IT’S 7:35 A.M. ON A FALL SUNDAY, and the coffee shops on NE Alberta Street are just beginning to stir. But a block south, Johnny Bradford is already behind schedule. Dresse†d in a black suit, he climbs into a powder blue van in front of Emmanuel Church of God in Christ United, just around the corner from the Alberta Rose Theatre, when his cell phone rings.
“I’m running late,” he answers. “The devil hid my keys this morning.”He’s going to do that because you’re doing the Lord’s work,” replies a woman’s voice, before giving directions to her house.
Every Sunday morning, the Lord’s work for Bradford involves driving to the farthest reaches of Portland to pick up congregants who lack the means to get to the small, century-old building, with its rectangular steeple and fresh coat of cream paint, whether because of age, disability, or finances. He is part of a small fleet of van drivers dispatched from inner North and Northeast’s predominantly African American churches to round up their scattered flocks.
Bradford heads out past the lingerie shops on NE 82nd Avenue to Halsey Street for his first pickup—three kids. Then it’s past apartment buildings with generic names to SE 164th and Powell. “Used to be that nobody lived past 42nd,” he says as he turns and heads for Beaverton, 20 miles to the west on the other side of the metro area. “Now everybody stays out here because rent is cheap. But we’ll get God’s children wherever they’re at.”
The odometer rolls with the road beneath him. Off of Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, he picks up Mary Grace, sporting a brown cape, immaculately coiffed hair, and the tubes of an oxygen tank. Everyone calls her Mother Grace.
Four stops, one and a half hours, and 50 miles later, Bradford drives back up Alberta. The street now bustles with people walking their dogs and babies, joggers in fancy spandex, and a line of biblical proportions gathered outside brunch institution the Tin Shed.
“I miss it here,” says Mother Grace quietly. When she first came to Portland from California in 1980, she settled on NE Dekum Street. But she moved to Beaverton 15 years ago in search of cheaper rent and to escape the pervasive influence of crime and drugs. “People won’t come visit me ’cuz I’m too far out. I don’t know many people anymore. So I go back for church, because everyone knows your name.”
Inside the unadorned, one-room church, the band jams, the spirit flows, and some 35 people, in pastel three-piece suits or heels and hats, sing, clap, and pray, as some of them have done since the church’s founding in the mid-1970s. There is no separation of choir and congregation: the whole house is song. Bishop William Marcus Pollard’s teal suit pops against the brown carpet and the altar pews’ worn cushions. He riffs between verses, finding blessings even in his flock’s distant homes: “You walk up to St. Peter and you say, ‘I’ve got a house on mansion lane.’ And St. Peter says, ‘Oh no, you got a two-bedroom out on 78th Street.’ But you don’t live in your car, so praise Him!” And grandmothers and granddaughters alike shake their tambourines.
When it’s over, people linger before most get into their cars or the van for the long drives back to Beaverton and Wood Village and Vancouver. It didn’t used to be this way. From the 1900s until the 1990s, the majority of Portland’s African American population lived in a small cluster of North and Northeast neighborhoods, many once part of the separate 19th-century town of Albina. In this tight-knit urban pocket, businesses, restaurants, schools, social clubs, and churches thrived by serving one of the nation’s smallest urban black communities. Although it had its troubles through the years, Albina was nonetheless a vibrant community with a cohesive identity. But no more.
Over the past two decades, the gentrification of inner North and Northeast has displaced much of this community. Urban renewal policies and a broader trend in favor of inner-urban living brought a sea change for new residents—most white and Hispanic—into Portland’s historically black neighborhoods. An influx of trendy businesses, like those Alberta Street coffee shops, and upscale development followed. But as the neighborhood rose, much of its longtime population moved away, pushed into Portland’s hinterlands.
The 2010 census revealed that 7,700 African Americans moved out of inner North and Northeast Portland in the preceding decade. While a considerable black population remains in the area—some sections, like the Boise, Humboldt, and King neighborhoods, remain as much as 25 percent African American—it is rapidly fragmenting.
“You’re talking about people who were blocks from each other, and now they’re cities apart,” says Ronnie Wright, a member of Emmanuel’s choir. He grew up nearby but moved to Vancouver because he couldn’t afford a home in the area big enough for his family. “You don’t borrow a cup of sugar or check in and see if little Johnny’s OK. Primarily, the only time we see each other is church.”
In America’s cities, racial and ethnic enclaves come and go. New York’s Little Italy has been virtually swallowed by Chinatown, which itself is shifting white; Chicago’s “bungalow belt,” once the segregated heartland of that city’s white working class, is rapidly turning Hispanic. In one sense, then, the movement of blacks from North and Northeast Portland to the city’s fringes is merely the latest chapter in a 130-year history of forced dislocations of the African American community. Yet with no other black neighborhood to move to, the ramifications are greater, especially when it coincides with a troubling development: Portland’s African Americans now rank at or near the bottom of almost every socioeconomic measure, below Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Caucasians.
Stunningly, black Portlanders are actually worse off today by many counts than before the civil rights movement. Homeownership has dropped. The college education rate has barely budged, especially in comparison to its growth among whites. And per capita income has basically stagnated at $15,000 since 1979, while it climbed for whites from $25,000 to $33,000. Only two years ago, Oregon’s 12 percent unemployment rate sparked comparisons to the Great Depression, notes Karen Gibson, associate professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, who calculated these figures from census data from 2009. That’s nothing new for Portland’s black population: their unemployment rate rose from 12 percent in 1970 to 18 percent today. “The black community here has been in a depression state for over 40 years,” she says.
We pride ourselves on being the most livable city. But livable for who?”
In the face of this social disaster, the neighborhood’s welter of black churches, mostly independent charismatic congregations steeped in the rich history of African American worship, persevere, although in service of widely scattered flocks. “Church keeps me tied to the community and keeps my spirits up,” says 46-year-old Portland native Melba Annoh, who for years rode to Emmanuel from her home in Vancouver. (She only recently switched to a nearby congregation.) “If it weren’t for the church, I’d just be alone.” Before the transformation of Albina into a thriving, albeit segregated, black neighborhood post–World War II, the churches served as the sole place where Portland’s small black community could gather and express itself. We’ve progressed through 65 years and a civil rights movement since then, yet once again the Rose City’s black population clings to a sense of community only by the grace of their houses of God.