A few years ago, after the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, a brilliant friend of mine, a surgeon, told me that if black people wanted to live better lives, they should move to a better place. I’d heard this sentiment before, always uttered with the unspoken privilege of ignorance that comes with being white. “Why don’t those people make better decisions … like we do?” But it’s not that simple. How to explain? Race is complex.
I think white people assume that the America they experience is the only America. After all, it’s all they know. If whites want to move and can afford to, they move. But if blacks want to move to a “better place,” i.e. a white neighborhood, we have to make a different calculation: Will I feel accepted, or isolated? Will I feel … safe? Will my children? How will the police and neighbors treat us? Perhaps this explains why black families making $100,000 a year tend to live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000.
I was raised on a small dairy farm in New Hampshire, so I know little about the challenges faced by blacks in places like Ferguson. But I know they don’t choose to live there because they love crime and poverty and government-built projects. Still, my friend’s statement got me thinking. Why do black Americans end up in these places? And what keeps them there?
My quest led me to Portland, Oregon, considered one of the nation’s most livable cities. I lived there in the late ’80s and early ’90s and enjoyed its easy access to whitewater rivers, big mountains and miles of single-track mountain biking. And yet I’d heard that, behind its progressive façade, Portland had a racist history. I wondered if it held the key to my questions. That key, as it turns out, was literally to the closed door of that most American of dreams: home ownership.
Families escape the Vanport Flood in May 1948. Because of segregation, black families searching for homes were limited to Albina, a neighborhood that was already overcrowded. © Thomas Robinson
When Oregon became a state in 1859, its Constitution boldly declared: “No free negro or mulatto not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside or be within this state or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein. …” Oregon voters didn’t amend their Constitution until 2001. The state, like the rest of the country, was conceived as a white utopia.
Yet blacks came to Portland anyway — first with the railroad in the late 1800s, and then during World War II, with the construction of the Kaiser shipbuilding plant. The company built a slapdash, segregated city north of Portland to house some 100,000 workers. When a 1948 flood destroyed Vanport, as it was called, white residents had some choice as to where to move. Blacks did not. They could either leave entirely or move to the Albina district of northeast Portland, the only place they could legally buy or rent homes. The code of ethics of the Portland Realty Board forbade realtors and bankers from selling or giving loans to “Negroes or Orientals” for properties in white neighborhoods.
Across the nation, federal law reinforced this housing discrimination. In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Authority to insure private mortgages. This led to lower interest rates, a drop in the required size of down payments, and eventually lower housing prices. The FHA rated neighborhoods using maps: All-white neighborhoods received an “A,” while neighborhoods with even a single black family received a “D” and were outlined in red. Black people were viewed as a contagion, and no federal money was loaned to “redlined” districts.
Realtors were complicit. As late as 1950, the National Association of Real Estate Boards’ code of ethics concluded, “A realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood … any race or nationality … whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values.”
Even banks were complicit. In 1990, The Oregonian found that altogether, Portland’s banks made just 10 mortgage loans in the black community of Albina, at the same time they’d made over a hundred loans in similarly sized tracts elsewhere in the city. And housing discrimination continues today: In 2011, Eric Holder’s Department of Justice fined Bank of America $335 million for predatory racist lending practices, and Wells Fargo $175 million in 2012. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, asked about modern-day redlining, said, “If people are denied access to credit, then they are going to be less able to attend school, less able to start a family, less able to move to a new job, all kinds of things…and if you take that out across a broad population, it would certainly hurt the growth of the country.”
Whites could rely on a legitimate lending system backed by their government; blacks, however, were excluded or herded toward unscrupulous lenders. The result was devastating. White families grew relatively wealthy as their homes grew in value. They sent their children to college, took care of their parents, and bequeathed wealth to the next generation. Black families largely could not. Black American incomes average about 60 percent of white incomes, and yet black American wealth is just 5 percent of white wealth. This enormous difference is almost entirely attributable to federal housing policy implemented — by law or by custom — throughout the 20th century.
