Saturday, May 16, 2009

Gentrification, Personified

Look at the image above and play "Count the People of Color." I found two.

I found this little blurb about Alberta Street, here in Portland. This street is pretty much the living embodiment of gentrification in Portland, and a perfect example of the tension between the young incoming, middle-class white hipsters and those who lived here before (folks of color, with less money). If you don't see the irony and/or why this description fills me with disgust, you haven't been reading this blog very long:

What was once a deteriorating and crime-ridden part of the city is now an epicenter of diversity, art and culture* in the Rose City. Trendy little art galleries, novelty stores and unique restaurants have replaced the boarded-up windows. Portlanders of all kinds come to this event. Held in September, it's a lively celebration complete with live music and dancing, food, kids' stuff and a free trolley that rolls right through the middle of everything. Come and see why Northeast Portland is quickly becoming the capital for culture in this town.

* Okay, so I have to comment - apparently, "diversity" means a bunch of white people with intentionally-ugly fashion sense and the six people of color who haven't gotten fully pushed out yet. "Culture" is, of course, the white kind.


Ashley said...

It's funny. I work in San Francisco, and my coworker (a Bay Area native who hasn't really traveled anywhere inside or outside of the U.S.) is currently fixated on moving to Portland. She raves about the bike lanes and the cleanliness and the relatively cheap apartments. All I can think is that it's probably beautiful, but - as a person of color - I don't think I'd feel very comfortable in Oregon.

On a related note, I used to think I wanted to be an urban planner. The books I read would often mention the revitalization of Portland. The general consensus was that Portland's racial homogeneity is a big factor in the city's "success" (or gentrification, as it were). Racial tensions and racism go a long way toward explaining the problems most city residents contend with, from poverty and inadequate schooling to neglected neighborhoods and police brutality. Being overwhelming White, Portland doesn't have to cope with those things in quite the same way. I've never been, so I can't comment on how accurate those statements are. But, it makes a lot of sense to me. I'm just guessing you can get a lot more done when you don't have people complaining about "welfare queens,""immigrants taking [their] jobs," and "reverse racism!"

CVT said...

@ Ashley -
If only what you say was true. Portland still has all the racial issues of other cities, but it's just easier to stomp down and ignore, because there are so few of us that we don't even get heard for a minute. Plenty of racism against Latin@s coming in to "steal jobs." Plenty of inequality between races. Injustice galore and a completely broken education system. Trust me, our police have no problem profiling and abusing their power (violently) - we've got our unarmed black men being shot and killed here, too.

But - because it's so white - there's just no movement. The majority can ignore it. The media can push it away. And so the rest of you think all we have is harmony and cleaner air.

As for your friend - there are less people here. There are, indeed, a lot of bike lanes. But between the lack of sunlight and lack of people of color, this city is a burden on the darker side of humanity. Honestly - every friend of color I have itches and dreams about leaving this city. There are great things, of course, but it's a burden (and I'll be talking about that more in a post soon).

CVT said...

Oh - and the reason things are so cheap is because there's no money or jobs (especially now).

thelady said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lxy said...

Reading this was kinda depressing.

Is Portland really this bad?

I guess that "progressive" image of Portland is not quite true.

How many Asian Americans are there in the Portland area?

Are there any significant Asian American organizations and institutions?

Macon D said...

I've had white acquaintances who live in Portland and rave about it. I remember a job there that 1500 people from around the country applied for (that number suggests what a desirable place Portland is, at least for a lot of white people). I've asked about the overwhelming whiteness, and they acted like they'd never thought about that before. They brushed away my questions, and they're still comfortable there, or seem to be. It's a bizarre form of denial, really, the way white people can be comfortable in places that are completely or almost completely white. That comfort calls for a collective forgetting of so much that would undercut all that "health" and complacency. How healthy and happy and well adjusted, I wonder, can such people actually be? What's under that facade? What does it cost to maintain that facade?

Ashley said...

CVT, thanks so much for responding to my post. Rereading it, I should have been a little bit clearer. It's not that I thought that Portland was progressive with regards to racial issues. I just thought that the city was so White that it didn't have any people of color (whether residents or immigrants) to point to when things went wrong. I don't know if that makes sense to anyone but me! On the other hand, I know what it's like to be a member of California's very small Black population. Being small certainly hasn't made us immune to blame.

I remember reading that Portland was at least 90% White, maybe 6% Asian-American, and the remainder made up of other racial minorities.
I checked out Wikipedia and was surprised to see that Portland is "only" 74% White (with most of the remaining population evenly divided between Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, and African-Americans).
In retrospect, the books I read were written at least ten years ago. It's possible the demographics they listed were true at the time of publication. Or I could just be misremembering the numbers.

