Urban Renewal and Gentrification in Portland

By Grace Masback

WANT Original Content

Although gentrification and urban renewal in Portland have wreaked havoc on a once-vibrant community, the creative destruction has been a positive force for the greater Portland community. Over the past several decades gentrification brought on by urban renewal has completely transformed the look and feel of many neighborhoods in Portland, including such success stories as the near Eastside and the Pearl District. In contrast, the North Portland neighborhood, which after WWII featured a thriving African-American community, has seen its people displaced, its businesses scattered, and its community institutions destroyed by an urban renewal plan that brought gentrification and dislocation.

Gentrification can be defined as “as the mass displacement of a group of people that occurs as a result of revitalization.” Portland in the 1980s was not thriving, especially on the East side. It had strong community, but many of its local institutions were under-resourced and down on their luck. The drug trade was running rampant and crime rates were high. Urban renewal helped the area become significantly more affluent, attracting or growing hip boutiques, cutting edge restaurants, a wide range of housing options, and ubiquitous coffee shops. Areas such as North Portland have also been transformed into safe, desirable places for middle and upper-middle class families to live. Businesses on roads such as Alberta and Hawthorne have blossomed as urban renewal has fostered entrepreneurship, improving the QOL of many. Private homes have increased in value and transportation has become nicer and more accessible. Portland is steadily attracting more educated people to work in higher skilled jobs, stimulating growth and development, and parts of the city that have undergone urban renewal and gentrification, like the Pearl District and NW 23rd Street, are attracting hipsters from across the country and the world. Some young innovators have dubbed Portland “the next Silicon Valley,” flocking to the city for $10 coffees and craft beers.

These shifts have heavily benefitted the predominantly white, middle and upper classes but have had a negative impact on many lower class, African American families. When I-5 was expanded due to urban renewal efforts in the 1990s, it cut through three neighborhood blocks in North Portland, forcing hundreds out of their homes and jobs. Additionally, rising housing prices and redlining forced many African-Americans from homes and businesses, often to much less desirable places. Thriving business that had been in families for generations were bought out or abolished to make room for new infrastructure, primarily for the benefit of wealthy, white upper-middle-class families. A vibrant African American community and culture was also decimated, with many traditions cast aside. The urban renewal and subsequent gentrification ultimately led to increased segregation and a decline in the availability of quality education. As they were forced out, African-Americans moved to less-developed areas with inferior educational systems, unreliable transportation, and minimal public services. Though some who were able to stay behind experienced gains in QOL thanks to urban renewal and gentrification, these gains were at a great price for the African-American community as a whole.

From my perspective and position, economically and racially, the changes brought on by urban renewal in Portland, specifically on the Eastside, were beneficial. I have access to the cute boutiques, delicious restaurants, and modern infrastructure. Portland has become significantly nicer as a result of these developments, improving both on an economic and infrastructural level, and attracting new people and helping the city as a whole. These same developments are ongoing in North Portland, and though I welcome the convenience and safety of the interesting shopping and dining options, I regret that it has been at the cost of destroying the traditional African American communities in that neighborhood.

This example is a prime instance of creative destruction. Even though there are drawbacks to the urban renewal and gentrification of Portland, urban renewal has ultimately been a force for positive change. The fate African-American community can be equated to the early stages of the industrial revolution, which caused some workers to lose their livelihoods while subjecting others to difficult, monotonous labor. But, as proved by the IR, the difficulties or destructive elements can be viewed as important sacrifices made for the good of the community as a whole. In many ways African Americans are like the early workers of the industrial revolution, though their QOLs took a hit, they ultimately made a sacrifice for the betterment of society. Without gentrification Portland would still be a declining slum, out of touch with the innovation of modern times, its desolate economy doing little to attract new residents. Given the successful example of the IR, I have grudgingly accepted creative destruction as a needed step along the way to development and growth. If it had not been for the creative destruction brought on by the industrial revolution some two hundred years ago, the developed world would not be in its current state of technological advancement and general prosperity that it is in today.

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (www.wantnewsforteens.com).

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