BY DAVID SMIGELSKI
This winter, Portland is grappling with the results of decades of gentrification in historically Black neighborhoods. These conflicts have played out over decades in Portland's North and Northeast quadrants. We present this story as one example of the complicated dynamics of neighborhood change.
From the Dec. 11, 1996, issue:
When Leslie Kochan bought a tidy little bungalow in the King Neighborhood three years ago, she did it as much from a sense of commitment as for the bargain prices that are turning Northeast Portland upside down.
"I wanted to live in a culturally and racially diverse neighborhood," says Kochan, a white, fortyish woman who maybe pushes 100 pounds if she wears heavy clothing.
Kochan earns her living assessing hazardous waste sites for the Department of Environmental Quality. In her spare time she is a board member for Jobs With Justice, a nonprofit organization that advocates for low-income workers.
She moved here from Sabin, another inner Northeast neighborhood on the rebound from decades in decline, so she knew the streets still had their rough spots. But the remnants of gangs and hard drugs that still cling to Northeast Portland didn't scare her.
So in 1993, for $46,500 and a pledge to perform 50 hours of community service, Kochan acquired a rehabilitated house in the 800 block of Northeast Shaver Street from a nonprofit housing group called HOST— Housing Our Families One Street at a Time.
Today, she is having second thoughts.
Too often, Kochan says, she is awakened by the honking and hollering that accompany a steady stream of visitors to her next-door neighbor, a single black mom with six children. Kochan has packed the side windows of her home with sound-proofing foam to block noise from the house to the east, which is so close to Kochan's that a chubby person might feel claustrophobic squeezing between them.
Noise, however, is the least of Kochan's worries. She believes the house next door is a drug house. She's told the owner of the house that his tenant, 26- year-old Jacita Yarborough, has numerous guests who stay for days or weeks at a time. Kochan told the police that she's watched young black men counting wads of bills out front.
The police don't buy it. Down at Northeast Precinct, they are starting to treat Kochan like the boy who cried wolf.
"We got a complaint about a year ago on that house," Officer James Harding of the Portland Police Bureau's Drugs and Vice unit says. "Someone thought they were growing marijuana. They also thought they smelled chemicals indicating methamphetamine manufacturing. We went to the house and asked for permission to search the premises. She said, 'C'mon in.' We didn't find anything. Not even a roach in the ashtray."
"A few months later," Harding adds, "we heard about it again. We tried to make a controlled buy using a confidential informant—twice." Nothing happened.
Harding sounds nearly as frustrated as Kochan. He believes she is trying to use the police "as a hammer to get rid of neighbors she doesn't like. I'm not out to get rid of obnoxious neighbors."
Adds Officer Marcia Barbour, a member of the Neighborhood Response Team: "This is a poor neighborhood. A lot of people have large families. It may be irritating to live next door to them, but it's not against the law."
Welcome to the downside of neighborhood revitalization. The near northeast side, long the invisible quarter of Portland, has been plagued for decades by the evils usually associated with intercity decay—dilapidated housing, drugs, prostitution and more. But the area is changing.
Northeast Portland is becoming attractive to hordes of middle-income professionals. Rents and land prices here have doubled, tripled and even quadrupled in just a few years, but the neighborhoods are still downright cheap by westside standards. As a result, the racial and cultural composition of the neighborhoods is changing. And with the change comes conflict.
In 1986, the average selling price of a single-family house in Northeast Portland was 150,000. The average today is a little more than $105,000, says Ethan Seltzer of the Institute of Metropolitan Studies at Portland State University. But even that jump doesn't tell the story, because Seltzer's statistic includes home sales in more affluent Irvington.
"It's the fastest-appreciating urban area anywhere in the country other than Park Avenue," claims Fred Stewart, president of the King Neighborhood Association. Some houses in King, Sabin, Woodlawn, Vernon, Piedmont and other inner-northeast neighborhoods that 10 years ago sold for $10,000 are worth $150,000 to $175,000 today, says Stewart, a 31-year-old realtor who has sold 393 of those houses himself.
Partly as a result of this upward pressure on real estate prices, the racial and cultural composition of the area is tipping. In 1990, blacks outnumbered whites 2-to-1 in the King neighborhood, according to census figures. Up-to-the-minute numbers are hard to come by, but city growth forecasters predict that the area will be mostly white shortly after the turn of the century. Those squeezed out of Northeast by rising prices are surfacing in low-income pockets of Gresham, Troutdale, Hillsboro and other outlying areas.
