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le tour de gentrification part deux: my second pedalpalooza experience

June 12, 2014

Arriving at Col. Sumner’s Park for the second gentrification tour, there were considerably less people this time around, only about nine or ten. Many were likely at the panel discussion with Central Northeast Neighbors, North Portland Neighborhood Services, and Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods and Southeast Uplift about demolition, residential infill, and housing affordability. But the smaller group, joined by freelance journalist Arun Gupta, was equally as engaging and allowed for more intimate discussion.

This tour was less structured, and the destinations were chosen by the participants, with organizer Hart Noecker choosing the first location, the nearby goat field that’ll soon be home to approximately 84,000 sq ft of retail space, 257 apartment units, and two levels of structured parking with the hopes of enticing younger people seeking to live in this up-and-coming neighborhood of SE Portland for a mere $1,600/month—a neighborhood with a median household income of $34,130 ($24,520 for individuals), $768 median rent, 10% unemployment, and almost a quarter of its residents below the poverty rate according to Portland Monthly. (And as previously mentioned, the site is branded ‘the Goat Blocks Redevelopment’ in honour of the beloved goats the project itself is displacing to Lents.)

After discussing the neighborhood and the ways it’s changing, we headed off towards Division, where a flurry of development has made it almost unrecognizable to many, including the tour’s organizer. Pricey apartments are springing up all along Division. One, branded as an eco-friendly apartment complex, offers 1 bedroom apartments for $1,600/month. Where Portland’s only lesbian bar once stood now sits a gaudy apartment complex with $1,100/month studios. This area has long been a popular hot-spot for SE Portlanders, with a number of bars, restaurants, and independent retail spaces drawing in people with its unique culture for years. But now, many of those places are being transformed into upscale restaurants and condos at a pretty alarming rate, scrubbing the neighborhood clean of the people and places that made it popular in the first place.

At one point, when I realized the apartment I was staring at was where the Egyptian Club/Weird Bar once stood, it struck me how fast gentrification can happen. A year or two and you hardly recognize where you live. And I never really understood until then just how much power the capitalist and rentier classes have to not only make huge profits from gentrification and the displacement of minorities and lower-income residents, but to physically alter our communities as well. They literally have the social power via money to aesthetically, demographically, and structurally shape our cities with little to no input from residents themselves, especially those most affected. It’s fucked up to say the least.

From there, we rode towards a development on SE 39th/Cesar Chavez just north of Belmont, where we ended the ride. But on the way, I took them by my first apartment where, one month into a six-month lease, my girlfriend and I got an eviction notice (along with everyone else in the building) after the owners sold the property to a developer that turned them into condos. Telling everyone about what happened brought up a lot of the old feelings I had as we were being forced out of our home (our first real home together), especially the anger. Being forced from your home isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s a traumatic experience.

While talking about it, I also realized that my family and I were displaced by gentrification growing up in Detroit, as well. The historic apartment building where I grew up and my mom worked was sold to developers who wanted to transform into a luxury hotel and residence. While deals were being made, the building deteriorated due to lack of maintenance, and the residents suffered. The eighth floor, for example, had to be evacuated because the roof leaked so bad. Eventually, everyone was evicted, but the planned renovations never happened. Instead, the building was left to rot until it was purchased by Little Caesars founder, Mile Ilitch, who continued to let it rot until it was illegally torn down by the city and turned into a parking lot.

For me, the thing that bothers me the most about gentrification is the harm that it does to the people it displaces. Yes, it alters a community’s culture and landscape, and it tends to artificially inflate housing prices making things more expensive. But it also tears people away from their homes and memories. It uproots them, and in many cases, forces them to change schools and jobs. It causes a lot of emotional stress and creates financial burdens for those directly or indirectly forced to relocate in order to make room for the influx of more trendy clientele. My mom had a lot of history at the Madison-Lenox. It was the centre of her life. It’s where she worked, where she lived, and where most of her friends lived too. It was her connection to the city. It’s no exaggeration to say that she loved that place and the people in it almost as much as she loved me. And when she lost the fight to stay there, she lost more than her home, she lost a part of herself.

Thinking about all the things we saw and how pervasive the influence of owners and developers are in our lives, how much they shape our community and living spaces, and how easily they can disrupt our lives with impunity and a clear conscience, I became conscious of just how much I’ve been affected by gentrification and it really pissed me off. To them, it’s nothing personal, just business. But to me and the countless others who live in the world they manipulate, it’s nothing but personal.

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