There's a "vibe" on Northeast Alberta Street that wasn't there 10 years ago. It's changing from being a street of vacant buildings and marginal businesses to becoming an avenue of edgier restaurants and boutiques with a population as diverse as its shops.
For 76 percent of the business operators responding to a survey released this month, change is good.
But, while most of those doing business on the street say it is better than five or 10 years ago, some worry that success may force them out, according to the survey, which was conducted by Portland State University sociology students in the university's master's degree program.
"There's a concern among the 'alternative' folks that fancier and fancier restaurants are coming in," said Daniel Monroe Sullivan, associate professor of sociology at PSU. "There are more upscale, expensive places now."
Among African American business owners, there was a feeling that "even if they're not being pushed out, there's a loss of the Black community," Sullivan added. "Maybe they are looking at Last Thursday (a monthly open-gallery event) and the arts thing as Whites taking over the neighborhood."
Sullivan conducted the survey class in May 2005 and taught 11 students how to conduct face-to-face interviews. Of the 126 businesses and organizations identified on Alberta between Northeast 11th and 30th avenues, the students interviewed the operators of 88 businesses for a 92-percent response rate. Each interview lasted 15 minutes.
Sullivan released the survey results this month.
"The best thing is that a lot of people on Alberta Street want to be on Alberta Street," Sullivan said. "There's a certain vibe there — they say, 'We don't want to be another Pearl District.' "
But, he added, communication needs to improve among the businesses and organizations.
"There does seem to be a genuine desire to have diversity and for long-term businesses and organizations to stay on the street," he said. "But without some effective, collective organization that takes action to help them, the street is going to get Whiter, or it's not going to have a heavy African American presence. And it probably will get wealthier as well.
"If they're not communicating, it's going to be harder to preserve any kind of diversity. There will always be some kind of diversity, but it will be less and less," Sullivan added.
Two-thirds those responding to the survey said they liked the addition of more businesses, more new and renovated buildings and more people living in the neighborhood. Others said they felt safer, that crime was less and the area had a better image than five years ago.
But 15 percent of the respondents said rents were becoming too high, and 15 percent also voiced concern about declining diversity. Black respondents "tend to believe that there are more problems on Alberta Street than do Whites, Latinos, multiracial and other races," the survey said.
About 64 percent of African American respondents said that "police not caring" is a problem while 28 percent of other respondents saw it as a concern. Tension between different racial or ethnic groups also was a problem, according to 79 percent of the African American respondents, compared to 45 percent of the respondents of other races.
Those figures were even higher among businesses with mostly African American clientele: 79 percent of those businesses cited the "police not caring" problem, and 89 percent of those business cited tension between different racial or ethnic groups as concerns.
Of those who answered the survey, 69 percent have mostly White customers, while 11 percent have mostly African American clientele.
Other problems receiving high marks as "serious" among all the respondents were:
• Vandalism and graffiti: 42 percent
• Not enough affordable space: 33 percent
• Trash in the streets: 23 percent
• Drug dealing: 20.5 percent
Although Alberta Street is emerging as an arts center in Northeast Portland — the term "Alberta Arts" allegedly was coined by a real estate agent several years ago, according to Sullivan — the "arts factor" is not universally accepted nor appreciated by some on the street. Only half of those answering the survey said the term was accurate; another 27 percent said it was inaccurate and 23 percent didn't offer an opinion.
One African American business manager "strongly disagreed" with the term, and other business owners lamented that the artists who originally inhabited the neighborhood were being priced out of it.
Questions about "Last Thursday" showed that only about 36 percent of the African American respondents were likely to view the monthly evening of art activities and special business offerings positively, while 71 percent of Whites, Latinos or other racial groups approved of it. Only 22 percent of businesses with a mostly African American clientele liked Last Thursdays.
Business ownership also played a factor. While more than 80 percent agreed that Last Thursday is good for their businesses, for the street as a whole and for the neighborhood, a breakdown occurred between building owners and renters. Renters viewed Last Thursday more positively than owners, and those who have operated in the neighborhood for more than 20 years and those who are concerned about being displaced are less likely to appreciate Last Thursday.
Those who do like Last Thursday say the neighborhood has improved dramatically and they are proud of what has been accomplished. They say they see increased sales on Last Thursday and that Alberta Street has become a "destination place" for Portlanders who live outside of the neighborhood.
But others say Last Thursday is too crowded and that it has become a "freak show." Some African American business managers said they didn't see much offered for African Americans to become involved.
The survey offered a few surprises, Sullivan said.
"I expected to see more differences between people who owned their buildings and those who rent them, but, for the most part, that wasn't the case," he said. "I expected to see people who were involved in the arts more enthusiastic about Alberta Street than those who were not involved in the arts, but that wasn't the case either."
Sullivan, who lives in the neighborhood, said he watches the activities in the neighborhood as he sips coffee in one of the street's coffee shops or while he buys groceries in a local market. He said he is concerned about the number of dogs tied up in front of businesses and worries that some people who might otherwise enjoy strolling down the sidewalk along Alberta avoid the street because they fear the dogs.
Otherwise, Sullivan said, he enjoys observing Northeast Alberta Street undergo its transformation.
"Things have changed so much since we took the survey 18 months ago," he said. "I don't think it will stay the same."