Portland in Black and White

Saturday night Derwood and I went to dinner at Toro Bravo in NE Portland, I have heard that it is always crowded and doesn’t take reservations. It opens at 5:00, so we went at 4:45 so we could just scootch in when it opened. We arrived early and found that there were dozens of people already in line. Stunned, we drove around the block looked for a parking space, we drove by a housing project, Nike Factory Store, library, etc. We circled, parked and got in line. Food is fabulous, great night.

I tell you that to discuss this. Toro Bravo is a cool restaurant in an old building in an old Portland neighborhood, located 75 yards from a housing project. The area was a “Do Not Enter” sort of place 20 years ago but the area is gentrifying.  Do you know how many African Americans were in the restaurant?


Portland, Oregon for all its progressive politics and hoopla over food and cycling, has a secret…although not a very well-kept one. Portland is a deeply segregated city. In my opinion (which you are all entitled to), this city is so busy patting itself on the back for its organic foods, farm to table restaurants, recycling and composting programs, trams and light rails, bike lanes and boxes, etc., it ignores the very ugly reality that the black community in this city has been systemically disenfranchised and continues to be pushed to the outer fringes of the metropolitan area.

Anecdotally, I know that Portland Public Schools has been failing African American students since before I was born. My mother taught at Boise (pronounced: Boyce) Elementary in Albina, a predominantly black neighborhood. She told me stories about dealing with parents who were beating the crap out of their children because they thought that would make the kids perform better in school, about begging the administration and school board to get certain bright kids out of the school and somewhere where they would have a chance, about watching the news and seeing one of her favorite students following in his father’s armed robbery footsteps.  Today Boise is in the bottom 15% of Portland Public schools, the population is 60% black, almost 91% of the students are on free or reduced lunch. Fifty years later and not much has changed, maybe nothing has changed.

I have done a bit of research for this post and these are my findings:

According to the 2012 U.S. Census, 2 (TWO, dos, deux) percent of Oregon’s population is African American. The nationwide average is 13.1%. The 2010 census shows that 6.3% of Portland’s population is black. A 2007 census report says 3.1% of Portland’s businesses are owned by African Americans.

Here is an excerpt from an article on OregonLive.com by Nicole Hannah-James:

The seeds of gentrification were planted during World War II, when African Americans from the South flowed into Portland to take jobs in the shipyards. Portland officials and community members, from real estate agents to bankers, pushed the black community into a small area called Lower Albina, near the present-day Rose Quarter, through redlining and other now-illegal practices. White Portlanders fled, and the city began a long pattern of disinvestment. Street and sidewalk repairs were neglected, and the city did little to develop businesses or enforce housing codes, said Karen Gibson, a Portland State University urban planner who has studied gentrification and is the author of  a 2007 study entitled “Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment, 1940-2000.”

Many banks refused to make home loans in black areas. Some residents were denied loans for less money than their bank-approved car loans. Appraisers artificially devalued the area’s housing stock, so even people who did own saw little growth in wealth or equity that they could tap to maintain their homes. Predatory lenders swept in, and the area became ripe for drugs and crime.

“Portland is smug about its progressivism,” Gibson said. “But Portland is in denial, and whites don’t want to acknowledge how their policies benefit them — someone had to sacrifice for these nice 20-minute neighborhoods.”  She asked: “Do we want equality in this city? What do we want?” (Emphasis is mine).

I am a native Oregonian and I was never taught in the public schools I attended that Oregon has a long history of racism and segregation, albeit handled much like it is today. Say nice things but do the opposite. Back when Oregon was just a territory in 1844, slavery was deemed illegal BUT

“That same 1844 law ordered all black people out of the Oregon Territory under threat of lashing. This “Lash Law” mandated black people be publicly flogged every six months; however, before it could be enforced, it was modified and the whippings were replaced with forced labor.” Pete Shaw, Oregon Occupier.

The Oregon Occupier sounds like a publication that has a pretty strong agenda so I ran the Google on Lash Law and Mr. Shaw didn’t make that up, plenty of information available on that and other exclusionary laws.

Any of my native Oregonian friends ever heard about this? In 1848 an Exclusion Law was passed banning any “negro or or mulatto” from living in Oregon Territory.

You can read more here

So decades have passed, Portland mayors and city councils have come and gone, and nothing has changed. A few months ago Portland’s mayor, Charlie Hales, said “The job is starting to look like more fun now.” I suppose that is because all the tough problems have been taken care of. Oh Phew!

“He gets excited talking about the big issues: How to keep Portland’s neighborhoods livable, how to bring smart development and services to east Portland, how to maximize and accelerate development around TriMet light rail stations on the yet-to-open Orange Line through the eastside.”  Andrew Theen, The Oregonian.

Mayor Hales is also very concerned about Portland’s “basic services” like roads and parks and getting more money from the city’s taxpayers. I don’t find any discussion of the racial divide in this city when I read his state of the city address. Portland continues blithely down the Livable City path. We are so progressive! We are so beautiful! Who wouldn’t want to live in this Nirvana?! Welcome to one of America’s most livable cities and it is #1 according to this report and here’s another one.
Just don’t look behind the curtain, you might find out Portland is a fabulous place to live as long as you’re white.

34 thoughts on “Portland in Black and White

  1. Cheeseandbuttersister

    Between 1997 and 2011 I worked for three very large Portland companies, two banks and an office equipment company, to the best of my recollection I recall having one black coworker. That’s gotta say something about the general attitude toward race in Portland?

