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July 4th, 2007 | News Stories
 

There Goes the Neighborhood

Race, real estate and gentrification on my block.

     
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The first time I saw the house we would eventually buy, there were several little kids on the porch across the street, really little kids all around the same ages, their faces barely popping above the railing as they jumped up and down. My first thought was, how darling. My second was, where are all the parents? My third was, all those kids are black.

I am not black. I grew up in Brooklyn and, after 17 years in Los Angeles, was driving around Portland with my husband looking at real estate in August 2003. We loved the house on Northeast Cook Street, thought about it all night and, early the next morning, drove slowly past, several times—until the woman across the street, on whose porch the kids had been playing and who was now dressed for church, shot us a wary look as she got in her car. You would, too, if people not of your race were trawling at 6:30 in the morning outside your front door.

I knew nothing about Portland. My husband, who grew up here, said the house's location—in Boise-Eliot, an area roughly bordered by Northeast Broadway, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Skidmore Avenue and Overlook Bouvelard/Interstate Avenue—could not be beat. Also, I'd seen him scowl when we looked at properties in Laurelhurst, in Ladd's Addition. It was all too done, he said; he didn't want to move someplace where everybody had their nice little frou-frou lawn. Boise-Eliot wasn't like that; the huge and elaborate Victorian and Craftsman and Foursquare homes were as often as not in disrepair.

We made an offer on the house. A few days later, while in the produce aisle of an L.A. supermarket, my husband's cell phone rang, a semi-frantic call from his aunt who lives in Beaverton. "You can't move there," she said, explaining that it was dangerous: too many gangs, too many drugs. I heard, though she did not say, too black.

We bought the three-bedroom 1905 house for $304,000 and, in the summer of 2004, moved in. I met the kids, who immediately sat on my steps and introduced themselves and their baby dollies. They played outside all day and into the night. Seeing their bikes left on the sidewalk, sometimes for days, made the street feel both old-fashioned and safe, as did my neighbors, sitting in the evenings on their porches.

Before the year was out, the college kids renting the house next door were displaced by the owner, a 50ish white guy who eventually sold to a white couple. The dilapidated Craftsman across the street was sold by a black gentleman to another white couple. Last month, the duplex that was home to three of the little girls I'd seen that first day, went on the market. In less than two years, the racial mix on my end of Cook had gone from 50/50 black/white to 70 percent white.

A few weeks ago, I asked my neighbor across the street about a hunter-green Ford Taurus parked in front of her house that hadn't moved in eight months and was now covered in moss. Catherine said it was her ex's, it wasn't running, she didn't have the key, and if I wanted it off the street, I could call the city to have it towed.

That night at about 9:30, there was a knock on my door. It was Catherine, leaning on the hiking pole she uses as a cane and wanting to know, "Why is it important to you to have that car gone?"

I told Catherine to forget it; the car didn't matter. Later, I wondered whether I was one of those a-holes who call themselves "urban pioneers" but who become self-congratulatory and smug—the sort who suggest you might, for the sake of the street, trim your lawn.

In fact, in 2005, not long after I wrote an article for WW, someone posted this comment about my husband and me on a local blog:

They refuse to acknowledge anyone but their stuffy, insular, catty group of what seem to be terribly-unhappy-with-their-station-in-life yuppies and silver-spoon-fed wealthy, lay-about know-it-alls.... It is mostly people like her and her dillitante [sic] husband who have jacked the housing market up her so ridiculously high that we could never afford to buy a home....

The changes on Northeast Cook Street started long before I got here. The Northern European immigrants who built the houses around 1905 were replaced in the 1940s by a predominantly African-American working-class, which is now making way for a mostly white creative class: the designers, entrepreneurs and restaurateurs putting their imprint on the city. Some of these will buy the condos planned two blocks away, on the corner of Williams Avenue and Fremont Street in BackBridge Station, where units measuring between 850 and 1,610 square feet are priced from $299,000 to $599,000.

