What Meets the Eye in Northeast Portland, Oregon

Northeast Portland is a really interesting place. Historically a minority area known for its high crime rates, within the past 10 years or so it has become the new frontier for arts and culture in Portland, and accordingly a major site of urban gentrification. The two major commercial streets are Mississippi and Alberta, both dubbed "historic areas", while the surrounding area is primarily residential and low-rise as is much of Portland east of the river. Portland's lax ordinances when it comes to property and public right of way care allow for a plethora wonderful, flowery foliage that grows in the yards and sidewalks. Indeed many local streets are "unimproved", meaning that they have either been depaved, allowed to decay or augmented with gravel and greenery. Several intersections have undergone "repair", a procedure adopted into the city code that allows for a large, traffic-slowing mural on an intersection with majority approval and cooperation amongst its neighbors. Some groups that promote these kinds of spaces in Portland are "City Repair" and "Depave".
One interesting architectural characteristic of North East is the corrugated metal that you can find on homes (like the one pictured above), galleries, condos, and restaurants/bars like "Alleyway" and "Tin Shed". I'm used to seeing this material in the context of informal settlements in the developing world, so it was interesting to find such a local fascination with it here. Finally, Alberta and Mississippi have some great food carts, like the "Grilled Cheese Grill", housed in an old school bus.
Like many gentrifying neighborhoods, the north east seems polarized between neolocals and the area's historically black and latino population that has been increasingly pushed out. At the root of the divide is the discriminatory "red lining" practices of banks in the 40s which led to concentrations of "high risk" minorities in the only areas where they could buy from realtors, who risked losing their license if they sold properties to minorities outside of these areas (info from AlbertaMainSt.org). In the 1990s the area was rediscovered by artists and small businesspeople. Their attention brought down the historic crime rate but also raised rent and began to create tension and pressure on longtime poorer residents to move out. Friends tell me there is a noticeable divide and lack of socialization between the groups. Last summer when I was visiting I saw a homeless man berating the owner of a wine bar on the patio, telling him between slurs and curses that it wasn't fair for him to be asked not to bother the patrons when they invaded his neighborhood every month with their wild "Last Thursday" art fair. Bars tend to cater to one group or the other and there is at least a one-way stigma for neolocals to enter an establishment where longtime residents gather. One exception seems to be the neighborhood pub "Binks" where longtime residents and newcomers mingle.

Despite the narratives of gentrification surrounding Northeast Portland, the area is full of contradictions and places where the stereotypes break down. A leisurely stroll down Alberta St. during the yearly street fair revealed a diverse cast of Portland characters stepping out in the neighborhood in their own ways, and taking in the relaxed atmosphere of the street.


Update 9/26/11: check out this article in the Atlantic about bike lanes & racial tension in northeast: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2011/09/portland-bike-lanes-open-racial-wounds/138/

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