A squat, split-level with a lit sign declares the Ethiopian Restaurant. Up two flights of steps is a deck where white twenty- and thirty-something hipsters smoke and joke, clink bottles and high-five. In the last decades, North Portland has seen a flood of whites buying cheap residential property, remaking thoroughfares into urban commercial drags of bars and restaurants and cafes. Only a few of the shops and institutions that catered to black residents remain: the spires of St. Andrews church, the market that each morning fills the neighborhood with the smell of frying chicken, tots, and fries, the fading sign of the Terrell Brandon Barbershop. Instead, queues of one- and two-story street-facing facades stretch on and on: art boutiques and resell antiques, French patisseries and co-op groceries and whiskey bars and punk rock clubs, pizzerias and sushi joints and Indian buffets and biscuiteries, purveyors of deluxe small batch organic ice cream and artisan coffee roasters and vegan breakfast joints and food-cart clusters of semi-permanent plywood and repurposed picnic tables.
In the bar above the restaurant, two black women play video-poker, faces lit by the screens glow. Onstage, a rangy young man plays a folk song, his blonde hair flipped a little to one side, his face pale in the dim fluorescent light. I can’t follow the song, something in the style of Dylan about the beauty of forms or the forms of taxes. There’s one bartender, whose exceptionally round head shines with a film of sweat; his black bushy chest-length beard is the sort of facial-hair explosion that seems the envy of every man in Portland. The singer finishes his song, and applause rises from the full tables in the corners, from the back row of chairs and the dozen people standing below the stage.
A tall, thin man with a ponytail, whose teal shirt is embroidered with an uncertainly Asian-inspired dragon, mounts the stairs and welcomes the next performer and steps down. A young man leaps on-stage, forgoing the stairs. He is perhaps twenty-five; deep bags raccoon his eyes, and his hair is buzzed to pale stubble, lending him the bared, vulnerable look of a fresh-sheared boot-camp recruit. He lacks an instrument, and for a moment I fear bad poetry. He detaches the mic and steps forward, and the room goes silent as he regards the crowd of twenty-somethings. The men are bearded and well-coiffed, hair long on top and shorn close on the sides in a riff on the thirties or eighties; the women are dolled-up, hair pixie or Rosie-the-Riveter saloned, cut-off jean shorts paired with silk-screened tops of silhouetted herons and wolves. The man onstage wipes his brow, looks surprised. “I cut my hair off today!” he declares.
The crowd murmurs as if this was an admission worthy of appreciation. He blinks a little into the lights, clears his throat. “I don’t have anything prepared. I thought it might help to come here and let it come out.”
The crowd goes quiet. “Tell it!” a woman calls.
He smiles; it doesn’t reach his eyes. “I just don’t know what to do. I mean, I jacked off twice today. At work. I work at a tea shop; I won’t tell you where, you won’t want to come there now. I don’t know why. I was trying to feel something. Sometimes work is so meaningless. So I wacked it. And what’s fucking sadder than that, smoke break, bathroom break, squeeze one out, wash your hands, and act like nothing happened?”
I wait for the crowd to boo or mock this oversharing, but they’re still listening to this young man, reserving judgment. I feel stricken, wondering how long it will go on.
“I don’t know what to do,” the young man continues. “And I’m sorry if I said too much. I’m just trying to be honest about whatever all of it—all this—” he sweeps his hand to include the crowd, the room, the warm stale evening beyond, “is supposed to mean. What I’m supposed to do here. All my life I’ve been sad, and I don’t know why. I came out from the East Coast because everyone said people in Portland are happy. And they are. You are. Happy and friendly. But I don’t know how to be.”
And the young man tells his story, typical enough in today’s Portland. His name is Jonah. He’s an upper-middle-class kid from upstate New York who went to state college. Jonah has loans, but isn’t without resources. He has connections, a job in the family business back east if he returns. He doesn’t like working service, but doesn’t want to return home and become his father, his uncles, his cousins who are already there. Jonah wants to travel, but doesn’t know where to go, if he has the courage to say no to his obligations calling him back. He drinks too much of whatever he can at night trying to put down doubt or make it rise up so he can face it. He spends most of his time alone. Jonah just isn’t sure how to be.
And as he tells his story in fits and starts, a strange thing happens. The crowd, a dozen voices in it, doesn’t get exhausted at his halting and plaintive confessions. Instead, they call out advice and encouragement. “It’s okay,” croons a young woman. “I’ve felt like that!”
