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Yet after the war, blacks were encouraged to leave Oregon, Millner said, with the mayor of Portland commenting in a newspaper article that black people were not welcome. The Housing Authority of Portland mulled dismantling Vanport , and jobs for black people disappeared as white soldiers returned from war and displaced the men and women who had found jobs in the shipyards. Dismantling Vanport proved unnecessary. In May of , the Columbia River flooded, wiping out Vanport in a single day.
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Residents had been assured that the dikes protecting the housing were safe, and some lost everything in the flood. At least 15 residents died, though some locals formulated a theory that the housing authority had quietly disposed of hundreds more bodies to cover up its slow response. The 18, residents of Vanport—6, of whom were black—had to find somewhere else to live.
For black residents, the only choice, if they wanted to stay in Portland, was a neighborhood called Albina that had emerged as a popular place to live for the black porters who worked in nearby Union Station. It was the only place black people were allowed to buy homes, after, in , the Realty Board of Portland had approved a Code of Ethics forbidding realtors and bankers from selling or giving loans to minorities for properties located in white neighborhoods.
As black people moved into Albina, whites moved out; by the end of the s, there were 23, fewer white residents and 7, more black residents than there had been at the beginning of the decade. The neighborhood of Albina began to be the center of black life in Portland. But for outsiders, it was something else: a blighted slum in need of repair.
Fancy condos with balconies line the street, next to juice stores and hipster bars with shuffleboard courts. Ed Washington remembers when this was a majority black neighborhood more than a half a century ago, when his parents moved their family to Portland during the war in order to get jobs in the shipyard. He says every house on his street, save one, was owned by black families.
The urban-renewal efforts made it difficult for black residents to maintain a close-knit community; the institutions that they frequented kept getting displaced. Redlining, the process of denying loans to people who lived in certain areas, flourished in Portland in the s and s. An investigation by The Oregonian published in revealed that all the banks in Portland together had made just 10 mortgage loans in a four-census-tract area in the heart of Albina in the course of a year.
That was one-tenth the average number of loans in similarly-sized census tracts in the rest of the city. The company filed for bankruptcy a few days after the state lawsuit was filed; U. The inability of blacks to get mortgages to buy homes in Albina led, once again, to the further decimation of the black community, Gibson argues. As more and more houses fell into decay, values plummeted, and those who could left the neighborhood. By , Albina was a neighborhood known for its housing abandonment, crack-cocaine activity, and gang warfare.
Absentee landlordism was rampant, with just 44 percent of homes in the neighborhood owner-occupied. It was then, when real estate prices were at rock bottom, that white people moved in and started buying up homes and businesses, kicking off a process that would make Albina one of the more valuable neighborhoods in Portland. The city finally began to invest in Albina then, chasing out absentee landlords and working to redevelop abandoned and foreclosed homes.
Some could not afford to pay for upkeep and taxes on their homes when values started to rise again; others who rented slowly saw prices reach levels they could not afford. Even those who owned started to leave; by , blacks owned 36 percent fewer homes than they had a decade earlier, while whites owned 43 percent more. This gave rise to racial tensions once again. We never envisioned the government would come in and mainly assist whites Many might think that, as a progressive city known for its hyper-consciousness about its own problems, Portland would be addressing its racial history or at least its current problems with racial inequality and displacement.
But Portland only recently became a progressive city, said Millner, the professor, and its past still dominates some parts of government and society. The city had a series of police shootings of black men in the s, and in the s, the police department was investigated after officers ran over possums and then put the dead animals in front of black-owned restaurants.
It still tends not to, even as gentrification and displacement continue in Albina and other neighborhoods.
The overt racism of the past has abated, residents say, but it can still be uncomfortable to traverse the city as a minority. Paul Knauls, who is African American, moved to Portland to open a nightclub in the s. Instead, said Bates, the city celebrated when, in the early s, census data showed it had a decline in black-white segregation. The reason?
Museum of the Oregon Territory — Clackamas County Historical Society
Black people in Albina were being displaced to far-off neighborhoods that had traditionally been white. Imarisha, Bates, and others say that during that incident, critics of the African American community failed to take into account the history of Albina, which saw black families and businesses displaced again and again when whites wanted to move in. That history was an important and ignored part of the story. Obviously that ideology of a racist white utopia is still very much in effect.
Talking constructively about race can be hard, especially in a place like Portland where residents have so little exposure to people who look differently than they do. Perhaps as a result, Portland, and indeed Oregon, have failed to come to terms with their ugly past. But it may be part of it. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters theatlantic. Skip to content.
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