RITA ISHMAEL GREW UP IN AN APARTMENT WHERE now sits Memorial Coliseum’s side entrance. After their building was torn down in the late 1950s for the coliseum in one of Portland’s earliest waves of urban renewal, her family moved often, she says, because they were poor. She finally left Northeast in 2001, after several years in an apartment full of mildew, mice, and roaches that was broken into several times—where rent went up but nothing got fixed. She now lives in a single-story apartment complex in Wood Village, out past NE 232nd Avenue, with her husband and granddaughter. The carpet’s wrinkled, the heater’s broken, and dents in the door recall an aborted break-in attempt. Every Sunday, when it’s not too cold, she drives to Emmanuel Church. She’s long sung in the choir, but at age 64 her health now prevents it—though she hopes to get back to it sometime. When her car’s broken, she makes a two-bus, one-hour-plus commute.
Ishmael doesn’t know her predominantly Hispanic neighbors. No one comes to visit.
“I moved thinking I was coming to a better world,” she says, “but I came to the same thing and worse.”
While some of Portland’s African American population has scattered to Vancouver, Beaverton, St. Johns, and Hillsboro, most who have moved went east of 82nd Avenue, to the region colloquially known as “The Numbers.” The black population in East Portland alone grew 151 percent between 1990 and 2010, and the number of subsidized renters more than doubled in some areas, since rents are cheapest out east. “Places where we could never live—Gresham, East Portland—where no one would rent to us, now we call that ‘the new ghetto,’” says Roberta Tyler, who traverses the region every Sunday behind the wheel of the Highland Christian Center’s van.
Despite this mass migration eastward, virtually none of the African American community’s infrastructure followed it. Businesses that still cater specifically to blacks largely remain in Albina, meaning people must commute back to get their hair done, to visit restaurants that serve the food they grew up with, even to find nylons that match their skin tone. Culturally specific social and medical services haven’t followed, either. The commutes often come at a great cost for isolated, low-income people, if they can make them at all.
“I’m diabetic, I have to get to Emanuel Hospital regularly, but I don’t drive,” says Carolyn Anderson, who lives in a small duplex near SE 82nd Avenue and Holgate Boulevard. “TriMet cut bus times, which affects how I get to doctor appointments. I’m alone. If something happens to me, I don’t want to think what would happen.”
Black students find themselves a small minority in East Portland schools, where teachers and administrators can lack cultural competency skills, and where black history and black role models often go missing. One of Ishmael’s fellow choir members, Annoh, tells the story of how a school principal in East Vancouver called her in several years ago because her sons had afros. “‘When I see the way they look, I think gang members,’” Annoh recalls the principal telling her. “I said, ‘Oh, no, they’re not gang members, but I can get you some if you want to see the difference. The problem is you don’t know the difference between being ethnic and being a gang member.’”
The ramifications are real: in 2010, only 47.5 percent of African American students graduated high school in Multnomah County—the number was as low as 38.5 percent for the Gresham Barlow District—and black students were more than twice as likely to be expelled or drop out as their white peers. Dismal graduation rates don’t mean that black kids are uneducatable, says Ann Curry-Stevens, the researcher behind the report “Communities of Color in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile.” “It means that the context in which they’re educated matters.”
Portland’s history of poor dealings with its African American population has deep roots and seemingly perennial blooms. In 1859, Oregon became the first state to enter the union with an exclusion law barring African Americans from residing, working, and voting in the state. In the 1950s and ’60s, Portland’s earliest urban renewal projects bulldozed hundreds of houses, along with lower Albina’s teeming black business core, for Memorial Coliseum and Emanuel Hospital. Even as late as 1990, the Oregonian exposed a form of “redlining” by banks and lenders who purposely denied African Americans loans to buy homes in North and Northeast Portland.
Yet that history goes largely unmentioned in the many national magazines and urban planning seminars lauding Portland as one the nation’s most desirable and politically progressive places to live, with the new Albina’s lively mix of indie culture and aspiring middle class often central to the city’s image. Three decades of liberal leadership under mayors Bud Clark, Vera Katz, Tom Potter, and Sam Adams has even led to claims that Portland is “postracial.” But that laurel of livability at best ignores and at worst comes at the expense of a black community struggling to hang together against decades of neglect, discrimination, and racism—institutional and interpersonal, overt and tacit.
“We’re not postracial when comparisons between white Portland and African American Portland are so disparate, especially when you measure it against our self-proclaimed values as an equitable and livable city,” says Mayor Sam Adams. “That is not postracial; that is denial.”