Growing up off Alberta Street in 1980s Portland, Sharon Thomas could walk to her grandmother’s house, and most of her large extended family lived nearby. She would spend weekends with friends at Matt Dishman Community Center or Alberta Park, and it always felt like they were running into people they knew.
Thomas still visits her grandmother there, but the rest of her family has left, many moving to east Portland where they could afford to buy homes.
Thomas, who moved around the city in the intervening years, tried to settle in inner Northeast Portland, renting a home off Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Northeast Ainsworth Street in 2016. But when the owners sold the house, she couldn’t find another affordable option. Instead, she too left for an apartment near east Portland’s border with Gresham.
“I know a lot of people who have moved out who don’t like coming back to Northeast because there are a lot of painful memories,” said Thomas, 47. “Just driving down Williams, Alberta, seeing the changes, it’s disheartening. No one is saying they couldn’t revitalize the neighborhood, but it happened at the expense of the people who lived there forever, who grew up in that neighborhood.”
Thomas and her family are among thousands of Black residents who have left many of the city’s historically Black neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland in the past several decades.
The Black population in North and Northeast Portland declined by 13.5% during the last 10 years as more than 3,000 Black residents moved away, new numbers from the 2020 census show.
The decline wasn’t as steep as the previous decade, when the Black population in the historically Black neighborhoods declined by more than 22%.
But the exodus of Black residents from inner North and Northeast Portland continued over the last 10 years even as Multnomah County added more than 10,000 Black residents, as Oregon as a whole grew more diverse, and in spite of city efforts aimed at preventing further displacement.
Of the 993 populated census tracts in Oregon, only 13 grew less diverse over the last decade. Nine were in North or Northeast Portland, according to an analysis of census data by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
North and Northeast Portland still has the highest concentration of Black residents of any part of the city, with nearly 11% identifying as Black alone or in combination with other races.
But the share of Black residents on the eastern edge of the city and in pockets of Washington county is increasing rapidly.
“A lot of those folks who have left aren’t coming back,” said state Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, whose district includes the Albina neighborhood that was once the center of Black Portland.
“They don’t have the community they relied on any longer in the North and Northeast Portland area.”
Black Oregonians made up 6.8% of residents east of 82nd Avenue a decade ago. They now make up more than 9% in that area, which has historically had fewer sidewalks, less access to parks and limited public transportation, and has also borne the brunt of this year’s spike in gun violence.
Policymakers have invested more in parks and transportation in east Portland in recent years, but that hasn’t necessarily created more stability for families who have settled in those neighborhoods. Housing costs throughout Portland have continued to push people further east. As of 2020, every census tract east of 82nd Avenue was considered at risk of displacement, according to the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
“I think there are some lessons that can be learned from North and Northeast Portland,” said Sabrina Wilson, executive director of the Rosewood Initiative, a community group based on Portland’s east edge.
“How do we ensure that our diverse communities can still call Portland home?
"What are all of our roles in ensuring that people who currently live here reap the benefits of new parks, safer streets and a more robust transportation system?”
The pattern of gentrification and displacement in North and Northeast Portland in many ways has mirrored trends across the country, said Amie Thurber, an assistant professor in Portland State University’s School of Social Work who has studied the effects of gentrification.
Black residents who moved to Portland during World War II had few options for where to live because redlining, deed restrictions and other racist practices barred them from living in the city’s white neighborhoods. The Albina area became the center of Portland’s Black community, anchored by Black-owned businesses, churches and community gathering spots.
But disinvestment from the city and predatory practices from lenders and appraisers suppressed land values, which meant property owners gained little wealth from their investment.
Discriminatory development policies adopted by the city of Portland in the name of urban renewal led to the razing of hundreds of homes and businesses in and around the Albina neighborhood in the 1970s. And in the 1990s, an investigation by The Oregonian found that Dominion Capital had taken advantage of redlining by financial institutions in North and Northeast Portland by offering deceptive and risky loans to first-time home buyers, leaving many in danger of losing their homes.
Affluent newcomers were drawn to North and Northeast’s proximity to downtown during the economic boom of the 1990s, and city reinvestment in the area sent housing and rental prices skyrocketing. New restaurants, boutiques and bars began to displace longtime businesses.
“Where there are relatively low land values, those areas are vulnerable to speculation, people coming in, buying houses, flipping houses,” Thurber said. “It’s not unique to Portland, but that pattern certainly happened in North and Northeast Portland, and the result is the very strong network of civic, cultural, spiritual infrastructure that was the heart of the Black community has been dispersed.”
The city of Portland has taken steps to try to quell some of those trends in recent years.
Since 2015, the Portland Housing Bureau has committed more than $70 million to the North/Northeast Neighborhood Housing Strategy, which invests in new affordable housing, homeownership opportunities and home retention programs for longtime residents and families that have been displaced due to urban renewal.
A 2018 oversight committee report found that the strategy was falling short of expectations and few families had benefited from city subsidies meant to aid homeowners. As of this August, though, 501 affordable rental units had been built or were under construction in six buildings in North and Northeast Portland, 83 families had become first-time homebuyers, and 1,005 households had received home repair and retention grants and loans through the strategy.
Martha Calhoon, a spokesperson for the Portland Housing Bureau, said the strategy had provided meaningful opportunities for many displaced families to access homes in the neighborhoods, resources to prevent displacement and other support, including services to help families build, retain and pass on generational wealth.
