I’ve struggled over the last few weeks with what to write in this essay, it’s really been haunting me. I feel embattled by culture and by my own feelings. I moved here when I was still a teenager. Portland was exciting, new and even a bit gritty. Things here were more rockabilly and less twee. I suppose it must have been before the era of the IPA and brunch. To me it is not a surprise that a recent national study found that Portland was the most gentrified city of the century.
During my first three years I saw our rent increase twice, which was not ideal but it hadn’t priced me out of the neighborhood. As time wore one though, I witnessed the distinct character of the Portland that I was enthralled by as a teenager and young adult change. I would say that the change has been more drastic than gradual.
In college I learned what gentrification is and I also learned about the historical (and perhaps continued) redlining of certain districts in Portland that systemically disenfranchised the Black community. I would point out the Mississippi, Alberta, Albina, and Irvington neighborhoods as specific and ongoing examples of this gentrification.
What is (perhaps to some) not surprising is that this is now happening to other neighborhoods all around the city, mostly in Southeast but also much of the Downtown area is becoming gentrified. I think gentrification is still a dirty word in Portland, I swear it’s a conversation to clear a room or get looked at like you dropped a couple of f-bombs.
However it seems like now people care about it a little more now (see the somewhat offensive “Le Tour de Gentrification” of last summer) and some recent articles in local and regional papers. Perhaps this is because it’s not just happening to the POC neighborhoods. Portland seems to be full of perennial White guilt and avoidance of race-based discussion. But then, we have “Oh no, not our food carts”.
Anyway, gentrification is happening all over the city to some extent as the city government tries to attract new companies and higher-earning citizens to come invest in Portland. Two examples of neighborhoods being gentrified that are personal to me are the Stark street area downtown and Division Street in Southeast.
The stretch of Stark Street from what is now a McMenamin’s Crystal Palace to Living Room Theatres was the gay street. It was colloquially known as Vaseline Alley or the Pink Triangle. It is still home to the Roxy but also hosted five gay establishments including the bathhouse that the McMenamin’s corporation turned into a hotel/restaurant. There was also a wonderful goth night at the Fez Ballroom which is also now closed. The last gay bar on the street is Scandals, and there are rumors that it too will be closing its doors soon.
As a queer person, I used to hang out on this street. It felt like home. Sure it was a bit wild and sometimes nasty, but it was familiar and safe. Now I don’t recognize the street of pavement covered in bougie hipster coffee shops, eateries (one of which whose owner has some questionable ethics) and the Ace Hotel. These new places, they’re not built for my communities. They serve the influx of new residents who move from places where these kinds of businesses are an expected norm.
Now to Division Street, which is a growing example of this norm. This stretch of asphalt had been, for a long time, gritty and exciting but not so suburban. I remember walking its lengths many times, past the porn theatre and various dive bars. One of my favorite cafés was on Division. At this point the clientele has changed so much that I do not feel comfortable or welcome in there anymore.
Along with the demographic changes of the neighborhood, developers have lined lower Division with condominium complexes, all with the same boxy style to where it’s difficult to see where one ends and one begins. Parking has become an issue for residents as tourists and others flock to the neighborhood to stand in line for hours at the new Salt & Straw or browse the many pop-up boutiques.
The neighborhood is becoming unaffordable to long-time residents and the new businesses and living quarters that are being built are a harbinger of this. The rents are ridiculous. Just take a look at the prices of meals at the new restaurants, look at the clothes people are selling or the cars lining the side streets. It’s not a working-class or artistic community area anymore.
Two things happened recently that really galvanized my desire to write this essay. I had a conversation with a colleague of mine who was from Portland. We both used to hang out at the same spots downtown when we were younger.
Talking with her got us both nostalgic and we discussed how all the places we used to frequent were either closed or were now so different that we didn’t recognize them anymore. Some of our old haunts and activities included going to the two underage clubs, smoking cigarettes in the back room of Anna Banana’s, staying up ‘til 2am at Portland Coffee House on Broadway and Alder, dancing to salsa and bachata at Andreas over on Belmont. Sadly, these are all fantasy of distant memory now. A sports pub has replaced Andreas, and Portland Coffee House is now called Public Domain, closing around 9pm and definitively no longer welcome to the previous community of assorted freaks, students, street kids and artistic types.
It is this culture shift that I see in the Red & Black Café closing, the other recent event that has contributed to this essay. While the owners of the café did not specify why they are closing up shop, they did say that business took a nosedive once the New Seasons market and Starbucks opened for business on the street.
The Red & Black café has served many of our alternative communities in Portland for a long time. I know them as a safe space away from bigotry and police violence as well as functioning as type of community center for like-minded citizens. I think what scares me the most about their closing is that to me, it signals a visible shift in the politics of the city. I perceive Portland as becoming more conservative, a neoliberal kind of conservative to be sure but we’re definitely not as radical as we used to be.
It is because of this shift in both demographics and politics that I fear for the soul and character of this city. Many of us have lived here for so long and are invested in the long-term health of our communities here, but when things change so drastically and it becomes unwelcoming to us, especially for those of us who are minorities, where are we supposed to go? Seattle, Oakland, Austin and other similar areas aren’t much different.
This is why gentrification matters to me, and why I won’t stop criticizing the Portland city commission, the business commission or the mayor’s office. It’s why I involve myself in writing, organizing and trying to fight bad policy that affects our communities. I live here; this town raised me and taught me so much.
Gentrifiers beware: We want our city back!