When I moved to Boise-Eliot, I knew I was moving into a black neighborhood, but did not have the qualms white friends assumed I did about safety or "white guilt." It did not occur to me that I was part of a wave of people washing into, and perhaps eventually eroding, a community that had been built over the past 60 years.

I was not oblivious to the fact that as a Caucasian, I might experience some prejudice. After spending 10 years with a Native American and having a child with him, after being roughed up by Indian girls in Montana because they felt I was stealing a man who by rights was theirs, and occasionally being told I was to blame for 400 years of genocide, I've learned there is only so much responsibility I'm willing to take for the earth continuing to turn. But the divisions on Cook Street are also making me see how the pursuit of certain dreams and ideals directly disturbs the lifework of others, some of whom I live next door to.

A native of Chicago's south side, Catherine Senitz came to Portland in 1984, lived at the Y and, in 1991, after an aunt died and left her $8,000, bought a home in Boise-Eliot, "the cheapest [house] I could find." It was in foreclosure and boarded up, she says, but within her grasp. "I put $8,000 down and paid $100 a month. It was $18,500 for that house." Even at that price, "people thought I was crazy, you know? A lot of people didn't even want to come to Northeast."

At that time, Catherine and her then-2-year-old son were the only white family on the block. "I was kind of leery about it, because it's always hard to be a minority, but [my next-door neighbor] Veverly came out and welcomed me with open arms," she says. "Dave Buchanan used to live in that great big house [next door] with about 20 guys; there was a lot of drinking and stuff. At first, I was afraid of those guys, but I got to know them, and they had sad, sad stories to tell. A lot of them were drug addicts. I used to give them—well, I still am poor, but I was poorer then—stuff I'd get from the food bank."

Now, the neighborhood is changing. Does she feel as comfortable?

"Actually, in some ways, I don't, because I can't keep up with it, you know what I mean?"

When I said something about the car, did it make her wish the neighborhood could be as it was before?

"I think that's true," she says. "It got to me. I thought, why does this make a difference? Why do we have to have this tidy thing? See, you were allowed stuff like that, before, without people getting on your case about it. Sometimes people just don't have the money to change things, you know?"

Catherine, 60, does not have much money; she has degenerative hip disease and has for years lived on disability payments. She does, however, own her house. While she knows what she can get for it ("I keep an eye out a little. I'd say, at least $300,000, maybe $350,000"), she's "going to hang on to it, for my son."

"That house was like a gift from God. It was really like, I can't believe I can own a house, you know?" she says. "And where would I go? I don't want to live out in the suburbs or in some condo."

When Kirsten Jenkins bought her 1906 Old Portland-style house on Northeast Cook Street and Rodney Avenue in 1994, she was working as a flight attendant. She paid $70,000, at the time considered outrageous. "The neighbors were saying, 'Oh my gosh! I can't believe you paid that much!'" In two years, she says, the house doubled in price. "It just went boom."

In 1997, Kirsten, who lives with her boyfriend, Todd, and his two grade-school-age daughters, got into real estate. "Even Realtors didn't really understand what a great neighborhood it was. What's really most interesting are the lots," she says, citing one on Northeast Thompson and Rodney that recently sold for $250,000. "When I started in real estate, $35,000 was a good price," she says. "That's what's happened in the last 10 years."

There have been other changes. "Fremont and MLK, where they're going to have a wine bar [Terroir], that was Food King; they were selling crack out of there," she says. "They were selling crack out of the Chevron."

Kirsten, 44, says that though the crime was "unnerving," she was determined not to move. She waited out the gangs ("I could never get it straight: Blood, red, blue, whatever—what is that?") and outlived those in the house behind her, owned by Dave Buchanan, which she characterized as "a nightmare."

"It used to consume a lot of my time, calling the police. But I haven't even made a phone call to the police, I can't even remember the last time. And it was ironic that [Dave's] was my problem house, and I ended up selling it. What a win-win situation."

