AS THE FIRST NEW RESTAURANTS AND art galleries sprouted on NE Alberta Street during the mid-’90s, Highland Christian Center, too, was growing. Fast. Drawn by a new charismatic pastor, Wilbert G. Hardy, the congregation swelled from about 30 people in 1996 to some 250 by 1999. With the pews overflowing in their original space at NE Ninth Avenue and Dekum Street, they moved to an old movie theater on NE 18th Avenue with dreams of expanding with day care facilities, a gym, and reading rooms. Hardy’s ambition was to anchor the community all the way up to the Black United Front at NE 28th Avenue, resisting gentrification’s march up Alberta. So they approached a real estate agent about buying a coffee shop on the adjacent corner, says Hardy, “just trying to stake out a spot.”
Instead, their agent bought the building.
The congregation had labored hard to better the neighborhood, holding Saturday cleanups, working with the police to rout drug houses, and engaging the kids who were hanging out. But as more properties changed hands and newcomers arrived, nearly all white, new kinds of tension arose. Police calls about crack houses gradually were replaced by complaints about church services’ noise and the lack of Sunday parking.
“There were times that I didn’t have enough money to pay my rent; somebody from the church paid my rent. It’s been my lifeline.”
“The new residents perceived all African Americans as a threat,” recalls Hardy. “They did not want to worship with what was perceived as an African American church. They did not want religion. It was a rude awakening to realize what was once your neighborhood, once very warm and inviting, had become hostile.” No longer feeling welcome, Highland decided to follow its congregation’s eastward exodus. In 2006, it bought a new $6 million center at NE Glisan Street and 76th Avenue, joining a number of churches that either closed or left inner North and Northeast.
City policies sparked the neighborhood’s regeneration. Mayors Clark and Katz earnestly reached out to include prominent African American business owners and activists to shape efforts like the 1993 Albina Community Plan. But as sidewalks were rebuilt; new street trees, lighting, and banners went up; and the Portland Development Commission handed out storefront improvement loans, few blacks participated.
The reinvestment, along with the booming economy and the cheap housing stock, unleashed a flood of buyers over the area. During the ’90s, prices more than quadrupled in some neighborhoods of Albina. The market burned so hot that homeowners received knocks on their door from buyers offering cash—or in the case of seniors like former State Senator Avel Gordly’s father, an offer at his hospital bed. Presented with cash figures many times what they paid in the ’40s and ’50s, owners, especially seniors or their surviving children, often sold, only to learn later they were severely underpaid and couldn’t afford to rebuy in the neighborhood.
“There’s anger because these people have no integrity,” says Gordly, whose sister recently received a letter from a young, white couple beseeching her yet again to sell the family home. “This kind of thing is still happening, and it’s outrageous.”
The greatest displacement, though, was of black renters, expelled by skyrocketing prices and dwindling rental stock as new owners moved in. The number of residents receiving rental assistance in the two zip codes constituting most of Albina dropped 58 percent in the first decade of the 2000s, according to Home Forward, Portland’s housing authority. In cases such as the Rose City Village, entire affordable-housing complexes were evicted so owners could make a few improvements and raise rents by hundreds or turn them into condos.
In 2004, MAX arrived. To provide the required local match to federal dollars for construction, the city formed the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area in 2000. Knowing demolition and displacement from previous “urban renewal” projects still stung the area, the PDC enlisted 54 community members to help draft the project’s plan. The adopted policies explicitly stated that any increased tax revenues from rising property values should primarily benefit existing residents and protect against gentrification and displacement. But in 2002, a recession hit. Tax activists won a court case limiting how PDC generated revenue. The agency suspended the plan’s 18 antidisplacement projects and small-business-assistance programs, proceeding only with reconstruction of the housing development Columbia Villa (now called New Columbia) and the one project that promised to speed displacement, the Interstate MAX.
“It left the rest of the district naked,” says Adams, then Mayor Vera Katz’s chief of staff. “If you put in light rail, without having enough control of property and programs in place and funded, gentrification will occur. And it did.”
More recently, the city adopted a new series of policies to slow displacement. In 2006, the city council added a requirement that 30 percent of funds generated by urban renewal areas be used for affordable housing. Last year, Adams led the creation of a new Office of Equity that has begun, for the first time, to formally measure the success of the city’s efforts to help its poor and racial minorities.
Many see progress. “One of the great things to me about the creation and even the thinking of the Office of Equity is that it’s normalizing a conversation about the disparities and the causes,” says Judith Mowry, coordinator of the Restorative Listening Project on Gentrification, who has strived to help new residents understand how their gain came at African Americans’ loss.
Critics see the talk of equity as merely politically trendy lip service. They say the Office of Equity’s plan lacks clear goals and the authority to enforce them, and that the PDC, despite its stated mission to benefit existing residents, doesn’t track its effectiveness in doing so. Instead, the agency remains focused on “affordable” developments, like Killingsworth Station, that aren’t actually affordable for the existing community. “We know how to make the speech,” says J. W. Matt Hennessee, pastor of Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church and PDC chair from 2003 to 2005. “We know what our minds and hearts need to do, but the question is: have our actions and resources followed it? No, they haven’t.”
“On Williams Avenue, where I used to go to have greens and cornbread with my family, now you go to a coffee shop that has collard green scones? Come on, give me some help here.”
—Pastor Donald Frazier
Through some seven decades of troubled city policies, Portland’s African American churches have been the most consistent voice of advocacy for the community, whether through individual churches like Vancouver Avenue, the 54-year-old Albina Ministerial Alliance, or the new anti-gang coalition the 1145 Club. It’s a role churches have played, really, since the days of slavery, notes Senior Pastor Donald Frazier of Genesis Community Fellowship. “The church is the only land that African Americans could ever express themselves freely on,” he says. “It’s the only thing they can claim is theirs, and not have anyone tell them what to do or take it from them.”
But if displacement continues at its current pace, the churches’ ability to help may be waning. “The reason that we are still at some semblance of togetherness is predicated on those of us who remember when we were a community,” observes Ed Washington, the only African American to be elected to the Metro Council, serving from 1991 to 2000. “I use the word bleak—not for everybody—but for a lot of people it’s going to be pretty dang bleak. There will be a percentage that survive, and do fine. But having people out in the Numbers, it’s a real challenge.”