It's within this context of change, economic dislocation and suspicion that the old and new arrivals to Northeast Portland must dance, and the steps are not easy to master—for the residents themselves or for the police, who are caught in the middle.
The clashes pit new arrivals vs. established residents; homeowners vs. landlords and tenants; families who like quiet evenings and tended yards vs. younger people who park on lawns and blast loud music. Perhaps the most acute clash, though, is white vs. black—more specifically, the low-level anxiety that many white people have regarding black people, black men in particular.
It may be rhetorical, but would the white middle-class arrivals who call 911 to complain about four black guys drinking malt liquor in the street be as quick to rat on four short-haired white guys drinking microbrews?
"We have this constantly," says Kenneth Edwards, who mediates neighborhood disputes as part of his job with the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods. "New folks come in and they see everyone as their enemy."
Edwards, who is black, has lived in the King neighborhood since 1953. For him, the current conflicts are deja vu—in reverse. When his family moved to Northeast Portland, they watched the area turn black as whites fled. "As black families moved in, there were cultural differences with white families," he recalls. "Now it's reversed. Black families are moving out. This is gentrification. The face of the neighborhood has changed."
Edwards estimates that at least 50 percent of the complaints received by the Northeast Coalition alleging criminal activity are really personal disputes between neighbors with differing lifestyles.
"We have one block in Humboldt that is almost at Civil War status, and it's divided almost entirely along the lines of new arrivals vs. old," Edwards says. "We see people who move in, they haven't even taken the time to knock on their neighbor's door and introduce themselves. The next thing you know, they're going around and saying they're involved in drugs. I'd take offense at that, too."
"That's not the situation in my neighborhood," Kochan insists. "I go over and do things for my neighbors. I know everyone who lives on my block and everyone up and down the next two. I get along with everyone but the residents of one house."
The contrast is stark between Leslie Kochan's tidy little two-story and the rental next door. The asbestos siding on the battleship- gray rental is chipped. The muddy front yard and tree lawn are devoid of green. Duct-taped plastic flaps against windows where storms should be. A muddy puppy paws and wags on the sagging porch.
Jacita Yarborough, the neighbor Kochan is complaining about, says she doesn't understand what the problem is. She is uncomfortable talking to WW about the beef, but even so she shrugs and opens the front door to the house she rents for $700 a month.
Inside, an infant gurgles on a well-worn couch while another child peeks around a corner. Three other adults—two men and a woman—watch and listen as a white reporter explains his reason for the visit. Yarborough finally decides she doesn't want to be quoted and retreats to stir a boiling pot in the kitchen.
Andre Young, a 26-year-old friend who says he spends enough time in Yarborough's house to know what's going on, isn't so reticent. "I'll talk to you," he says. Young works with functionally challenged kids at the Center for Continuous Improvement.
"If people are worried about what's happening here, why don't they just come over here and see what's going on? They would find caring, loving people over here.
"I wouldn't call it racism," says Young, a black, broad-shouldered and boisterous man who moved to Portland eight years ago from Arkansas. "It's more that they're scared. If I go outside in a long T-shirt and a pair of Converse, they think I'm a gangbanger and call police. All you see around here is closed doors and closed blinds. There's no reason to be scared if they get to know us. But once they call the police on you, you don't want to get to know them. You want to tell them to get lost."
A few blocks from Northeast Shaver Street, Michael Byerly, chairman of the Sabin Community Association, is as frustrated as Kochan. A fourplex at the corner of Northeast 20th Avenue and Prescott Street, he says, has become a real pain.
Two drive-by shootings at that corner sent neighbors scurrying last summer. Several nearby residents are threatening to move because of the constant noise, traffic and drug dealing they associate with the apartment. They say they've found syringes on the sidewalk in front of the fourplex. Some of them suspect links between visitors to the apartments and recent break-ins.
"It's real apparent drug activity," says Byerley, who is working with neighbors and police to document troubles at the fourplex in the hope of getting the property shut down. Even with the onset of bad weather, he says, "it hasn't slowed down much, if at all."
Steve Borcherding can attest to that. Borcherding rehabilitates houses in the Sabin area for a local community development corporation, a job that requires him to drive past the troublesome corner on a regular basis.
Borcherding laughs when he talks about a scene early last month in front of the fourplex, in which he got stuck behind a line of drivers he says were buying drugs.