Kirsten says she's experienced some racial backlash, including the time a few years ago when a woman down the street got drunk, bashed out her own car window, and started screaming at Kirsten.

"She said something like, 'You white bitch, you shouldn't even be in this neighborhood,'" recalls Kirsten. "If we were to offer our bigoted statements, it would cause so much of a ruckus—anywhere, really. You can lose your job, like Imus."

But, she says, these instances are on the decline, and anyway, she thinks Cook Street has turned a corner. "I like the personalities of the people that move here," she says. "They're the people that don't want homogenous neighborhoods. That are more artistic-minded and enjoy some funky-type things, lots of entrepreneurial ventures."

Arthur Campbell feels differently than Kirsten.

It's 7 in the evening, and he's outside his home on Cook Street at a patio table, doing Bible study. His wife, Veverly, a Montessori teacher, is inside with four of her grandkids, whose mother lives around the corner and is often in trouble because, as Arthur puts it, "she can't keep her hands off things sometimes, don't belong to her."

I ask Arthur, whose Crown Victoria I hear start every weekday morning at 5:40, when he leaves for work as a machine operator, what the block was like 20 years ago, when he bought his three-story, 1907 home for $45,500.

"It was quiet, calm and peaceful," he says. "It was all black people up in here...then all of a sudden, all the black families just start moving out, moving out, next thing you know, I said, 'Dang, all these white folks coming back over here?'" He laughs. "Look, how it used to be was, 'How you doing? What's up, man?' Now, you walk down the street, [say to] the white, 'How you doing?' They will walk right past. I hate that."

"I just don't really agree with all these white folks around here now. It seems like we're getting pushed out. To me, I call it ethnic cleaning. I do. That's the way I feel."

Why does he think black families like his are leaving?

"I feel it's the government and the real-estate thing," he says. "I look at these businesses, and I mean, all of a sudden, you look at Alberta, Mississippi, it's all white. I say the government's giving these people [money].... They say, everything seems depressed over here, so what are we going to do? We're going to bring all these white folks back over here and boost things up. Why does it have to be that?"

Arthur's right that the Portland Development Commission has flagged the neighborhood as an "urban renewal area" and offers incentives to new businesses. But he does not believe black business owners are getting a fair shake: "The PDC, if there are five or 10 blacks that apply for some businesses here, why can't they give it to them?"

(Fred Atieno, business finance manager for the PDC, says in the past several years, the PDC has financially assisted black-owned businesses along Williams, including Tropicana Restaurant, and the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs headquarters.)

With fewer black neighbors and black businesses, will Arthur, 58, stay on Cook Street? The question makes him laugh.

"I am not going nowhere," he says, and laughs some more. "I am serious. I am not going anywhere."

Steve Duh bought the house next door to mine last November for $418,000.

"Right before buying this house, I was living 10 blocks up the road at Alberta and Rodney, and I was flipping," he says. "I would buy a place, live in it for two years, fix it up and sell it. I did two houses like that; this is the third. We were able to finance our way in."

Steve's wife, Lisa, seven months pregnant and the mother of a 9-year-old, thinks the block is ideal: five minutes to her daughter's school; two minutes to Interstate 5, which Lisa takes to get to work at Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation. "And," she says, "it's 10 minutes away from our favorite coffee shop, Fresh Pot."

Steve, who has a home-based business as a consultant on open-space planning, says he'd seen Mississippi Avenue change "for the better," and suspects the same is in store for Boise-Eliot.

"You got your Queen Annes, you got your Victorians...there aren't that many opportunities left in Portland to fix up an old house that has some charm to it," he says.

I tell them about the block-long complex three blocks north on Williams; how the developer, Jon Kellogg, seeks to turn the former bicycle factory into an artisan-centric "eastside foodie mecca." That, in fact, my husband has considered opening a business there; that Mayor Tom Potter recently sent a letter saying, "Portland remains steadfast in our commitment to a healthy business climate and the ongoing success of companies" like Kellogg's. And as much as I am in favor of this, as much as I might get a kick out of being able to walk around the corner and buy some gourmet cheese, I sort of don't want to live among hundreds of other people who want to. In other words, we are both the solution and the problem.

