15" x 22.75" Broadsheet, Cold Offset Press, Full Color / BW.
Printed by Linco Printing.
How’d we end up here in the first place?
Today, a walk down Division Street, on the southeastern side of the city, inspires food writers to fawn and suburbanites to gawk with glee. In the last two years, nearly 4.5 billion dollars have been poured into new construction projects in Portland, Oregon. There are celebrated restaurants in every neighborhood while new housing blocks and cranes hover over the skyline. Portland is growing up, and all around we see industry rising to meet these new demands, proposing questions about how we ended up here in the first place, who creates the rules, and who is empowered to make the future of Portland.
In 1845, two men stood on the west bank of a large river. That river emptied into the Pacific Ocean and would become a commercial center. The pale-skinned, bearded men flipped a coin. There would be a city here; Portland, snuggled along the bank in between the Port of Vancouver to the north and Oregon City to south, two cities of a couple thousand people each. California spanned most of the coastline and was home to San Francisco, the largest city in the west. The Oregon Territory lacked a similarly modern place for industry—but how could these men capitalize on this land if it is not owned?
Asa Lovejoy lost the coin toss. The land went to Paul Pettygrove. From what was once called only “The Clearing”, emerged the idea of Portland. A western city simply named after the winning man’s longing for his hometown in the East.
Of course what we know as Portland existed long before The Clearing or The Coin Toss. For million of years the land was formed by vast lava fields and mudflows. A great ice age froze the globe. Then the ice melted and, the theory goes, people migrated. On a journey tens of thousand of years long, humans fished, gathered, boated, and walked all the way from Africa to Oregon. 15,000 years ago, humans started to live here.
The oldest artifact from this area is a small sandal found in a cave on the coast. The person who owned this sandal was, like us, the relative of some of those mighty migrators. The ones that traversed continents, making it across the temporary land bridge from Siberia to Alaska. Was it their wanderlust that led those first people to the west coast of the Americas?
The cold likely pushed humans further across the planet. What does a few thousand years of intergenerational migration feel like? If we look at modern day examples of migration, we think of harsh conditions, intense struggle, and an internal fire—one whose spirit perhaps thawed the earth. Humans are migratory, but we are also industrious builders and communers.
The people of the west lived peacefully in numbers of a several thousand for a couple of centuries. Little infrastructure was needed because the land was so plentiful. Furs and fish were all traded freely. A dozen different groups called the Columbia River Basin home. But the life of a peaceful fisherman, the life of a moon worshipper, the life of a craftsman does not appeal to all. Capitalism was alive and well on the eastern coast of North America by the 1600s. Thousands of native people had been killed, stricken with disease, or rounded up in the name of claiming land. Why did the land need to be claimed? For profit. We know this story well by now. The story about how white men come and take for their own comforts, for their own peace of mind, for their own pouches of gold. In the few hundred years that passed since this land was no longer shared, white men have continued to take what they feel entitled to. We see the motives of these “forefathers” in the men of conference rooms, households, and sidewalks everywhere.
The west bank of the Columbia river developed first. The population stayed small, the roads were made of dirt, wooden planks formed the sidewalks of the muddy streets. People were here to make what they could off the land. The price, if you were a white man, was free. So early Portlanders traded fur, logged, and fished this basin to their hearts’ content. If you were a white man out west, this place welcomed you. Here the image of Portlanders as rugged, plaid-clad, lumberjacks began to form. Besides the fit of their jeans, you would be hard pressed to find aesthetic differences from the men then to the ones today. A sort of servitude to yesteryear is being played out today, manifesting in the modern-day sights of impractical hats and performance work boots as office wear.
Who creates the rules?
Today, the headquarters of some of the largest businesses in the Portland area—Nike, Columbia, and Intel—are housed outside the metro area. With the rise of urbanization, the majority of the world’s population gain is happening in cities. Young people raised in the comforts of the country go to the city for education and job prospects. Newcomers to the region also choose these urban centers, if they can, because the opportunities are seen as greater. Portland, Oregon established an urban growth boundary with the idea of sustainably growing the city, the thought being that if we build dense living spaces near public transportation, we minimize commutes and supposedly make a dent in the big issue of human extinction: global warming.
When over half of greenhouse gases are coming from less than 100 global corporations, will creating denser cities make a difference? Perhaps a stronger position to take in these critical times would be to teach morals to corporations. The suburban towns of Beaverton and Hillsboro have incentivized large employers just outside of the city of Portland. There’s a small, twisting piece of road that goes connects them to the city through the oldest park in Portland. All of these employers siphon and squeeze their employees through this thoroughfare. Tax money floods the towns that house these companies. While the graduation rate in Portland’s urban center is around 60%, industry supports these suburban schools and 80% or more of students get their high school diplomas.