  2. Addie

    Ages ago, when I worked for The Man, a black co-worker of mine and I were spending our lunchtime together, as usual. We were joined by other friends, black and white, and the subject shifted to a road trip that Gina–who was black–and her boyfriend were going to take…a trip covering several states.

    Each of the black women said they’d rather travel through Southern states than those in the North. I asked why and was told that in the South, it’s open about treatment, and you know what to expect. In the North, they smile at your face–never meaning it. You don’t know what you’re going to get was the consensus.

    1. My parents went on a trip to the deep south in the 90s and said roughly the same thing. Race relations were better down there because everyone was clear on what was going on. Up here, it is polite racism.

  3. Wendi

    I moved from Cleveland Hts, OH to Portland in ’92. The lack integration was so obvious to us and felt very foreign because we lived in a very integrated neighborhood. Every one of our first visitors from back East noticed/commented on it too. Thanks for the gap history lesson! Sheesh.

  4. Interesting post, Maggie. I think a lot of cities deal with segregation problems, same here in Cbus, but in my short time in Portland, it was surprisingly apparent. White-washed.

    1. Thanks Mike. That is something that I notice about Columbus actually any town east of the Rockies, “wow, there are so many African American people here!” All my east coast friends comment on Portland’s white washing (good phrase).

  5. Wow! So what happens when there’s news on something happening in those neighborhoods? Are there no groups or politicians that stand up and yell about it?
    What about the representatives from those districts, or are they gerrymandered so African Americans are disenfranchised?

    1. We just had a dust up in that neighborhood. The area is “food poor” meaning there are no grocery stores in walking distance. You go into some areas of Portland and grocery stores are like Starbucks, they’re everywhere. So, Trader Joe’s made a deal to go in and open a store. TJ’s got big property tax breaks etc. The black community didn’t like that at all and protested loudly. Trader Joes pulled out of the deal. There was an article in the newspaper. Done. That’s all. There’s no store…still. All quiet on the northeastern front.

      The Portland City Council only has 5 members which includes the Mayor. Currently they are all white. I don’t think they run by geographic area, just represent Portland. You can see how that doesn’t work. The irony (or one of them) is that the City of Portland’s tagline is “Portland the City that Works.” It’s absolutely ridiculous.

      I would say again, we are politely racist. There are council members for everyone but if a city is predominantly white, white people are going to run and be elected.

      1. In the area you speak of- where the TJs was to go, about 4 blocks north is a safeway. Across the street- the starbucks. A smattering of shitty fried chicken places and such as well. I wonder where the food poor concept came in.
        Because it’s so “progressive” here (which it is in many ways), people have been flocking here, driving up demand for housing and pushing up property taxes. it’s the same old song and dance and the word GENTRIFICATION is used often, even amongst Portlanders. It’s a tricky subject. I live in the NE area that you speak of and have been here for a while. It used to be an area predominantly of black folk and artsy folk. I have watched both shift. That being said, I moved to that particular area over 9 years ago and was driven to do so in part because the SE of Portland was so whitewash that it made me uncomfortable. Result? There WAS more diversity. Unfortunately the diversity I so craved was not matched by integration. People kept to themselves and the community I imagined never quite took hold.
        I work in North Portland, where most of the schools are a highest percentile of black and Latino. The demographic changes the further north you get.
        I have a small handful of black friends. The black friends that I have are used to being one of, if not the only “black friend” in the room here. It’s bizarre. While I agree that there is absolute undertones, and sometimes very overt prejudice here, there is also a strong desire for unity. There are some strong black voices as well. It’s a mixed bag. Like any hip city, we are attracting folks and in turn the OG’s are getting pushed out.

        1. I guess it WAS a food desert but is no longer. This is a good article on the whole situation. http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/02/trader_joes_decision_to_pull_o.html

          The African American population in that part of town has dropped 50% since 1990. I can’t speak to what other hip cities do but I don’t like what Portland is doing. And it has clearly been going on for over 150 years in Oregon. There are cities on the east coast (Boston, Philly) working to if not reverse the trend of pushing out original neighborhood residents, at least putting the brakes on it.

          I think much of Portland’s problem rests with the public schools.

          1. I’ll check that article. It’s funny- I feel so middle of the road on this.. I know what you’re saying, and agree. I just don’t know the remedy. I also think that it’s unintentional. It’s a rock slide. How do you stop a rock slide?
            What are the problems you see in PPS? I work there! haha. I’m not allegiant, per say, but perhaps can provide different insight if you like. I work primarily in schools that are Title 1, 90% + free and reduced meals, and “at risk youth”.

          2. I think part of my issue is that historically this is not unintentional, it was very much intentional.

            I think the solution has to start with education. I think we have lost a couple of generations so we are going to have to start fresh.
            #1 Oregon needs a sales tax.
            #2 Oregon needs to get rid of the kicker
            Those two things result in more stable school funding.

            I think that we need some all boys schools for African American kids with all male teachers. It has worked in Chicago and other school districts. These kids need a sense of pride and value that doesn’t come from a gang.

            Oregon and Portlanders are not comfortable with big decisions like changing the tax structure or closing Jefferson HS and funneling more money to Benson.

            I got all kinds of ideas! 🙂

            We need to promote home ownership. Not through what proved to be disastrous in 2008 (giving people money there was no way they were going to be able to pay back)…but through tax breaks for long time home owners.

            I’m clearly writing another blog right here!

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