However, Calhoon said the investments on their own weren’t enough to reverse the trend of gentrification in North and Northeast.
“It is unfortunate but not surprising that Black households continued to leave the N/NE area over the last 10 years,” Calhoon said in an email. “Gentrification has continued throughout our city, pushing more and more (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and lower-income households farther East, if not out of the city altogether.”
Ta’ Neshia Renaé, 38, is one of the Black residents who has benefited from the city’s preference policy.
Renaé grew up in Southeast Portland, but said she spent nearly all her time in Northeast with friends. When she was in high school, she and her siblings were forced to leave home and ended up staying with friends on Northeast Prescott Street until she left to join the military when she turned 18.
“My deepest roots are in Northeast Portland,” Renaé said. “Walking up and down Prescott you could run into so many people you knew.”
When Renaé returned to Northeast Portland a decade ago, so much had changed. New apartment buildings were going up and there were few affordable housing options. Trendy shops had replaced longtime businesses, and she no longer knew her neighbors. But she could still send her two children to neighborhood schools with other Black students and teachers with shared cultural experiences.
However, as a single mother who had filed for bankruptcy in the past, Renaé didn’t see how she could possibly buy a home in Northeast Portland. That changed when she received a grant from the city through the North/Northeast Neighborhood Housing Strategy. She wasn’t able to purchase a home in the close-in neighborhoods where she spent her childhood, but she managed to buy a home off Northeast Marine Drive in May.
“Keeping my kids here just to have a sense of community with Black people in Portland, especially with our numbers being so small, was important to me, but without the grant I wouldn’t have been able to stay in this area,” Renaé said. “The preference policy is a vital tool in helping to bring Black residents back to Northeast Portland, but it’s one tool and there needs to be more tools and pathways implemented for people who haven’t qualified for the grant.”
Two census tracts along North Williams Avenue, between the Moda Center and Northeast Fremont Street, saw an increase in Black residents during the last decade, each adding more than 100 new Black residents. Those tracts saw immense housing growth during the decade, including affordable rental units built as part of the North/Northeast Neighborhood Housing Strategy.
However, the share of Black residents in those tracts still declined as even more white residents moved in.
“There’s a lot of housing growth in North and Northeast Portland,” said Charles Rynerson, Oregon State Data Center coordinator for Portland State University’s Population Research Center. “While most of that has attracted white residents, there is also room for traditional residents in the neighborhood both because of intentional practices and also because of the sheer volume of housing growth.”
Steven Holt, pastor at Kingdom Nation Church and the chair of the N/NE Oversight Committee, said the city’s housing strategy in the neighborhood had made a notable impact in helping Black residents remain or return to North and Northeast, but he said the investment in the program didn’t come anywhere close to meeting the need for the thousands of families who had been displaced.
Holt, who grew up in North and Northeast Portland, said there needed to be a greater commitment from city officials and business leaders to provide economic, educational and housing opportunities to Black residents.
“The strategy was put in place to create opportunities for people who would like to return or stay,” Holt said. “Thousands applied. We understood that there would be more demand than there would be supply, but we also hoped it would be a catalyst and an inspiration to elected officials, decision makers, key influencers, people who hold resources, from banking institutions and others.
"Unfortunately, the original intent and some of the strategies behind it were not supported by ongoing work.”
Eden Dabbs, a spokesperson for the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, said the city continued to work to address displacement by supporting efforts like the Williams & Russell development, which is expected to bring affordable apartments and homes to a site that was once part of a thriving Black neighborhood and business corridor before it was razed for the expansion of Emanuel Hospital, and the work of the Albina Vision Trust, a nonprofit aiming to revitalize the Albina neighborhood.
Dabbs acknowledged, though, that the city’s focus on pandemic relief programs has slowed its efforts to address the continued pattern of displacement in North and Northeast Portland.
While advocates want to see more efforts to curb trends of displacement in North and Northeast Portland, they also want to see more action to ensure that Black residents thrive, regardless of where they are in the city.
Bretto Jackson is among the Black residents in Portland who doesn’t anticipate ever returning to Northeast Portland.
When Jackson moved to Oregon in the 1990s, his friends told him to go to Northeast Portland. There, he said he found a community. But as the neighborhood changed, his neighbors left. In 2008, he left too. He still often drives from east Portland to visit his son and daughter who live in North Portland, but said he tries to spend as little time as possible walking through the surrounding neighborhoods.
“My community is not there anymore,” Jackson said.
“I’ll walk into a coffee shop on Alberta and I don’t feel welcomed, I don’t feel comfortable, I don’t feel like I’m wanted there. I feel like I’m an outsider.”
As more and more Black residents have settled in east Portland, groups like the Rosewood Initiative have focused on community building in that area, providing a community center and throwing events to bring an increasingly diverse population together. Jackson, a former gang member who after a stint in prison co-founded Leaders Become Legends to mentor young people involved in gun violence, has been involved in efforts to try to improve east Portland too.
But even as a new Black community has grown in east Portland, Jackson said it is more dispersed and for many there is a lack of stability or a connection to the neighborhood like there once existed in North and Northeast.
“I think that people need to look at the effects of it, not just from a housing standpoint,” Jackson said. “The main thing is you’re breaking up communities. It’s causing homelessness, it’s causing gun violence, it’s causing mental health issues that aren’t being addressed.”
Reprinted with permission from The Oregonian.