mitigation Initiative Report, November 2014
• "Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment, 1940-2000," by Karen J. Gibson, Portland State University professor of urban studies.
• Portland Tribune, "Making Tracks to Light Rail," April 30, 2004
• "Promoter ain't a dirty word," autobiography of Portland Trail Blazers co-founder Harry Glickman, Timber Press, 1978.
• "Toxic Inequality: How America's Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, & Threatens Our Future," by Thomas Shapiro, Basic Books, 2017.
Mark Kirchmeier is a journalist who lives in North Portland. He served on the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Advisory Committee from 2001 to 2010. This article is part of the Open:Housing project.
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