URBAN RENEWAL AND REMOVAL IN NORTH PORTLAND

A slide talk given at McMenamin's Kennedy School, February 28, 2010

by Thomas Robinson

CLICK ON ANY PHOTO TO ENLARGE AND MORE INFO

Part 1: Deep background

George Hooker 1915 Shilo Baptist Church.

How did Albina become Portland's principal Black neighborhood? East Portland began as a sparsely populated area. Blacks tended to live near their work. On the left is a 1915 photograph of George Hooker, who had just won the Oregon Journal's first prize as best newspaper carrier. The photo is from his sister Violet Hooker's album. She was Portland's first registered florist. Their entire family worked on flower farms. George Hooker is posing on his new motorcycle in front of their home at about NE 61st & Halsey, which at the time was the heart of NE Portland's farm land.

On the right is Shiloh Baptist Church at NE 74th & Everett in 1917. Standing on the left is Portland's first Black historian, Marie Smith. Before World War 1, Blacks who lived outside of the inner city tended to disperse throughout the east side. At the time, most of East Portland was agricultural and too sparsely populated for real estate segregation to be widespread.

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Photo on the left: The biggest employer of Blacks in Portland before World War 1 was the railroads. Many Blacks lived in the Albina district because it was next to the Albina train yards, or was only a short walk across the Broadway Bridge to the Union Station yards. By 1940, Portland had about 2000 Blacks, and the largest concentration of them was in Albina or nearby areas.

Photo on the right: Segregation in residential neighborhoods was formally instituted in 1919. Portland realtors made a covenant not to sell or rent homes to Blacks or non-White families in White neighborhoods. This organized segregation led to Albina becoming one of the few areas in Portland that was grandfathered for Blacks to live. Photo on the right is the grand opening of the 301 Club, April 28, 1943. Tom Johnson, seated at the front of the bar, was a Black who owned a real estate business in Albina and financed many homes and businesses for Blacks.

Part 2: Vanport Flood

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During WW2, the Black population in Portland increased five-fold, to over 10,000. Many were employed in the Shipyards and lived in Vanport, a temporary housing development.

Photo on left: undated aerial photo of Vanport about 1944. Union Ave (Now MLK) is at the bottom, the view is looking west.

Photo on right: Black women employed by Kaiser shipyards during WW2.

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On May 30, 1948, Vanport was completely destroyed in less than one hour, washed away by the Columbia River. Vanport was Oregon's second-largest city, bigger than Salem or Eugene. This disaster was similar to Katrina, the difference being that here a flood broke an earthen dyke, in New Orleans a hurricane breeched the levees. Both became the biggest disaster in the entire United States during their years.

Photo on left: aerial view of Vanport the day after the flood

Photo on right: Three survivors, including a boy clinging to man, wade through waist-deep water at Entrance Circle in Vanport. He is not related to the man. May 30, 1948.

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Once the dyke broke, Vanport residents escaped up Denver Avenue to evacuation busses, who took them to local schools for shelter. Once they got there, Red Cross workers registered the names of survivors and tried to reunite families. On the day of the disaster, Vanport had approximately 5000 Blacks, which was more than 2 and a half times the entire population of Blacks in Portland before the war. Segregation compromised the question of where to provide temporary housing for Vanport's Blacks. The Blacks were housed in wa-surplus temporary houses on Guilds Lake.

Photo on left: Survivors on N. Denver Avenue escape the Vanport Flood. May 30, 1948.

Photo on right: Red Cross workers register the names of survivors. May 30, 1948

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Two weeks later, the government provided war surplus trailers to augment the temporary housing for Vaport's survivors at Guilds Lake. After three more weeks of living in these conditions, residents drove to Salem to protest the "kennels on wheels". The Guilds Lake temporary housing project was dismantled and closed without making any kind of effort to resettle the flood victims. Most of the displaced Blacks moved to Albina.