"We have mixed feelings about it, too," says Steve. "My background's in urban planning, so I was trained to look at gentrification and pay attention to how changing times relate to changing populations, and how that's not always good, especially for those who've been here for a period of time. Maybe they're getting forced out, or maybe they don't feel the community connections they used to have. When the church burned down, there's a population of folks who had a strong sentiment toward the neighborhood, even though a lot of the members don't live in the area; they've all moved out."

The church he refers to is the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, a largely black church on the corner of Cook and Rodney, which, on the night of Feb. 5, 2007, went up in a spectacular blaze that sent orange embers 400 feet in the air. Every neighbor was in the street, watching the firemen, watching one another's kids, watching the church's spire become an arrow of fire and then burn out.

And now, I tell Steve, the church is utterly gone.

"And the future for that site is up for question," he says. "With the positive change, there's still that sense that people are losing out or ties to the past are being severed."

And is that the definition of gentrification?

"I think of it as an intentional change in population and income over time, whereby the population is going toward a more white middle class," he says. "And I say intentionally—I stress that—because there are certain city policies that favor that sort of change and turnover, whether it's land use and zoning, or city-backed financing for storefront improvements. Those sorts of things facilitate certain change in certain areas. So, from one sense, you can say this area is gentrifying."

And perhaps we'll be the people who won't want new people moving in, because we were here first.

"Well, we were," he says. "It is relative."

A few months after we moved to Cook Street, I heard my then-15-year-old daughter tell a friend, "We live in the ghet-to." I told her, ha—you want to see ghetto? I'll take you back to Brooklyn, to Bed-Stuy, and then I realized, the brownstones there had all been restored and now sell for millions. Last month, I heard a report on NPR about how some bodegas in Brooklyn are catering to the new clientele, who want organic milk.

"We have fancy-fancy soup; it's called Wolfgang Puck," the owner said to the radio reporter. "You know him, right?"

Our neighborhood isn't quite there.

We don't as yet have a store, except for the one on Williams and Fremont, where I once saw the owner exit, put 50 cents in the Oregonian box, take out all the newspapers and place them on his counter to sell.

And on the corner of Cook and Williams, there's a crumbling cinderblock building that every few weeks is covered with fresh graffiti—not tagging, but these very energetic, amoeba-like characters. I love that there's room for this on the street. I don't know that incoming residents will agree.

I am sitting on my stoop with my next-door neighbor, telling her I'd like the neighborhood to stay exactly as it is.

"But you know that won't happen, Nancy," she says. "You know there's going to be less black people."

This is Jalane Johnson, also known as Squeaky. We are the same age; our daughters share a birthday. She's an A-student at Cascade PCC getting a degree in criminal justice; I know this because, when her Internet has gone down, she's checked her grades on my computer. I once deciphered some government paperwork for her, and when the pimp around the corner was saying inappropriate things to my daughter, Squeaky knew whom I meant and interceded. I had asked for her help...

"Because he was black," she says.

Yes, I say, and because I sensed he'd listen to her.

"Where for you, it would have been a little friction," she says. 'Like, 'Yeah, bitch, your daughter shouldn't be alone.' But maybe he kind of respect what I'm saying, because he was like, 'Ooh, I thought she was 18 or 20. I am sorry, I won't do that.' And it didn't happen no more."

No, it didn't.

Squeaky's lived in Northeast Portland her whole life, on this block since 2000. What's changed?

"When I first moved here it wasn't that friendly," she says. "They were kind of sticking to themselves until I started forcing people to say hi."

What about the shifting racial balance?

"It doesn't bother me that our neighborhood has more white people in it than it did. It doesn't bother me because I'm not racist," she says. "I say like this: If you are in fear of a white person coming and purchasing your house or the neighborhood turning into a white neighborhood, then don't sell your house!"

I tell her I can see that. But I can also see being pissed that your neighborhood is no longer your neighborhood.

"But this is no one's neighborhood," she says. "It's the city's neighborhood.... A lot of black people think it is a conspiracy, especially when you have Troutdale, Gresham, where you get a newspaper: 'first month's rent free, no security deposit.' That's luring black people out that way.... There is no unity in the black community; that's why they're moving out."

I tell her, I don't think there's any special unity in the white community.

"I think they do, because, when they open up businesses, look how they flourish," she says. "Look out at Alberta; they're flourishing. Look out at Mississippi; they're flourishing. They're flourishing because white people patronize white businesses. Black people won't patronize black businesses because they're too jealous, they're too envious. You see what I'm saying? Rather than black people patronize a black business, they put him down: 'Oh, he thinks he's all that.' Whereas a white person [for a white business] is like, 'Yay!'"

Squeaky, who rents her house from a relative for $181 a month, says the street is getting better overall. "I can say, there's less gunplay," she says. "Whether they're white or black, they happen to be white, there's less crime on our block."

Crime, I know, is something Squeaky won't put up with: In the summer of 2005, her oldest child had a dispute with a cousin about a car, a dispute that ended with him shooting and wounding the cousin. When Squeaky found out, she called the cops and told them where they could find her son. They still, however, needed to find the gun, and told Squeaky they'd be coming to her house, even though she told them the gun was not there. She waited on her porch for the police for hours, until she went inside to check on her youngest, which is when law enforcement pulled up, setting off concussion grenades and battering down her door.

"They're screaming, 'Hold it right there! Put your hands on the wall!'" she says. "And I'm like, 'I was sitting on the porch waiting for you!'"

She is laughing about it now, but was not several mornings after it happened, when we sat in my yard and she cried for her son, and I cried with her. I understood her conflict between protecting her child and knowing she had to turn him in, in order to save him. It cemented me to Squeaky, as does every day seeing her 7-year-old daughter, who skips up my porch to say, "Hi!" and, yesterday, to tell me to close my eyes and then, "Open them!" as she showered me with rose petals she'd pulled from her mother's nicely tended flower beds. All these things happen on my block.

"Anyway, Nancy, I don't care who comes to this neighborhood, as long as they're friendly," says Squeaky. "Long as they respectful, we can sit down, and if we don't agree, that's good, because we're not always going to agree on situations or issues. Long as you respect my opinion, and I respect your opinion, we're good. We're good."

On Saturday afternoons, Arthur works in his yard with the radio tuned to 1480 AM, a station that plays 1970s R&B. I like this music; it reminds me of being a kid in Brooklyn. Last month, I was sitting on my stoop listening to "Love Machine" when I noticed: There were fewer kids playing on the street. Later, I learned the three little girls in the duplex had moved the night before, just like that, no ceremony. The sign in front reads, "Sale Pending." A week later, the hunter-green Ford Taurus was gone.


In 2005, according to the U.S. Census, Boise-Eliot's population was 64 percent white, 31 percent black and 7.4 percent Hispanic/Latino, while Multnomah County was 77.3 percent white, 5.5 percent black and 9.7 percent Hispanic/Latino.

In 2002, 32 houses sold in Boise-Eliot for an average price of $181,740. The Portland average was $218,200.

From May 2006 to May 2007, 73 houses sold in Boise-Eliot for an average price of $330,715. The Portland average was $341,900.

Seventy-nine percent of Boise-Eliot Elementary School's 415 students receive free or reduced-price lunch; to qualify for reduced price, a family of four needs a household income below $37,000. The school spends $6,309 per student.

Citywide, 45.6 percent of Portland Public Schools' 47,800 students receive free or reduced-price lunch. The budget is $9,164 per student.

 
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