Brave New World

A documentary explores the changes that have redefined North and Northeast Portland.

"Ghetto is not about income level, it's about loss of hope. Are you putting hope back in the community? Not just houses. Are you putting hope in the community?" --Nikki Williams in NorthEast Passage

When filmmaker Cornelius Swart moved to Portland in 1995, he witnessed the gentrification that was just beginning to overtake Northeast Alberta Street. The changes that were occurring in North and inner Northeast Portland--long considered Portland's black community--were happening fast and furious. Although some people still considered the area to be a no man's land of gangbangers and dope dealers, where neglected homes and boarded-up businesses once stood remodeled houses and thriving shops were cropping up. By 1997, Swart, along with Spencer Wolf, a former New York University classmate, realized they had a unique opportunity to record history in the making.

"We didn't want to tell a diatribe of gentrification," says Swart, explaining the goals he and Wolf set forth five years ago, when they started work on the documentary NorthEast Passage. "We wanted to tell the story of a person whose life has been touched by gentrification and affordable housing."

The person whose story would be told was Nikki Williams, who came to Swart's attention through Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit organization that helps people buy their own homes. If every story needs a hero, then Williams is the hero of NorthEast Passage. A single mother raising a daughter, while seemingly waging a one-woman war to rid her block of dope dealers--Swart and Wolf could not have asked for a better axis for their documentary. The film follows Williams, a first-time homeowner, as she struggles not only to make her community a better place, but also to provide a better life for her daughter, Anna, who becomes upset when Nikki enrolls her in a private school. "When living in the 'hood is an option, instead of a life sentence, she'll thank me," says Williams, in the no-nonsense way that defines her throughout the film.

For Swart and Wolf, the road to completion of their film has been long and arduous. "The original plan called for an 18-month production, but emotionally we budgeted for five years," says Swart, who jumped into the project with Wolf as a pair of white men who had no contacts--or vested interest--within the black community. Their lack of ties, however, would turn out to be more of an asset. "As newcomers to Portland, we didn't have any bias. We didn't see Northeast Portland as a bad neighborhood," explains Swart. "We saw nice houses with yards, where working-class families lived. We didn't have many of the prejudices about the community that longtime Portlanders have."

The "outsider" status of Swart and Wolf allowed them to approach their subject--gentrification and affordable housing--from a fresh standpoint. Unencumbered by the politics that have steered the development of North and Northeast Portland, the filmmakers allowed the documentary to "unfold organically."

"We were in a situation where we never knew where we were going," says Swart. "But we were prepared to go anywhere."

The result is a film that manages to avoid becoming what Swart feared most--"a dry dissertation of public policy." Instead, NorthEast Passage is a deeply human story, filled with emotion and drama. The film captures many sides of the issues that have divided the community--including racial and socioeconomic debates that have no easy answers. And while the film itself offers no solutions, it brings to the surface the heart of what has been going on in what was Portland's black community.

Neither Swart nor the film is quick to point fingers at any one group for the changes--both good and bad--that have swept through North and Northeast Portland. Yet, as the film clearly illustrates, the changes have happened, they will resonate within the City of Roses for decades to come, and the one group that will be most profoundly affected will be African Americans.

"If you think the black community hasn't been screwed, then don't come to see this film," says Swart. "We can't educate about the history of injustices in the black community."

It's hard to come away from NorthEast Passage without feeling some sort of emotion. The type of emotion will most likely be dictated by your stance on gentrification and affordable housing--which, in and of themselves, are not bad things. But revitalization does not come without a price. Ultimately, NorthEast Passage is a record of a battle fought over the streets of Portland. Who the real winners are remains to be seen.

NorthEast Passage: The Inner City and the American Dream

McMenamins Kennedy School, 5736 NE 33rd Ave. 6 pm Sunday, July 21, followed by panel discussion. $7. 5:30 pm Monday, July 22, followed by Q&A with filmmakers. $5.