Photo on left: Trailers from Stockton, California, arrive at Guilds Lake for Vanport housing. June 15, 1948

Photo on right: Vanport refugees at Guilds Lake leave on caravan to Salem to protest conditions. Most of the black flood victims were given temporary housing in dilapidated war surplus mobile buildings trucked to vacant land at Guilds Lake. After a little over a month of living in these circumstances, the residents organized a caravan to Salem and protest their conditions at the State Capitol. Signs on cars read: "We Want Permanent Homes – Not Kennels on Wheels" and "Vanport Dead Cry Out for Justice". July 7, 1948

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Portland's organized segregation made Albina the only residential district where Blacks could readily get housing. Overcrowded by refugees from Vanport, Albina turned into a pressure cooker. On June 5, 1950, a riot happened on Williams & Russell, and provided a stark contrast to the lily-White Rose Festival being held downtown.

left and right photos: Riot at N. Williams & Russell Ave. Oregonian. June 5, 1950

 

Part 3: 99W construction in Albina

MAP# 1 -- STEEL BRIDGE & INTERSTATE TO BROADWAY

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In 1950, the first big project to chip away at the land in Albina was a road project. At the time, before I-5 was built, the major highway from Canada to Mexico in the American west was 99W. The road was being realigned to cross the Willamette on the Steel bridge rather than the Broadway where it had always been. This necessitated demolishing most of the houses near the Steel Bridge and along Interstate to the Broadway Bridge.

Left photo: New highway construction at east end of Broadway Bridge. May 25, 1950

Right photo: aerial view of the proposed Exposition site (now Memorial Coliseum) between Broadway & Steel Bridges. Looking south. October 5, 1955.

Part 4: Memorial Coliseum

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Next came the Memorial Coliseum. There was a tremendous amount of interest in building a substantial building to attract conventions, and to serve as a memorial to Oregonian soldiers who lost their lives in WW2 combat. Previously, the War Memorial was a dilapidated billboard in the middle of the south Park Blocks downtown. The war memorial, which is what the Coliseum was named for, was the poster child for the project.

left photo: War Memorial in Park Blocks, pigeons. January 28, 1959

right: Oregon Journal December 14, 1955

 

Four sites were proposed, including the Albina neighborhood, Sellwood, NW Vaughn and the South Auditorium district. A commission was named to consider the choice. Albina was not considered a good site, but East Portland businesses launched a sustained campaign behind siting the Coliseum in Albina. They wanted a White corridor from downtown to the Lloyd Center, which was then under construction, and when completed would become the largest shopping center in the world.

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The discussion about the Coliseum location tended to revolve around urban renewal. From that standpoint, Albina was in much better condition than the other areas. The majority of Albina houses were in better condition and better maintained than South Auditorium or NW Portland. Albina had a higher per capita income than Sellwood, which was the poorest slum at the time. In fact, Albina was a thriving neighborhood.

Left photo: aerial view of the proposed Exposition site (now Memorial Coliseum) between Broadway & Steel Bridges. Looking south. October 5, 1955.
Right photo: Aerial of future site of Memorial Coliseum, looking southwest from NE Portland. October 5, 1955.

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Albina had earned a reputation as a tough area. It didn't help when a Thanksgiving day shootout in The Mysterious Billy Smith tavern left one dead. The specter of bullets flying across Broadway ratcheted up the fear factor when the Oregonian ran this story at the same time the Coliseum siting decision was being made.

left and right photos: Thanksgiving murder at Mysterious Billy Smith 1500 North Wheeler. November 25, 1954

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The demolitions struck the heart of the Black community and leveled its best social centers, restaurants and clubs.

left photo: Duke Ellington blowing out the candles on his 54th birthday cake at what the Oregonian called "an east side rhythm room" probably McClendon's Rhythm Room, a night club at 1500 N. Williams. April 30, 1953.

right photo: African American Oregon Fraternal Association, commonly known as "Frat Hall", at 1412 N. Williams (at corner of Weidler). May 26 1940. This site is now where the I-5 freeway is.

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When the demolition was finished, it left a strip of older houses along the river. Urban renewal was brought in to condem these in order to build a hotel.

left photo. Looking northeast from top of the Steel Bridge. May 2, 1958.

right photo: Thunderbird Motel, Coliseum under construction. February 24, 1960

 

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Here are two examples of the interesting architecture in the neighborhood. These are very old houses near the Steel Bridge, which was Portland's second bridge.

The photo on the left shows the oldest house on the east side I can recall seeing. It was built before water and sewer connections were available. The tower in the back held a windmill and water tank, which pumped water from the ground into the tank, thus providing running cold water in the house. N. Clackamas at corner of Crosby, April 9, 1952.

On the right the building and street are curved to follow the old trolley tracks, which hadn't been used since the electric trolley across the Steel Bridge was discontinued in 1912. According to the newspaper article this photograph was made for, the shops were vacant but the apartments above were occupied. N Holladay between N. Margin & Crosby, April 9, 1952.

Part 5: Minnesota Freeway

The Minnesota Freeway is the local name for I-5, it was named for N. Minnesota Ave which was mostly removed to build the sunken freeway through North Portland in the early 1960s.

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Here are two views of Broadway & Vancouver.

On the left, Aerial view showing the demolition of all residences east of the coliseum up to and including Victoria St, which became a I-5 exit. Only three blocks of the neighborhood remained to MLK, and these were soon gone for urban renewal. June 8, 1962

On the right photo, the only building that you can see that is still there is the one with the billboard on it, that was the Dude Ranch, the famous jazz club, at 240 N. Broadway. everything this side of that building was taken out for the Minnesota Freeway. Photo llooking south on Vancouver showing Broadway intersection & Broadway Cash Grocery. March 28, 1950.

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The bulldozing, having now completed its path from the river to nearly Union, now proceeded north and west. a block and a half wide trench was cut diagonally back across the neighborhood until it got within two blocks of Interstate, and then went north until the Columbia River. Later, all the area on your right was taken out for Kaiser Hospital.

left photo: looking south at construction of Minnesota Freeway. Vancouver ave on left This is where the Rose Quarter was built. January 30, 1962

right photo: Minnesota freeway construction June 15, 1962. Showing Overlook Park and Kaiser Hospital area on the right

Part 6 Emanuel's grand expansion

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On the left are the houses at N. Commercial & Stanton looking north – west before Emanuel built the North Wing. December 1960.

On the right: Bulldozed North Commercial Avenue between Graham & Stanton. February 14, 1961

everything you can see in these pictures was later demolished for additional expansion.

 

December 1962 Emanuel Progress March 3, 1967 plan

Emanuel had quadrupled its size in just ten years, and took advantage of the wholesale clearing of the neighborhood to propose quadrupling in size again.

 

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Throughout this time, Black groups kept up a steady drumbeat of opposition. Portland hosted the 1964 West Coast Regional NAACP conference, and the 1967 National Urban League Conference.

Left photo: May 15, 1962 NAACP presents petition to Housing Authority of Portland.

Right photos: September 30, 1963 NAACP pickets Housing Authority in front of City Hall.

 

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Left photo: The Model Cities Committee luncheon held at Emanuel Hospital on June 5, 1970. Emanuel was surprised at the strong opposition by neighborhood and community groups.

Right photo: Portland Development Commission board meeting. November 8, 1971. Includes map of Albina and the moderator is pointing to a chart of the Model Cities criteria. The chart points out, among other things: “Planning must involve residents of affected area and city as a whole." Emanuel chose to do an end run around the community issue by obtaining an exemption to the Model Cities Program.

The PDC produced the Central Albina Study in 1962. That report found Albina to be worthless in its present state, and proposed clearance to avoid the spread of slums to adjacent neighborhoods. Their solution to redeveloping was to make Albina a neighborhood of cement warehouses and parking lots. With Emanuel, they found the ideal partner to further their goals of what they called slum clearance.

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Left photo: Williams ave. & Russell in January, 1968

Right photo: Aerial view looking northwest, taken February 28, 1962. Intersection of Williams in foreground, Emanuel in center

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Left photo: Oregon State Employment Service Job Placement Office

Right Photo: Albina Branch Library. state and county resources

The PDC identified 209 houses and the core business section of the Black community to clear. Neighbors created an association which vigorously opposed the condemnations but was unsuccessful. Between 1950-1980, the number of homes in Albina fell from 5072 to 2169, which is over 50%. Between 1960 and 1970 Albina lost half of its residents.

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Partnering with PDC urban renewal programs, Emanuel was able to get nine square blocks of mostly black-occupied residential and commercial buildings razed. Just as the bulldozers finished their work, news arrived that the funding for the Emanuel construction project had failed the vote in Congress.

This is remarkable because the demolitions occured before the funding was approved. The political machine behind the demolotions was unstopable. The PDC refused all further community proposals to use the space. This oblique aerial photograph shows the scars of removed buildings. It is looking north and slightly east. The curved street on the left is Kerby. At the bottom is Russell. On the right is the twin streets of Williams and Vancouver. Many of these blocks today remain parking lots or vacant land.

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Some use of the bulldozed land was made for the Fremont Bridge ramps when they were built in 1973.

Part 8: Recent memory

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Left photo: The Burger Barn, at 3962 NE Union, was a black owned restaurant whose signs advertised soul food. This is where the notorious possum incident happened in April, 1981, when two Portland Police officers, Craig Ward and Jim Galloway, tossed four dead opossums in front of the Burger Barn. They were fired by their commander. When two months later they were reinstated by an arbitrator, there was an outcry from the Black community that brought demonstrations into the streets. This building now houses another black owned business, Christopher's Gourmet Grill. February 7, 1974 photo.

Right photo: Continuing problems with the police led to the formation of the Coalition of Black Men in August 1988. The photo shows them marching east on Killingsworth at the corner of Mississippi.

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Left photo: If we had to define one moment when gentrification in North and NE Portland began, it would probably be the Rexall Rose cafe at 24th & Alberta. In the summer of 1997, Rexall Rose opened as a bicycle and pedestrian-friendly sidewalk cafe on a street that was considered so dangerous that, when it opened, Willamette Week refused to deliver newspapers to it. And as the thinking went, if this could work, anything could. For the next few years, more shops catering to nearby alternative-culture Whites sprouted on Alberta; these were distinctively minimalist-oriented breakfast nooks or internet cafes. In 1999, upscale restaurateurs began offering dinners and fancy cocktails and galleries became more widespread. Within a decade, almost all of the Black owned bars and stores would succumb to high rents and gentrification.

Right photo: Leonard working at his grandfather's store at 3524 North Mississippi Ave. It is now Por Que No, and Leonard is an employee at Mississippi Pizza down the street.

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Left photo: southeast corner of Mississippi & Shaver, September 1991

Right photo: northwest corner of Mississippi & Shaver July 18, 1999.

Both the Alberta and Mississippi Albina districts had high vacancy rates hovering about 70%. They were dead commercial thoroughfares. These photos show the corner of Mississippi and Shaver as it was in the early 1990s. I spent a lot of time in the building on the left. Why were these properties so cheap, and the vacancy rate so high? Crime was a factor. These were open-air drug markets. Businesses were closing all the time.

But larger forces were changing the neighborhood. One was the gentrification of the NW, Pearl and Hawthorne districts. A significant percentage of their population, myself included, was forced to move by skyrocketing rents. N & NE was the last cheap rent district within walking distance of downtown. Century-old homes were affordable on a punk-rock budget. Another factor was Measure 5, the property tax limit that took effect in 1996. Buying and restoring one of these properties guaranteed any investor that the property tax would never significantly rise with the value. In 1999, the gold rush took over.

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a few doors down Mississippi from the last two pictures

Left photo: The New Jerusalem Church, run by the Rev. Elder B. Minneweather. This is now the Mississippi Studio and Bar Bar restaurant. the one-story beside it on the right was Minnie Lee's Cafe, demolished in 2000 to make room for the outdoor patio for the restaurant. The building you see on the left was remodeled, a second story added, and is now the Mississippi Recording Studio. June 11 1999

Right photo: One Love Recording Studio and record store. A touring rap show was stopping by to make an appearance. N. Mississippi at Shaver, August 21, 1999. It is now a swanky cocktail lounge. The OLCC had denied every liquor application on the avenue for the past 20 years. Now a half dozen bars thrive on this corner.

There is nothing inherently wrong with some of this, it beats boarded-up buildings. But what about when the neighborhood's population is priced out of participation in the new prosperity? What began as in-filling vacant properties turned into a predatory gold-rush. The new investors were not interested in serving the existing community, they attracted customers from other neighborhoods and waited for them to replace the local community. They wanted a class change. The Black culture was given a Disneyland treatment for the tourists.

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A responsible approach to redevelopment, conceived and planned by Blacks, and providing jobs and opportunities for the neighborhood, is Vanport Square.

Left photo: Frank Chevrolet Co., 5201 NE Union. February 28, 1949

Right photo: Vanport Square January 2010

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Left photo: There are people who detest corporate businesses in the neighborhood. Starbucks is a perennial target of theirs, and this photo shows the one at MLK & Ainsworth after both the door and front window were broken by thrown bricks in the early morning hours of a summer night in 2008. These photos were taken at dawn when the window was being replaced. It is ironic that corporate stores offer better employment opportunities to Black residents of the neighborhood than many of the hipster businesses. June 14, 2008.

Right photo: In the news last week, our Post Office was renamed after Rev. Martin Luther King. The idea for this was from Ike Harris, our postman of twenty years, who petitioned for an act of Congress to get it renamed. He is posing with Congressman Earl Blumenauer. February 17, 2010. This is another example of change coming from within the community, rather than imposed on it.

This web page has been revised and corrected to December 13, 2012 by Thomas Robinson