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June 25th, 2008 BETH SLOVIC | Featured Stories
 

Anita Smith

Her kitchen is closed. But she’s still steamed.

     
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IMAGE: Vivian Johnson

After nearly seven years on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Hannah Bea’s Poundcake and More is closing July 3.

And when the restaurant does shut down, owner Anita Smith will owe taxpayers $143,000—the equivalent of more than 38,000 slices of classic pound cake, Hannah Bea’s signature dish.

But don’t expect contrition from Smith; she’s far too angry at the Portland Development Commission and gentrification in the King neighborhood for the uncertainty she says is driving the closure.

Last month, for example, Smith thought the building where she rents a corner space would be sold from under her. Rising rents on MLK are always a concern, too. But she says her five employees and her vendors always got paid on time. Except for a couple of occasions, her landlords always got their $1,500 monthly rent on time as well, she says.

In contrast, Smith hasn’t made a payment on her original $174,000 loan from the PDC since June 2005. She says the urban renewal agency comes last on her priority list since, she says, it cost her the money she owes by failing to guide her through the initial stages of her new business.

Officials at PDC say they did all they could to help Smith. They point to a four-page chronology of financial assistance and advice that the PDC gave to Smith. Her loan is technically in default, but the agency has held off on foreclosure. Now, the PDC may have to sue Smith to collect taxpayers’ money.

“The bottom line is, I’m 54 years old,” she says. “I came into this solid. And now what? I’ve got to leave broke? But everybody else wins. They all win.”

WW: Given the low survival rates for restaurants, shouldn’t you have expected this day to come?

Anita Smith: I’m ticked off because I know Hannah Bea’s is more than a restaurant. It’s a place where a 17-year-old black male might sit down with a 75-year-old white woman and eat breakfast. It’s a place where all different nationalities come. It’s right here in our neighborhood and everybody loves pound cake, for one. But then we’ve got grits, hot links, catfish, meatloaf. The mayor’s been here. [Greg] Oden’s been here. Brandon Roy’s brought his baby here.

How can you blame the PDC after it loaned you $174,000 at low interest in 2001, gave you a $15,000 grant in 2002 and then loaned you another $15,000 in 2004 at no interest for the term of the loan?

They’re trying to throw me under the bus. They’re saying, “We did this for Anita, and we did that for Anita. And don’t be mad at us. Yes, yes, yes, yes, we know, we know that it’s a good business and all. But we did this, and we did that.” No you didn’t! You cost me the money I owe you. And I can go on and on and on, on the money that I lost because of bad advice and wrong advice from the PDC.

You also blame gentrification for hurting your business. How?

It’s come in and moved us out. It’s like, I hate to put it this way, but I feel like you moved them out and Gresham is our new reservation. You moved the poorest people out of their neighborhood, and it was an area you wouldn’t even walk down before.

Are you talking about me personally? Or white people like me?

People like you. OK. People like you wouldn’t even walk down here when I opened.

But now “people like me” live here. So shouldn’t that have helped your business?

You would think. But I didn’t want you to move in and kick my family out. You see what I’m saying? My family and my friends and my co-workers—my world, my black world—is gone from an area that you would not drive down. And yeah, I get pretty pissed off about it. Because now they live out in Gresham, out in “the numbers” as my daughter told me. That’s the new quote because they’re out in “the numbers,” on 160th and 122nd. Now they have to catch the MAX, then transfer to a bus, just to come to Hannah Bea’s to eat. And now, why even come to MLK?

So you blame the PDC and gentrification. What’s your responsibility?

I was so naive. I thought for sure I’m coming up here and I’m being straight up with these people and of course, I thought, “They’ve got to know, they’re professionals.” I was naive and too trusting. Now it would never happen like it did before. But I can just see me now with my little beanie cap on sitting up there looking all innocent, “Well, you tell me what to buy. And you tell me where to sign. And you tell me what to do.”

You were 46 then. Is it possible to be naive at 46?

Hell yeah!…. This was a whole new world. I told you I never worked in a restaurant. The hell I know about a restaurant!

So why open one?

I decided I wanted something more. I wanted to build something more. I was 46 and knew I only had a few years left to do it. It didn’t start off as a restaurant; it started as a cafe and a sandwich shop. I was just looking for a place to bake.

Do you feel you were treated unfairly because you’re a black woman?

I do. As a woman first. Woman, and then black woman. They’re going, “It’s too much responsibility.” How would you like being tapped on the shoulder by a white man from PDC saying that?

But when you went to politicians like Mayor Tom Potter for help when your business needed it, didn’t they respond in part because you’re a black woman?

No, I think I’ve gotten more attention from politicians because of my business, because I won awards from Citysearch, because I’ve been on Al Roker and in Portland Monthly, and because I’ve been in Black Enterprise, and because I’ve worked the shit out of this business and been in Zupan’s, and I’ve got a product that they love and know the importance of it. And we are on MLK, and I am black, and there is no other place in Portland like this. And I’m just loud enough to say it. That’s why.


FACT: Before opening Hannah Bea’s, Smith sold cosmetics. She is hosting a fundraiser to help cover her final bills Saturday, June 28, from 4 PM until midnight at Hannah Bea’s, 3969 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
 
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