"It looked like a Jack-in-the- Box drive through," Borcherding says. "A guy would take money from the driver and disappear into the apartments. A minute later, he'd come back out, do a handshake exchange, the car would drive off and he'd move to the next car. I honked at them to hurry up, but they just ignored me."
John Andrews is a Grant High School teacher who owns both the house adjacent to Kochan and the troublesome fourplex at 2005 NE Prescott St., and at least 10 other properties in the area.
A check of police and Bureau of Buildings records reveals dozens of complaints against Andrews' tenants and properties, ranging from assault and drugs to litter and leaking downspouts. Andrews has provoked the ire of Kochan, Byerley and other Northeast Portland residents by refusing to listen to their complaints. He's resisted attempts at neighborhood mediation, won't return calls or letters from neighborhood officials and hasn't responded to requests that he take a landlord training course designed to help landlords screen and deal with troublesome tenants. That makes residents believe he doesn't care about the neighborhood he is profiting from. Andrews failed to return phone calls and a certified letter from WW.
Last summer, frustrated by Andrews' posture, Kochan organized two pickets in front of the landlord's Northeast Rodney Street home. The Sabin Community Association has sent him letters documenting troubles at his rentals and threatening to hold him accountable if anyone gets hurt. The police have informed him of the drug complaints. The Bureau of Buildings has hit him with numerous code violations. All of that has led up to the residents' biggest hammer, a new city law called the chronic nuisance ordinance that could cost Andrews a pocket full of jingle.
Under the law, which the City Council passed in June, if three police reports documenting criminal behavior at the same address are filed within any 30-day period, the property is considered a chronic nuisance. If the problem persists a month after the landlord is notified, the city can take steps to "abate the nuisance," which could involve fines or closure of the property for up to a year.
None of Andrews' properties have reached this point yet, according to Lt. Rod Beard of the Northeast Neighborhood Response Team.
That could change if neighbors get their way.
At least a half-dozen people in Sabin are playing detective, peering through curtains to get license numbers, jotting down vehicle descriptions and documenting activities that look like drug deals at Andrews' Northeast 20th Avenue and Prescott Street fourplex. Their observations, written out longhand on Neighborhood Response Team incident logs, are piling up at the Northeast Precinct and at the offices of the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods.
The neighbors say they've been pushed to this point.
"We've tried to deal with him, but we've gotten no response at all," Byerley says. "With other landlords I've dealt with, they are at least willing to sit down and talk with me. But John won't even return a letter. We're just going to try for the nuisance order and shut him down."
"I've had a lot of complaints about him," says Stewart, president of the King Neighborhood Association. "I've left two or three calls for him, but he never calls back. I even called Lew Frederick (spokesman for Portland Public Schools) to complain. I think it's pretty bad that a teacher would be this kind of a landlord."
Caught in the middle of the dispute between Andrews and his neighbors—a dispute that rages against a backdrop of social, racial and economic change—are the Portland police. They're the ones who have to field the complaints, chase the bad guys and—in some cases—accept the blame when the system breaks down.
The chronic nuisance ordinance being tested by Andrews' critics is just one in a series of initiatives undertaken by the city to help Portlanders clean up their neighborhoods. It's a piece of the highly touted Neighbor Safe program, which unites police and citizens in a paradigm known as community-oriented policing.
Lt. Beard's Neighborhood Response Team, which operates out of the Northeast Precinct, has been fielding about 1,000 neighborhood complaints a year since its formation in May 1993. Beard describes his unit as a street-level clearinghouse that "works at the lowest possible levels to improve neighborhood livability."
When neighbors complain about a problem, his officers are supposed to check it out and help to solve it. Gang complaints go to the Gang Unit, drugs to Drugs and Vice, litter and trash to the Bureau of Buildings. If it's a lifestyle clash between neighbors, mediators get their shot.
If renters are causing the problem, the police can help with the eviction process. If a landlord is letting tenants run roughshod over a neighborhood, police have the chronic nuisance ordinance in their holster.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, some of the residents in the King neighborhood don't think the police response is working fast enough.
Steve Watkins, a Northeast resident for 44 years, came home one night in August to find four bullets in his house after a drive-by shooting that neighbors linked to the apartments owned by Andrews. Watkins called 911. "An hour-and-a-half later, a policeman finally came, but it wasn't because of my call, Watkins says. "The only reason he came by was that he was talking to a neighbor around the block, and she said, 'You better go talk to Steven, he's got bullets in his house.'
"It's almost like the police don't want to come over and deal with that," Watkins says. "They even tell us not to call 911 with complaints. They say to call the other line. We finally got the hint that they don't want to be bothered. What are we supposed to do when the police have that attitude?"