My co-worker who wants to move there is White, so I doubt she has the same considerations that we do. Every person of color I know from Portland (all 3 of them) attended an HBCU, which gave me some indication about what the city was lacking.

Ashley said...

I apologize for the double post. I just wanted to agree with Macon D's comment about Portland's desirability. I think a lot of people have a utopian view of the place. A few years back, I read an AOL article about this pizzeria that gave homeless men some food and maybe a few bucks for holding up signs that read "Pizza Schmizza paid me to hold this sign instead of asking for money." The article asked whether the practice was exploitative (Personally, I think it was). The response from most commenters was "Portland's so great. Even the homeless are gainfully employed." "The homeless in Portland are so lucky. I do more than just hold a sign, and I earn less than 2 slices of pizza an hour." I know it's the internet, but still. Totally bizarre!

CVT said...

@ Macon D - I would argue that it's not actually denial that keeps the majority of white folks in a place like Portland so "happy" about it - it's simply a lack of awareness. I am sure they really don't consider it (and not out of malice or a conscious intent). And I get that - because they don't HAVE to. If I could avoid thinking about race and being bothered by how things fall out, I would happily do so, as well. Especially if I was surrounded by other folks "like me" who also did not think about it (and therefore didn't bring it up).

And then there are those white folks here who ARE aware of it (like a few friends of mine), and it eats at them, as well. For those folks, it's almost worse, because there's this sense of guilt about living here that I can avoid.

And back to Ashley - Portland is dominated by young, "faux-liberals." I call them "faux-liberals" because they are very passionate about activism and change, but young and mostly ignorant of the bigger picture. For them, they can take pride in the "greenness" of Portland without acknowledging that you have to be in a position of privilege to even AFFORD to shop/eat at "green" establishments. For them, they really think the fact that they and ten other white people work with kids of color means that they "promote diversity."

It's a very confusing, frustrating place, at times.

Is my bitterness coming through? Just a little bit?

Greg said...

I have mixed feelings about "gentrification". In theory, taking race and money and other icky things out of the equation, I see great value in stepping into any location and bettering things -- fixing them, making them more beautiful, etc. In practice, I realize that this sort of activity must be grounded in a social reality. We have to think about the social causes and consequences of gentrification and factor in all of those icky things like race, class, money, etc. (As an aside, I also realize that what qualifies as "fixing" and "beautifying" things can be quite contentious depending on your values and aesthetics -- but as a starting point, I'm thinking about things like drinking fountains that don't work, parks that aren't kept up, roads with pot holes, peeling paint, this sort of stuff.)

But as a white male (who, mind you, doesn't have a ton of money), how can I not participate in gentrification? I may very well be the epitome of what you hate about gentrification -- I live in the Western Addition (a historically poorer part of SF, with a relatively large concentration of black people), just beside Pacific Heights (one of the richest and whitest parts of SF), on Divisadero St., which has been gentrifying (or "being gentrified" might be preferred) for quite a few years.

So, again, as a white male, my simple presence here in the Western Addition is part of the larger scheme of gentrification. But where am I supposed to live? I can't afford (nor do I want) to live in uppity white parts of town filled with former frat boys and sorority girls. Nor do I want to live in the "trendier" parts of town with dirty hippies, vintage shops, and hookah bars that have already gone through their version of gentrification. And to be honest, I really like the condo building I live in, which happens to have a good mix of people (most households are Chinese, but there are also a few white people, a Japanese family, and a Russian family), and our building manager does a great job keeping it up, inside and out. It does seem strange, though, that in this part of town there is not a single black household in the building. (I guess maybe this is Asian gentrification?)

Another thing that contributes to my mixed feelings is the fact that I am gay. I really think it's more than just a stereotype that wherever the gays go, property values tend to increase. Let's face it, we are some of the major perpetrators of gentrification -- we take a relatively cheap piece of property that, with a bit of ingenuity and elbow grease, turns into something gorgeous. Enough of these property flips spurs the city to keeping up that part of town, and so on from there. Which is partially what happened and then turned against us in the Castro, the historically gay part of town that now has rich, straight, white families moving in, what with younger gays unable to afford rents or mortgages there. (Not bitter.)

As you can see, I understand the value of "ghettos" (gay and otherwise) if only for the purposes of keeping communities together and providing community members with a safe haven. I also see the value in the improvement of one's physical surroundings. How can these competing goals be reconciled? Are they inherently competing goals? What are the internal and external factors that contribute to their competition? Whatever the answers, I really don't see how I, personally, can not participate in gentrification.

thelady said...

part of the solution is to have mixed income housing, sliding scale housing, and discounts for local civil servants

that and their needs to be some attitude adjustment on the part of the gentrifiers: minorities, elderly, and poor people are not the problem, don't move into a neighborhood act all entitled and complain about the locals

mama d said...

Interesting shot of the Mission District, SF: