When traveling down North Vancouver Avenue, for those that have lived in the area for at least five years, it looks like the ever so modern, chic, hip, semi-San Franciscan neighborhood you have to be at least white and 20-30 years old to be in, with an underlying homage to white utopia, this city was built to be. But people like my great-grandmother, Elizabeth (Liza) Hepburn, “ruined” the “Pacific North (Jim Crow) South,” searching for their piece of the American pie-- the right to give their future children a better life than they had themselves.
My great-grandmother was born in East Texas, circa 1916, “circa” was a very common addition to blacks birthdays since it was not common to record the birthdays of those “inferior” to the status quo. Born into a sharecropper family, she was use to hard work and subsequently, as she was black, a false sense of hope too. Hope came in the form of a call from her older siblings, yes as if anyone could have been born before 1916, to come and see the beauty and opportunity of places other than the dry, chauvinistic environment of early 1900s East Texas. At that moment it seemed as if that false sense of hope had been transformed into a realistic sense of security.
When she followed her sister up to Denver, the gleaming Rocky Mountains took her breath away, leaving her completely in love with The Mile-High City. At the time there was a huge influx of black residents and despite racial tensions of the time, Denver had promising black neighborhoods, that again fulfilled the black person’s sense of hope. Upon the new employment of her brother-in-law and absence of her sister, my great-grandmother followed the couple out to Portland. As misleading her happiness was (just like an episode of Good Times where the Evans have achieved some sort of success just to have it ripped from underneath their feet, which in some ways was the actuality of the black family's circumstances), the lush, foliage and viridian environment was all she needed to know this place was her home.
Years and years later, a knock came upon my grandmother's Albina neighborhood home, she owned herself with her then husband, asking if she would be willing to leave her home for some amount of money, It is very easy for those better off to question how someone could even equate any sum of money for our homes, not houses, but homes. But when you are seen and treated lesser than the majority, then you really have no option but to say “when must I leave?” As a society we overlook the culture and nature of the wealthy, which in some ways tells the 1% that whatever you want no matter how egregious or morally wrong the wish is, if you throw money at it, it will all be okay. Even though my great-grandmother's story is much different than the other stories of gentrification and displacement, seeing that she was given money to move out of her home as resolution to moving, she honestly had no choice but to leave her only sense of community, surrounded by an oppressive environment of whites, the ways of government and the structure of capitalism, destined to push out anything that doesn’t look like them.
Luckily, my grand-mother was given money to relocate her family and as a result, was able to create another sense of community in the security of her NE 22nd and Ainsworth, never to move again. That knock upon her door was Emmanuel Hospital’s expansion plan, which was at the same time as the creation and renewal of the Lloyd Center area and even before Emmanuel, was its predecessor the Vanport flood-- a back-to-back-to-back bombardment of displacing factors, that destroyed a whole community of people.
This way of using policy and society hand-in-hand to utterly destroy communities of color, is a trend that I see manifesting once again, or maybe it never went away and this disease has found its way back into the neighborhoods of Portland. Redlining, denied bank loans, structural disinclusion in policy for minorities, allegations into the purposeful introduction of drugs into the black community, along with many other methods of disfranchisement to access for African-Americans, are both of the past and present in cities across America, especially the most gentrified city in this country-- Portland.
It would be almost unfathomable for my great-grandma to see that her neighborhood of less than fifty years ago is now the area that her great-grandson is now unwelcomed in. A place that once felt like home, is now awaiting the knock on the door from the unrecognizable faces of those that would never dare to walk down these streets twenty years ago.
This is the new Albina-- well the “New Portland.”
May these faces never change.
These stories of grandmas and grandpas that risked everything to make a better life for their children, are so important if we are to create an inclusive future this city is invested into becoming.