It’s Not about the Bikes
Portland today is lauded for its forward-thinking urban planning, but renewal in the city during the 1950s and 1960s can be glibly summed up as: Determine a neighborhood is a slum, bulldoze neighborhood, make way for progress!
That’s from “It’s Not about the Bikes” by Sarah Mirk (The Portland Mercury, 16 February 2012). And It sums it up well.
Lauren Weedman is writing and performing in The People’s Republic of Portland this spring. She’s been working her way through each crevice of Portlandia subculture to find the good stuff.
She found a not-so-spoken truth. Truth is: not everyone who lives in Portland loves Portland.
Mirk points out:
A whopping 68 percent of the 62 retail spaces along North Williams from Broadway to Alberta have opened in just the past five years. Property values along the stretch have—at least—doubled in the past 10 years. The racial demographics have almost completely flipped: In 1990, 70 percent of the neighborhood was black and 21 percent was white. Today, the neighborhood is 27 percent black and 54 percent white.
Not everything is different. (Steve Kimes, who runs a homeless ministry out of his house across from Tasty n Sons, notes, “The crack dudes are still selling crack, they’ve just moved to a different corner.”) But it’s undeniable that North Williams has changed over the past 60 years from a black cultural center, to a slum, to a street that New Seasons is excited about moving onto.
For the city to publicly turn its eye toward helping the neighborhood now is insulting to some longtime residents. Safety—from guns, drugs, and, sure, cars—was as much an issue in 1990 as it is now.
“There’s this sense that it’s been a long time coming for funding in the neighborhood,” says Paige Coleman, director of the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods. “The question we’re hearing now is ‘Why now?’ and ‘Where were you then?’”
I remember a conversation with Weedman who found the folks who didn’t love Portland. I sent her to a church between Williams and Vancouver. Go figure.
It came down to this: “First you see the bikes. That’s when you know.”
Black people in Portland are relegated to Black People in Portland. And when they see the bikes, they see the white people that follow. And their roots disolved by government initiatives for new highway routes and a couple of sports arenas.
Now it’s gentrification and New Seasons groceries. The wound never healed, and this is salt. Not so long ago, this region of Portland was a vibrant Jazz scene called Jumptown.
Purcell says, “There were music venues, social clubs. All the things that made it a community, those things are no longer here and the things that have replaced them are the exact opposite of what made this community. It’s not about a bicycle lane. It’s not about whether you widen or get rid of car lanes, although those decisions actually reflect the changing values.
“The City of Portland’s policies want to encourage increased cycling and environmental friendliness,” she continues. “That’s all very well and good. But when people feel that those values are imposed upon them, especially when there’s been all the other historic impositions on the community, then it really does become about a lot more than just putting in a bicycle lane.
I asked Tim DuRoche what he thought about this.
I would have angled the article even more to talk about how imposing values on a community that’s had its own values disregarded for decades (through urban renewal and then systemic institutionalized racism in the form of being denied home loans, small business loans, etc.) all in the name of “sustainability”—especially when, for years, this was a model of a “20-minute neighborhood”, just not the orderly white one envisioned. It could have gone deeper and named names. It calls for a larger look at what is “sustainable”…and for whom. Revitalization or gentrification?
Bike lanes are exciting—I love a mode of transportation that involves exercise and the ability to smile at my neighbors, and bike lanes encourage that form of transit through safety.
But the planning has never been fully inclusive of the neighborhood residents, thus never reflective of their interests. Again, here’s DuRoche:
It’s worthwhile to remember that planning—something we hold up as our badge of honor—is only participatory when everyone is a part of it. A plan is a physical document, but moreover it’s a cultural and political document. Longtime residents have every reason to feel the way they do, and through the lens of restorative justice, the city needs to sit still and listen uncomfortably to the voices and faces whose lives have been effected by rapid, self-interested change.
“Bleeding Albina” by Karen J. Gibson (Transforming Anthropology, 2007)
“There Goes the Neighborhood” by Nancy Rommelmann (Willamette Week, 4 July 2007)
“Lessons learned? What Portland leaders did—and didn’t do—as people of color were forced to the fringes” by Nikole Hannah-Jones (The Oregonian, 30 April 2011)