Gentrifying Portland: A tale of two cities

Story highlights

  • W. Kamau Bell visits Portland, Oregon, to talk to old and new residents and finds a divide
  • Bell: Growth is changing traditionally black neighborhoods; a rich history is being forced out

(CNN)I have always had a strange relationship to Portland, Oregon.

It's a great city. The people who live there love it openly and loudly, and it regularly appears on the lists of best American cities. But something has always felt weird to me about Portland. And not in the way Portlanders mean "weird" in their slogan "Keep Portland weird." It felt weird in an M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" way. Everything looks right, but something is definitely wrong. And I knew that before I had even been to Portland.
I travel a lot for comedy (and now for "United Shades of America"). So I have a thing I do before I visit any place in this country. It's actually two things, but I always do them in rapid succession. First, I look the city up on Wikipedia. I do this to check out the racial demographics of where I'm going, and also just to see if anything bad enough has ever happened in the city to justify its own section on Wikipedia. Trust me when I tell you that you want to avoid any city with a controversy section on its page.
Second, I Google the name of the city plus the word "racism." It's good to know a city's history. It's also a great way to find out if there are areas of town I should avoid. Once or twice a town has been small enough that when I do this, the number one thing that comes up is something like, "Comedian W. Kamau Bell Coming to Talk About Racism."
When I looked up Portland's Wikipedia page and checked out their racial demographics, I was stunned and confused. According to the 2010 census, Portland is 76% white. That's a lot for two reasons. 1) According to the 2010 census, the United States is 72% white, so Portland is whiter than America. 2) Portland is considered a major city. And we don't associate major cities with whiteness.
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In fact, that is usually a big part of what makes major cities "major": Everybody is there because that's where everything is happening. Think New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta and Dallas. All those major cities have bustling populations with large, dense neighborhoods filled with people from all over the world. People from other countries flock to those cities because they know they will be able to find a piece of home there.
Even San Francisco, a city that is openly mocked by many (OK, maybe it's just me ... and everybody I know ... and everybody they know) for being incredibly white. And San Francisco, according to the 2010 census, is only 48% white. So while San Francisco has definitely pushed black people out of the city — the black population dropped from about 15% in the 1970s to somewhere south of 6 percent today — the city still has substantial Asian (33%) and Latino (15%) populations ... for now.
Another list that Portland regularly appears on is "America's Whitest Major Cities." And while Portland moves up and down the lists of best American cities, it is usually number one with an ironic mullet on the list of whitest cities. So when I read that Portland was 76% white, I thought to myself, "What the Fox News is going on here?" How can a city that is so known for its liberal politics — and even more liberal lifestyles — be so conservative in its number of black people? With a 6 percent black population, Portland is just behind its fellow Pacific Northwest city of Seattle, which clocks in at almost 8 percent. Portland, how can you be so hip and yet so uncool? And let me be clear. When you are in Portland, it feels way more than 76% white. Because it's not like black people are sprinkled throughout the city like salt. Not at all.
Much like lima beans on a child's plate, the black people of Portland are pushed from the center out to the edges, where there seems to be a childlike attempt to forget them. So in my M. Night Shyamalan movie about Portland, I'm walking around the well-laid-out streets muttering to myself, "I see no black people." And this is not an accident. The history of Oregon is partially the history of a state that legislated not wanting black people around.
Yes, geography may have played a role in the lack of a big black population in Portland. Black people who escaped slavery generally said, "I'm headed North!" and not, "I'm headed Northwest!" But then Oregon also doubled down on that by passing anti-black laws.
And what racist legislation couldn't accomplish, gentrification has stepped in to take care of the rest.
During my time in Portland, I talked to Ural Thomas, a local music legend and one of the last black homeowners living in one of Portland's many rapidly changing parts of the city. He described how his neighborhood shrunk from being two-thirds black-owned to now only four black homeowners. Four! Why? Redlining.
Redlining was a not-so-uncommon practice in which banks refused to extend mortgages and loans to black residents. It was outlawed by the Fair Housing Act in 1968, but can still be found in subtler forms, like realtors not showing houses in "white areas" to black people. Even those black folks who already owned their homes in Thomas' neighborhood couldn't qualify for a loan to keep them. And even though I only focus on these issues in Portland in this episode, these same issues are affecting cities all over the country. These problems just seem so severe in Portland that, to me, it seems like if Portland can figure it out then the rest of us can.
On this episode, I tried to remind the mostly white hipsters of Portland about the black residents whom their presence had pushed out. And almost to a person they had the same type of reaction when I brought up Portland's (to me) shocking lack of diversity. It was something to the effect of ...
Hipster - "YAY, PORTLAND!"
Me - "Where are all the black people?"
Hipster - "Oh yeah..."
Hipster looks down at their feet until I go away.
And these are good people. I liked all of the people I met in Portland, from the hipsters to the hipsters who didn't want to be called hipsters. While a few of these hipsters were natives, most had moved to town with a dream of creating an artisanal, locally sourced, small batch lifestyle.
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Still, scattered throughout Portland are black people like Beverly, who has lived in her house most of her life. But she has seen the block near her house that used to be filled with several local black-owned businesses transformed into one giant Organic Grocery store that is far too expensive for her to buy her groceries there, plus the addition of an eight-story apartment building. And the black neighbors — who used to surround her home, watching out for each other — are now long gone. And those black neighbors have been replaced by new white neighbors. And many of these white neighbors won't even look Beverly in the eye. Damn.
Literally, there goes the neighborhood. The neighborhood is gone. I met with a group of mostly black people at the Genesis Community Fellowship who are fired up and angry, but also sorrowful and mournful about their city. They miss their people.
And it's not just the people they miss. It's also the houses that are gone. The houses are replaced by high rises and parking lots for construction crews that are soon to be high rises. And Beverly's only interaction with these "neighbors" is when they park in her driveway or somebody knocks on her door asking if she is interested in selling her house. She's not. But that doesn't stop them from asking. Capitalism doesn't care about sentimentality.
But the hipsters do care about sentiment. I know they do. Their whole lives are a living paean to feeling connected to things you love. My hope in this episode was to remind a few of them that they love diversity. And they love respecting the neighborhood that they live in and not transforming these neighborhoods beyond the recognition of the people who made the neighborhood in the first place.