The Model Cities Citizens’ Planning Board discusses the expansion of the Emanuel Hospital, which would result in the demolition of 209 homes in the community, in June 1970. Their voting power had been stripped by the mayor prior to this meeting, and 25 days later the federal funding came through for the hospital to acquire the land and begin building. ©Thomas Robinson
To see how this policy played out in Portland, I visited Albina, today considered a “mixed race” neighborhood. I passed beautifully restored Victorian homes and modern condos with patios over-looking tree-lined streets; I saw remote-control parking garage gates, green-painted bike lanes and $4-a-scoop ice cream shops. I saw white women jogging, yoga mats tucked under their arms, but very few blacks.
With the help of Gloria Cash and Florida Blake, two spunky women who had grown up in Albina, we tracked down historical markers. They showed me where black businesses had once stood: the drugstore; the print shop; the bowling alley; the Burger Barn, where four white cops had once flung dead possums onto the steps to leave a message. All were now hipster, white-owned businesses. Gloria and Florida didn’t seem sad or bitter; they talked about their childhoods here and laughed. But at lunchtime, Gloria was clear: “I don’t support white businesses. I figure they already have enough support.”
Albina’s gentrification was preceded by the deliberate evacuation of its black residents.
What the city’s leaders really wanted was a white corridor from downtown to the new Lloyd Center shopping mall. So they brought in development, building a new coliseum in the heart of Albina, and began to displace black families — condemning 476 mostly black-occupied homes, all of the district’s businesses and many of its churches. Residents were told they had to be gone before the bulldozers arrived.
Highways were constructed, separating black neighborhoods from white, a tactic endorsed by the Federal Housing Administration nationwide. In 1956, construction of I-5 eliminated another 125 black homes. City officials, as housing discrimination expert Richard Rothstein told NPR, viewed the interstates as “a good opportunity to get rid of their local nigger town.”
And then there was Emanuel Hospital. A 1962 study by the Portland Development Commission declared Albina “a ‘worthless slum’ and proposed clearance to prevent the spread of slums to adjacent neighborhoods,” writes Portland historian Tom Robinson. The hospital, which wanted to add 19 acres to its campus, “was a perfect partner to accomplish this. The commission received a grant from the Model Cities Program to make an urban renewal district for Emmanuel Hospital that would clear about 10 blocks of homes and businesses.”
Homeowners received a flat $15,000 for their homes, far below market value. Renters received a mere pittance, and all were given just 90 days to be gone. Some 300 black residences were destroyed. In an ironic twist, just as the demolition neared completion, Congress failed to appropriate funding for the hospital. Decades passed before the hospital expansion started. Gloria and Florida pointed out lots that are still vacant 45 years later. I snapped a photo of Gloria standing in front of her childhood home, now a Ronald McDonald House.
As the neglected and decimated neighborhood declined in the 1990s, Portland officials, under pressure from the black community, started another urban renewal process that ended up pushing out even more residents. White folks swooped in to buy Victorian homes for less than the price of a used car. Black residents, priced out, left. A decade after urban renewal began, black residents owned 40 percent fewer homes in the community while white folks owned 43 percent more.
While in Portland, I watched Priced Out, a 2017 documentary about Albina’s gentrification. It features lifelong resident Nikki Williams, who fought to rid its streets of trash and drugs. She persevered because she loved her neighborhood, the only one she’d ever known. Now, however, she felt like an outsider: “I guess cleaning up the neighborhood meant getting rid of the brown folk!” Eventually, she sold her Habitat for Humanity home for $330,000 and boarded a bus for Texas. “I’m at the point in my life where I need to be around more brown folk,” she said. “I have begun to feel so isolated and alienated here in Portland that I cannot call this living. This is just existing.”
As I hopped into my motorhome and headed back to Colorado, I wished that my surgeon friend had been with me. He might have gained some insight into the complexities underlying his simple, well-intentioned statement, “Blacks should just move somewhere better.” There’s a perception out there — promoted by some — that slums, poor schools, menial jobs, poverty, high crime and incarceration are who black Americans are. But that’s not who we are. It’s what we endure.
Emanuel Hospital is surrounded by empty lots where Albina homes once stood, c. 1975.
Wayne Hare is a member of the High Country News board who lives in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Sacred & Threatened – Explore the cultures and landscapes of Bears Ears