Today, Portland is a city of 639,863 people. One coffee roaster is named after the streetcar line which moves at a walking pace. Another roaster has a special blend named after the local NBA team, the Blazers. What do coffee culture, streetcar lines, and the NBA have in common? Well, they all factor into Portland’s long history of exclusionary practices, many of which are still being played out today.
When Portland was incorporated, black people could not legally enter the entire state of Oregon. Despite this climate, Abner and Lynda Francis started the first black-owned store in downtown Portland in 1856 and stayed open for over 100 years. The numbers of black Portlanders stayed lower than 1% until as late as the 1960s because of these exclusionary laws. The first municipal election for the city of Portland occurred in 1851, it would be over sixty years until women would be able to vote, and the 14th amendment wouldn’t be ratified until 1973.
Portland is home to a Chinatown once touted as the largest on the west coast (after San Francisco’s), and founded in 1870 when the city of Portland’s total population was only 8,283 people. In the next decade, the economic stimulation of the railroad would double Portland’s size. By 1890, the population had grown to 46,385: 89% of them were white, almost 10% were of Chinese descent, and less than 1% of residents were black. Only six Native Americans were deemed civilized enough to live in the city. During this time the Chinese population faced exclusionary laws, discrimination, and vandalism of their businesses. Today, Chinatown struggles to stay vibrant as most of the Asian population of Portland now lives in The Jade District—over 80 blocks and across the river from where the first Chinese residents built their homes.
The turn of the century in Portland marked the beginning of the Rose Festival, the birth of University of Portland and Reed College, and the state’s first black lawyer. Like many other areas of the country, the early growth of Portland bloomed with the boom of the railroad. The largest wheat and flour mill on the west coast graced the west side of the Willamette River. Today, that mill site is the topic of much debate between the developers who recommend its dismantling and the public who desire to keep this piece of history alive. The once industrial swath of the city is surrounded by high-rise condominiums and apartments built within the last fifteen years. The site is slated to become mixed-income housing while providing public access to the river.
Over ten miles of the Willamette River Harbor are now part of one of the most complex superfund sites the EPA has ever designated. This area is lined with abandoned buildings from times when industry decimated what was once swampland. In 1905, this land hosted the worldwide Lewis & Clark Exposition to celebrate the centennial of their expedition. The event cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. After the initial party, there was little financial success or community interest but the event did drive new people to the area. During this time, the Northwest timber industry of the United States started to take shape with support of river improvements and the rail system. The forests of Oregon were grand, plentiful, and eagerly cut. In these decades before the Depression, Portland grew from a town of 90,426 at the turn of the century to a city of 301,825 by 1930.
The iconic Portland craftsman-style house popped up with new bridges to support this burgeoning city. The still-coveted neighborhoods of Ladd’s Addition and Laurelhurst would be developed on the east side of the river. In these areas we saw a certain kind of American value system that still flourishes today. No homes could be sold to people of color, alcohol was prohibited, and commercial buildings were not to cloud anyone’s view. Today, Laurelhurst residents have asked the city to further target members of the homeless community around the beloved park in the neighborhood. An approximate 4,000 people live on the streets of Portland with few places to go. For several decades this part of the population primarily congregated in Chinatown and industrial sections of the city. Although camping within the city is banned today, homeless camps can be found in every kind of neighborhood. The police perform sweeps of these communities weekly, prioritizing action, based on environmental and public health concerns as well as complaints by neighbors.
The picking and choosing of powerful individuals to decide the landscape and texture of Portland continued. Racism has long been woven into positions of power in the city, which once touted the largest Klu Klux Klan membership west of the Mississippi.
The black population of Oregon was under 2,000 in 1940, but in just six years, 15,000 black residents moved into the Portland area. Shipbuilding and maritime work became a primary industry in the area with the advent of war and workers coming to meet these demands. The city of Vanport popped up almost overnight to house this onslaught of workers that were wanted out of sight and mind. Vanport lay on the Portland side of the Columbia river across from Vancouver, Washington, supporting both cities’ building needs. With 40,000 residents, 40% were black, an overwhelming percentage for this incredibly white state. This was the country’s largest housing project at the time, built hastily and poorly maintained. Perched on land reclaimed from the Columbia River, the area was vulnerable to flooding. By 1948, the population had dwindled to 18,000 and these residents were faced with a ten foot wall of water when the dike broke. Fifteen people were killed and an entire marginalized community was displaced from their homes.
The end of Vanport forced black residents to resettle into the North and Northeast areas of the city. This community of workers would be the birthplace of integration in the state of Oregon, with the state’s first black teachers and police officers. This is now the home of the Portland Raceway and Portland Meadows, where predominately white people go to entertain themselves amongst cars and horses. Vanport College refused to close after the flood, reopening quickly in downtown Portland. The scrappy university-that-could would become Portland State University, today, the largest in the state.