Some of the neighbors who have been surreptitiously filling out incident logs echo Watkins' belief that the police aren't following through. In their minds, that puts them at risk of retaliation.
"I've stopped (filling out incident logs)," says one woman who asked not to be identified. "I started doing it at the end of July. But I felt like I was the only one doing it. I don't want all the danger and pressure put on me."
Kochan is also developing frustration with the police. "I almost feel like the police are mad at me for doing what they told me to do, which is try to document problems," Kochan says. "I feel like the police department gives you these tools, and they're either broken or haven't been installed yet. Community-oriented policing sounds like a great idea, but it doesn't look like it's working to me."
Beard sounds concerned when the criticisms are relayed to him. "You have to look at the volume of complaints we get," he says. "We have made a number of successful efforts in that area."
Andre Young, Yarborough's friend who spoke in her defense, says he knows that drugs and gangbangers are still around, and that both old and new arrivals to Northeast Portland are afraid. He doesn't know Andrews or Byerley or most of the other people in the drama unfolding around him. But he has some advice:
"These new people moving in can't feel like they can automatically change the neighborhood, because they don't know what the neighborhood needs. The only way they're going to know is by talking to people and finding out. Calling the police and trying to get people locked up or thrown out isn't going to do it."
Kochan says she appreciates Young's stance, and says she is still in favor of neighborhood mediation. But she also makes it clear that she expects to be met halfway.
"I have no choice but to deal with it," she says. "I'm not a renter. I can't move out and I don't particularly want to move. I don't believe in running away from problems. You stay and fight and do the right thing."
Three weeks later, on Jan. 1, 1997, WW published this follow-up to the story:
Three weeks ago, 26-year-old Andre Young stood inside Jacita Yarborough's house at 828 NE Shaver St. and wondered aloud why Yarborough's neighbors were accusing residents and visitors to the house of being troublemakers ("The Battle for Northeast," WW, Dec. 11, 1996).
"If people are worried about what's happening here, why don't they just come over here and see what's going on?" Young said to WW. "If the people who are complaining got to know the people here, they would find caring, loving people over here."
Today, Young and another man, 24- year-old David Deangelo McDonald, are facing 12 years in prison for robbery following an armed standoff with police in Yarborough's house.
Police said Young and McDonald robbed two men at gunpoint at about 9 pm on Dec. 22 near the Union Market on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Young and McDonald, brandishing a 9mm handgun, took two North Carolina Tarheels starter jackets, a pager and $50 from the victims, then escaped in a gray station wagon registered to Yarborough, police said.
Within minutes, police found the car parked in front of Yarborough's house and arrested Young. McDonald, however, refused to come out, and a tense standoff ensued when police learned six young children were inside the house.
McDonald surrendered three hours after police surrounded the house. McDonald and Young were charged with two counts each of armed robbery.
Five days later, police were again called to the scene when neighbors reported that someone had fired a gun toward Yarborough's house.
Yarborough's neighbors have been complaining about drug and gang activity at her place for more than a year. They took their complaints to the city, the police and Yarborough's landlord, a Grant High School teacher named John Andrews—all to no avail.
Police spokesmen said they had tried unsuccessfully to buy drugs from the house, and one narcotics officer said he believed that Yarborough's neighbors were overreacting. Police records, however, show that Yarborough has a long history of drug and gang connections, including a conviction for manufacturing a controlled substance. McDonald, one of the men arrested in Yarborough's house, bears a gang tattoo that reads "RIP Ray Ray," police said. Ray Ray Winston was Portland's first drive-by shooting victim, in August 1988.
Leslie Kochan, a next-door neighbor who has tried for a year to draw attention to the alleged problems at Yarborough's house, said the arrests haven't made her feel any safer. "I wasn't surprised that it happened," she said. "I feel like I'm living next to a time bomb."
Kochan, who is white, said she was harassed by people in Yarborough's house after WW's story about her plight hit the streets. "After the article ran," she said, "I had people from next door pounding on my house. I had to leave. I didn't sleep in my house for a week.
"I feel like I've been kicked in the stomach," Kochan continued, referring to comments by police and a neighborhood leader who dismissed her concerns as possibly racist. Yarborough and the two men arrested in her house are black.
"I did what I was asked to do as far as documenting suspected drug and gang activity at the house," Kochan said. "Maybe if the police had worked with me they wouldn't have had happen what happened the other night."