“We all want another!” bellows a man when Jonah talks about wanting another drink.
“Go!” hollers two or three voices in chorus when he speaks of putting his things in a bag and leaving. “Mynamar!” a girl insists. “Mongolia!” another voice calls out. “India!” “Guatemala!” “Spain!” “Home Depot!” someone retorts, and everyone laughs. It takes a long while for Jonah to stop talking and leave the stage, and when he does, a group forms around him, and the men and women of this open mic audience surround and lay hands on him, they clap him on the shoulders, openly embrace him. He remains enveloped in a circle of goodwill for a long time, hands clutching the hollows of his armpits as if reaching for what isn’t there, sobbing genuinely, if perhaps a little self-servingly as this attention confirms the depth of his despair. Only the two black women at the video poker machines remain indifferent, feeding dollars into the machine and choosing lines of roulette, holding cards and checking them against the dealer, intent on winning games which are impossibly rigged.
At the corner of North Portland’s Fernhill Park, four black children run circles in a yard. A little girl races across the street to intercept me. Her hair’s braided in neat, straight rows; her shoes are new lavender Converses. She proffers cupped palms, offers a lily.
“Want to buy a flower?” she asks with the slyness of a salesman and bemusement at her own brazenness. “Only one dollar and twenty nine cents!”
I pat my pockets. “That deal is a steal,” I say, examining the royal purple bud, its petals a little crushed. “But I don’t have any money on me.”
She grimaces, thrusts out her hands. “Take it, then. Since you wanted it.”
I gently take the flower; it is warm from being held. “Thank you so much!”
“You’re so very welcome!” she says, imitating my formality, and runs back across the street, proud to have unloaded her wares. I wonder how often she interacts with white park-goers—she certainly sized me an easy mark, though I am Asian American, and so unlike her usual targets. Recently, the black residents of nearby Albina successfully fought off construction of a Trader Joes; the racial politics of gentrification are incendiary, the frictions with bohemians on bikes constant. Portlandia has popularized the caricature of the comically passive-aggressive, feckless young white liberal, but the stereotypes are rooted in both demographics and tendencies: there is no denying the typical Portlander’s affinity for microbrews and kale and kombucha, their 90s nostalgia for punk and plaid, their cultural embrace of twee-nerdery and arbitrary oddity. Portland is the literary territory of Cheryl Strayed and Lidia Yuknavitch and Chuck Palahaniuk, a place where every young woman seeks self-possession via journey or drug-dabbling, piercing or pole-dancing, fetish or new-wave feminism, while every young man wishes to have the amplitude of beard, fixed-gear commuter bike, and bright sleeve of tattoos to catch such a lass’s eye.
As for gentrification, like in every desirable part of the country, economics decide the contest, and wealth wins every time. The drought has suddenly made climate change real, and California a great deal less desirable: conservative estimates put Portland’s population 725,000 residents greater within two decades, as clouds and rain transforms toward the temperate patterns of NorCal even as Californians fleeing the old breadbasket (the new dustbowl?) flock toward areas of undepleted aquifers and high quality of life. Few whites moving to Portland today know the reason North Portland is historically black is that a city ordinance existed that prevented blacks from living closer in. Being Portland, the new residents of the city feel guilty about distressing minorities that their politics tell them they should support. A friend described how one day in front of New Seasons grocery, a large group of white bicyclists pedaled up. They held a loose circle, intent on a middle-aged white woman speaking emphatically as she gestured at the market and street.
“What is this?” my friend asked a man near the rear.
“The gentrification ride,” he said.
My friend’s face registered incredulity.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “Carol is white. But she’s knowledgeable about these issues!”
My friend averted her face so he couldn’t see her laughter; there’s no limit to the earnestness and cluelessness of white liberals.
The consequences of gentrification in North Portland are less amusing. For one thing, gang-related violence has at once intensified and dispersed. While violent crimes like drive-bys were once concentrated in traditional hotspots like New Columbia or Cully, now violence has spread as gang members are displaced. Suburban Portland, home to the most notorious white West Coast gangs, has in some hotspots become a turf war apartment complex by apartment complex, the traditional Crips and Bloods of urban Portland overlapping areas dominated by the European Kindred and affiliates, all battling to control lucrative sex trafficking operations off the I-5 Corridor.
