There has been a lot written on many different platforms (seriously, the New York Times will NOT stop writing about this damn city) about how Portland is changing, and how rapidly. “Gentrification” is a pretty loaded word that is going a bit out of style amongst socially conscious/sensitive writers, but the headlines are all there: “Portland Officially Fastest-Gentrifying City in America,” “Young College Graduates Flocking to the Rose City,” “Whitest City in America Now the Most Gentrified,” and of course the most disheartening of them all, “Last African American Families Leave North Portland Neighborhood as Rents Rise,” “Portland Becomes Even Whiter as Rising Rents Force Urban Flight.”
Those are all made-up headlines, by the way, but they’re basically conglomerates of all the ones I’ve seen on all the social media and in all the print since I moved here.
And there it is, just there. The problem.
I moved here. I’m the problem. I am young, and white, and educated, and I love this city, and I want to walk with others and make the world less shitty, and I am part of the problem. What can I do with that knowledge?
People are moving to Portland more than almost any other American city, mostly because of its growing national reputation. On Portlandia and in the media, it’s presented (and, notably, presents itself) in a very specific way: “Come to Portland!”, Travel Portland shouts. “We’re weird and have lots of donuts and nature and enough brunch to keep yuppies very satisfied, but we’re still totally weird enough to make you feel cool for living here!” This is the official branding, and it’s definitely annoying, but it’s working. People are moving here. According to people I’ve talked to, both older people born here and aging activists who escaped here from some nowhere town when Portland was still really gray and gritty and full of taboo subcultures and street kids, when anywhere east of the river was considered “the bad part of town,” Portland doesn’t feel as authentic anymore. It’s lost a lot of that gritty heart that made it so special for people in the 80s and the 90s. It’s the world Chuck Klosterman writes about with nostalgia when he writes about Portland. It’s the rainy world Elliott Smith lived in when he wrote about, “Falling out sixth and Powell, a dead sweat in my teeth. Gonna walk, walk, walk, four more blocks plus the one in my brain.” Elliott Smith would fucking hate the line at Screen Door for chicken and waffles brunch on a Sunday. He’d probably write a really great, sad song about it, but he would fucking hate it.
I have not lived through this transition, because I am not from here. And because of that simple fact, I am part of the problem. In some way, I participate daily in the things about Portland that I’ve already come to hate. But I love this place. And I wonder if I might be allowed to belong here. Because for all of its fronting and its false-feeling image, there is a very real soul to Portland that has fed me and revived me and in which I have found an energy both nurturing and freeing. A soul in which I have found a home. As a girl growing up in southern Pennsylvania desperate just wanted to see and wander, I dreamed of the Pacific Northwest. I dreamed of the places I had seen on trips and continued to read about, where bicycles ruled the streets and people truly cared about the environment. Where people were more open-minded and where pine trees abounded. I dreamed of this place that I’m now in, and while of course I idealized it, my heart craved this place. And now I’ve been lucky enough to find myself here, in a city, a state, and a region that I have grown to love and that is both better and more flawed than I ever could have anticipated. When I am away, I crave the Northwest air. I crave the smell of rain on the moss as I bike through Portland’s streets. I don’t think I’ll stay here forever, but for now–man, this feels like home.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Who gets to call this place home? I’ve always considered myself socially aware and sensitive to the complexity of human society, and I’ve taken pride in that consciousness while always striving to know more and to dive deeper, to keep digging until I get to the complicated roots of what racism, sexism, colonialism, and hate has done to this planet and to the people and plants on it.
Let’s talk about North and Northeast Portland. Oregon has a really ugly history with race (basically, black people couldn’t own land here when it was being settled, so they just bypassed Oregon and went elsewhere), leading to Portland being (I’ve been told) the whitest major city in America. In the whitest city in America, North and Northeast Portland have traditionally been the black neighborhoods. But as Portland evolved from a rainy, gritty city of DIYers by a river into the nationally-renowned green Mecca of today, rents spiked downtown. The Pearl was developed and is now one of the most bourgeois neighborhoods in the city. Southeast developed–Division Street, right near my house, used to be really dingy and blue collar. Now, it’s touted in magazines across the country and the new food hot spot of Portland. Higher rents took over every part of the city, soundly taking over Northeast and pushing out lower income residents and now, finally, the critical mass: swallowing up North Portland. I don’t get to North Portland often, but I know it’s changing at a rate that no one in the city has ever seen before. While the New York Times writes about North Mississippi as the hip new stretch in the city–restaurants! Shops! A pizza place with live music!–I read between the lines and think of the countless black families who have been pushed out. And I feel guilty. And I wonder if I’m allowed to feel guilty, whether that’s just liberal white guilt for which nobody has time or energy.
Now, people have color have been pushed to the suburbs, far from the city center where resources and jobs can be scare, into neighborhoods like Rockwood, where my food justice work is focused. I’m working to solve a problem created, mostly, by people just like me. Young white people like me moved to Portland and were able to pay rents slightly higher than black and Latino families who had occupied those blocks for years, and now these families and individuals do not and can not live there anymore. I am the problem. I am the problem. And I don’t know how to deal with this knowledge. Because here’s the reality: If I want to stay in Portland in the future, I am probably going to have to look in North or Northeast to be able to afford rent. I don’t want some dumb corporate job; I want to do what I love, and that definitely seems to be inherently low-paying if my life is continuing on its current course. I won’t be able to afford to rent in Southeast Portland, where I live now. If I want to stay in this city, I’ll have to look to North and Northeast; but God, is that inherently selfish? I was lucky enough to be born into a certain level of privilege, one that allowed me to never worry that college might not be an option. As a young college graduate, my “I can’t afford to…” is very different from other people’s “I can’t afford to….” Because if I needed to borrow money from my parents, I could. And I’m grateful for that. But I hate it. I hate what it makes me. I hate how it makes me feel. I hate that I hate it. I just want to feel ok about it and accept it. But I hate it.
I don’t like that I’m complaining about the changes in the city when I moved here in fucking August. I don’t like that sometimes I think I have more of a right to live here because I’m earthy and nerdy and socially conscious or something but that the tech people and California transplants need to leave because they’re clogging up the city. I don’t like any of that, and it makes me feel crappy. Hypocritical. Entitled, even. I hate that I’m writing about this like I have a fucking clue about anything, or about the black experience in Portland, or any of it. I know I’m naive. But dammit, I’m really trying to think about all of this.
I can try to maintain this idea that I’m different, that I believe in community and equality and health and good food for all, that I want to live in a vibrant, multicultural, mixed-income neighborhood. But I just don’t know if this exists here, and if I can be honest and say I want those things without sounding totally, completely, 100%……..hippie white girl. I want to figure out what my role in the messed-up narrative of exclusion in Portland is, and I stupidly want to make it better. And I don’t know if I can. Because I am inherently the problem.
Can I love and wish to improve a place while simultaneously ruining it and creating more problems? Is my very presence as a young, liberal, white woman incompatible with a healthy, multicultural city? Do I have to move into a primarily white neighborhood and stay there and then be in some sort of weird white bubble? Is that the only solution? What is my place within the bigger narrative of inequality, loss, and forced resettlement in the 21st century? Don’t I also have a right to be happy and to live where I’ve found that happiness? I wonder how much I can shoulder the burden of guilt of the past, the burden that continues to define our cities and our world today.
As one person, what is my role? What am I expected to do? How far can I go?
I don’t know, man. Let me know if you do.