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le tour de gentrification: my first pedalpalooza experience

June 10, 2014

Gentrification. That was the theme of Le Tour de Gentrification, a Pedalpalooza bike tour of areas affected by gentrification led by lawyer and former city council candidate Nicholas Caleb and Rebel Metropolis writer/editor Hart Noecker. Arriving at Col. Sumner’s Park early Monday evening, about 100 people were already gathered for the event. At around 6pm, after waiting for a few more stragglers and a brief talk defining what gentrification is and covering bike safety, we set off en masse to our first destination, Cartopia.

Cartopia, a beloved late-night community gathering place with a variety of food carts, sits on the northeast corner of SE 12th and Hawthorne. On May 22nd, however, the Oregonian reported that, “Plans submitted to city development officials describe a four-story apartment building with ground-floor storefronts on the site.” If things go as planned, Cartopia will become yet another high-rent apartment complex along Hawthorne, displacing all the carts and a southeast community space that local residents have come to know and love. (Two massive complexes have recently popped up on SE 30th and SE 26th, as well.)

Proponents of development projects such as this argue, quite ironically in my opinion, that these new apartment complexes will provide living space for the increasing number of people migrating to Portland moving here in part for the kinds of places and culture these development projects are themselves displacing or even destroying. The same happened at our next stop on the tour, the old location of Spunky Monkey, a local, independent coffee shop and roaster that was displaced when the building they were in was sold for, you guessed it, condos. And an aesthetically uninspired ones at that.

Part of the discussion at this point was the difficulties involved in stopping gentrification, which is essentially developing an area for the ‘gentry’ (i.e., upper class) to move in. One difficulty is that there’s little to discourage gentrification. Laws favour landlords and property owners, not tenants. In addition, cities often give incentives to developers to build expensive apartments and office buildings, and both developers and city leaders prosper—developers make money from flipping properties (especially if they convert them into more profitable enterprises for wealthier individuals/families) and local officials make the rentier and business communities happy (which are big contributors).

Another issue raised was how developers and city leaders cleverly brand gentrification, co-opting the language and culture of the communities they seek to gentrify, just as they use green washing (i.e., using green terminology) to promote new developments as being environmentally friendly, increasing their market value and pacifying local opposition at the same time. At the old Spunky Monkey location, for example, the new condos have a plaque with a bicyclist on it, invoking Portland’s bike culture while it displaces one of the few local coffee shops with a bike window.

The next stop was in the Albina neighborhood, highlighting the historical aspects of gentrification in Portland. In the 50s, this area was home to a vibrant community despite disinvestment by the city, primarily due to the large black population funneled there by economic segregation. But because of the lack of investment, the properties in Albina were devalued and relatively cheap; and by the early 60s, gentrification drove in like a bulldozer (literally), sweeping the jazz hot-spot into the obscurity of history. Much of the area became home to Memorial Coliseum and the Lloyd Center. And where we stood, at the intersection of NE Russell and Williams, there was nothing but an empty lot, vacant for 20 years. The spot was intended for an expansion of Emanuel Hospital during the flurry of urban renewal that never materialized.

One of the things that came up was the changing nature of gentrification. In the past, gentrification primarily targeted and affected communities of colour and immigrants, racism being both a motive and a tool. People of colour were often forced into certain areas and out of others. A teacher named Hyung, for example, brought up the practice of ‘redlining‘ (a policy whereby investment to certain areas, mostly black neighborhoods, was restricted, artificially devaluing the properties within these areas), and noted that in Hillsdale, where he teaches, deeds often still have overtly racist language in them, though now defunct, forbidding the sale of the property to non-whites. Although gentrification is arguably less overtly racial today as it’s increasingly being filtered through the market, targeting and affecting the poor in general, race is still an issue since many living in poorer areas are people of colour who continue to suffer the effects of institutional racism.

Just a few short blocks away, in another empty-lot-soon-to-be-expensive-condos, was our next stop. One girl who lived a couple of blocks away related how she recently received a 30-day notice after her landlord decided to sell her house to developers, starting a discussion about affordable housing. One of the problems with gentrification is that, while it may result in additional eco-friendly high-density housing, which can be good from an environmental perspective (i.e., concentrating people into tighter areas and with closer amenities, cutting commute time/encouraging the use of public transit and biking, freeing up other land for community spaces/farming, etc.), many of these places are financially out of reach for the people who are displaced. And Caleb even went so far to say that it’s a form of violence, both physically and financially forcing people out of their homes and communities.

As if this isn’t bad enough, gentrification alters the cultural dynamic, and not necessarily in a good way. In Albina, gentrification destroyed a vibrant community and the heart of Portland’s jazz scene, leaving behind the Rose Quarter and its surrounding dead zones. The popular and bike-friendly Spunky Monkey was replaced by what’s likely going to be $1,200-and-up apartments that pays lip service to Portland’s bike culture. A much-loved community space filled with Portland’s nationally-known food carts is soon to be yet another shitty, overpriced apartment complex. And a few blocks away, the nearby goat field is also being displaced by, according to KATU, “a residential and retail development to be called the Goat Blocks Redevelopment.” (Well, at least it has ‘goat’ in the name.)

The final stop was the controversial spot at NE Alberta and MLK where a Trader Joe’s was slated to be built until Trader Joe’s backed out due in large part to the efforts of the Portland African American Leadership Forum. The land, which was valued at $3 million, was sold by the Portland Development Commission to Majestic Realty for a measly $500,000 to spur development in the majority black neighborhood, who then tried to set up an $8 million deal with Trader Joe’s. But PAALF was concerned about the growing displacement of black residents in the area, and demanded that the project be halted or else include some form of affordable housing. Although Trader Joe’s backed out, and the lot remains empty, it’s a victory of sorts in that the community was able to have their voices heard. (PAALF’s letter, part of which was read by Caleb, is worth reading, by the way.)

Overall, it was a really educational experience that highlighted what gentrification is, how it’s branded and camouflaged by PR, and the ways it negatively impacts communities. It’s discouraging to see the effects of gentrification and how it’s unfolding at an increasingly accelerated pace (and not just in Portland), especially when you realize that there’s little anyone can currently do legally and politically to stop it. But it’s also encouraging that so many people came out and are interesting in doing something about it, like trying to build a movement to counter this trend and help give people more of a say in what happens to their communities.

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