Meanwhile, poverty in Portland has shifted, not lifted. The silver lining of ‘urban renewal’ is supposedly that by mixing the more affluent with the less, opportunity is created for all. Poor people will have new employment options, the argument goes, and be exposed to new models of diligence. Yet ethnic and cultural communities have instead been diffused in the quest for affordable rent. The number of people living in poverty in Portland’s suburbs shot up almost 100 percent between 2000 and 2011, according to the Brookings Institute. If the North’s poor black residents are driven to the same poverty in less desirable areas, then the Portland Boheme for middle-class whites has been purchased at a price of cultural disruption and displacement, even violence. And while immigration to cozier, comfortable climes, and gentrification and attendant displacement are not new phenomena, I find that people flocking Portland-ward rarely wish to accept their own culpability or complicity in this story—there is a desire on behalf of most newcomers to think of themselves as socially progressive and so properly enlightened, as if being anti-racist or super-considerate and well-meaning, responsible even, somehow makes this process of ‘urban renewal’ consequence-less and clean. It is not.
I work in higher education where I serve a particular student population: low-income first-generation Oregon college students who are often of minority background. The exception to the exception, their success despite their lack of means confers rare traits: they’re overachievers flush with potential. They’re also practical in their orientation toward education: they see intellectual exploration as a privilege reserved for the wealthy elite. They need their hard work to have concrete economic benefits to career and pocketbook, a validation of the sacrifices their parents and grandparents have made on their behalf. As one student wrote, “I cannot fail to make my education pay off—my family’s hopes and dreams ride on me. I am here for them, not for me.” Their worldly aspirations, then, are directed by the imperatives and constraints of the poverty they hope to leave behind.
The last two summers teaching in Portland, I’ve taught a different student population. These University of Oregon students are all white; only a few work, 80% of them attended private school, and in classes which are heavily female, 2/3 are in sororities. This summer, especially, I’m besieged by salon-blonde and Nordic-tan, by the backslapping bonhomie of the backward-baseball-cap sporting boys, who show out for the girls. As students, they’re quite average: the least successful children of first families of Portland. They’re polite but disengaged, seasoned professional students expecting to be underwhelmed. Most are personable, superficially affable; theirs is a polished mediocrity of means.
I teach the same curriculum I teach my low-income, first-generation students concerning the American education system’s purpose, successes, and inequities. These Portland students are as practical as my low-income first-generation students: they want to be wealthy, and intend to study what will pay dividends. Yet the origins of their instrumentalist orientation differ: they’ve been groomed for success, and have assurances regarding its dimensions and rewards. They’re uninterested in exploration and wisdom not because they lack the resources to explore, but because for them, happiness lies in their parent’s example. What they want is what they’ve known, a solipsism so complete as to render curiosity disruptive. “I just want to make money to do the things I like,” said one girl in discussion. “I mean, that’s the only point of college: your future.”
I tried to complicate the discussion: “What about those students born into low-income families who don’t get the opportunity of college, who end up denied the chance to make money? What does it mean if getting a good education, and the attendant promise of the American dream is available only to the wealthy?”
There’s a long, uncomfortable silence. Then a tall, slim boy, who wears the sort of bold square-framed glasses that are the style hallmark of the Portland hipster, raises his hand. He’s one of the slyer and more calculating students I’ve encountered, a young man who will grow up to be smooth, which is to say, mildly subversive in the service of his own interests. He raises his eyebrows. “Sucks to be poor?”
The whole room breaks into an ugly laughter that still echoes in my ears. Born into plenty, these Portland millenials will never want for material wealth. They’re children, and some will grow into greater conscience; the point is not their lack of empathy, but how they embody the values of America’s cultural and social elite—values which have engulfed the City of Roses as it has become the destination city of the West. Portland is a modern microcosm of the nation, in all the glory and strangeness of the beard and the bike, the contradictions inherent in the white hipster’s celebration of hip-hop, the music of black poverty, as he moves into a neighborhood that was once black and poor and will be no more. What America will we inhabit, when a substantial part of the country has elevated the Trump platform of unabashed xenophobia, while in our most ‘progressive’ urban communities all is pastiche and paean, colonization and co-option of, by the new corner eco-organic co-op? Will the new world be any better than the old one—and what will become of the newly dispossessed, displaced to make space for the pilgrims fleeing parched California and overpriced Brooklyn and all the other currently less desirable destinations in between?
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.