Unsurprisingly, banks practiced exclusionary lending, or redlining, as a way of denying loans to these areas to further discourage black communities from surviving in Portland. Homes could only be bought in cash, driving down property values. Despite everything, a burgeoning jazz scene arose on North Williams Avenue, where supper spots and clubs lined the street. The Albina neighborhood would remain the home of black culture in Portland, even when developers failed to see it as anything but opportunity. In the name of improvement, the city would put the highway system through the heart of this area. Bank discrimination against homeowners of color would continue through the 1980s.
The area that was once the core of the Albina neighborhood now houses the city’s largest indoor sports arena, the Moda Center. Formally named the Rose Garden, the nomenclature signifies a change in the Portland economy as well. Healthcare is the largest growing industry in the state. The Blazers now tout Moda as a part of their brand. Taking care of people is, apparently, big business. An aging population and new technology allow us to treat more illnesses and patients. The commodification of our humanity’s wellness has led to large health organizations renaming sports arenas for advertising.
Who is empowered to make the future of Portland?
The rain is washing away the mopey white boy music of yesteryear. If Seattle still holds claim to the grunge scene, Portland has been known for indie rock. The city birthed darlings of this predominantly white scene like Modest Mouse and The Shins. A shift is coming in full-force, though. Beloved Blazer Damian Lillard released his first hip-hop album this year, helping put a different face on Portland’s musical exports. The city’s hip-hop groups are receiving national acclaim despite Portland’s history of discrimination against venues and shows of this genre. We’re finally seeing the beautiful, creative souls of black Portland take their claim.
Former NBA star Martell Webster founded the label EYRST a few years ago, bringing on some of the most interesting acts the city has to offer. Together with local producer Neill Von Tally, they are reshaping what we can expect from Portland culture with artists like The Last Artful, Dodgr and Blossom. Where Portland musicians were once known for their drab uniforms of ratty button-ups and skinny jeans, personal style shows up front and center with these new acts. Blossom sports her hair natural with sultry outfits—nothing she can’t pull off: silk, fur, bodysuits, you name it. The Last Artful, Dodgr has a personality that rolls off her no matter how pale the room might be. Outside of EYRST, Portland also holds claim to Top 20 rapper Aminé, giving a new weight to what we can expect from artists in this city.
It’s a Sunday night on Southeast Belmont Street at a bar and club called The Liquor Store. Indie rock band Wild Ones are taking the stage for a quiet album release show. Amenta Abioto is here to open things up. Her blend of African beats and pedal loops are hypnotizing. Her musical theater background is in full force as she plays not for, but with, her audience. Here we see a blend of the Portland that was with the Portland that could be. Will the crowd learn to do more than bob their head and sway at a live show? Will they grow to call back at artists and dance without fear?
This spring the city birthed Black Sun Collective out of the beauty, but also the pain, discrimination, and fragmentation of Portland’s non-white community. They are a group of all black Portlanders who blur the lines between music, theater, and dance. Their first show sold out at the newly renovated Paris Theater in Chinatown. The former porn theater was transformed by a surreal stage performance featuring over a dozen artists. Black Sun has found a way to bring group healing into their work with a touch of new-age (not hippie) aesthetics. Their work is a powerful example of what could happen in a growing city of diverse creatives.
Where we go from here.
Over 100,000 people are slated to arrive to Portland in the next twenty years. Housing is quickly being built to match the expectation of who will be welcome. With 2,000 - 4,000 new units recommended to meet this anticipated gain, we are building at the maximum recommendation. Are we benefiting developers’ pockets? Giving them the maximum potential? Or keeping rents low and housing stock available? The answer depends on who the future of this city cares to support. Population trends tell us people are having children less and less. City officials, developers, and environmentalists alike agree that single dwelling apartments are what we need. But singles and couples of all ages living in multifamily homes have long been a part of the city’s culture. What we need is not always what we want. As a broader culture we rarely view what we have as what we need.
There is a connection here: people seeing what they will in a landscape; people seeing opportunity as their opportunity; people minimizing the needs of others for their own gain; people seeing their lives as more valuable than those of others. We can value each other because we go to the same church or because we live on the same street. We can say you look like me, so you’re okay. The truth is, we all got here one way or another. Who’s to say who is better than anyone else? Portland continues to create urban development policies that work to the detriment of many communities.
We invite you into questioning.
If you attend a dinner party or happy hour in Portland you’ll quickly find the conversation of housing prices. This is possibly the biggest conversation happening in Portland today. But, perhaps there are better bigger questions that need to be asked.
Who is Portland for?
Who are the apartment buildings for?
Who will be allowed to live in in this city?
Can we learn to tread lightly?
Can we uplift those who have been wronged?
Can we stop controlling and start listening?
Where do you fit into your neighborhood?
What did your street used to be?
How are you choosing to remedy the histories being perpetuated today?
These questions are meant for you.
They are also meant to be asked to your friend.
You can ask them when you are a little too drunk.
Or in the morning after sex or coffee.
How does where you live face these challenges? How can we address them?