Monday, October 02, 2006

Empty Store Fronts in a Brightly Colored Building

Twenty years or so ago Hawthorne Boulevard in Southeast Portland was a sleepy, artsy place, home to antique shops, a shuttered movie theater across from a dance studio, a few restaurants and an aging Fred Meyer's supermarket. Then, as such things happen, it was discovered. The supermarket got a facelift. Junk shops gave way to more upscale boutiques and many of the artsy bohemian crowd which gave the neighborhood its character either got better jobs or moved out.

Oregon has a notable history of segregation. In fact, when we got married we ran into the last vestige of the old Oregon Constitution which forbade a "member of the White race" from marrying a "Mulatto, Free Negro, Kanaka or Chinaman". The actual miscegination law was toppled by the US Supreme Court in 1954, but there was still a requirement which we objected to. You still had to put down "Race" on the marriage license application and could only put one. The wouldn't accept "human" or "pongid" for me, although when I finally scrawled "1500 meters" illegibly they gave in. Tiel could honestly tick every box except "Hispanic" and "Australian Aborigine". They didn't much care for that either. Eventually we gave in and were married. During the next legislative session our State Senator was kind enough to introduce legislation to remove the requirement.

What does this have to do with that brightly colored building? Quite a lot as it turns out.

To this day the demographers tell us that Portland, Oregon is perhaps the most integrated large city in America for those of Asian descent. Chinatown has shops, but nobody really lives there. The same goes for the Vietnamese businesses in the Northeast Hollywood district and the pan-Asian spread on 82nd Avenue. You find concentrations of businesses but not homes.

It is also arguably the most segregated for African Americans. From the early days it was "Nigger, don't let the sun set on you in this town." There were only about 11,000 in the whole state up until 1950. Most of them lived in Vanport, a quasi-city in the Columbia River floodplain. In 1948 the Vanport Flood forced the (Black) residents into Portland itself. Most were packed into the Albina district in Northeast. Redlining was a matter of policy. Banks, insurance companies and realtors would not allow Whites who wanted to live in the area or Blacks who wanted to live pretty much anywhere else. No houses shown. No mortgage approved. No insurance sold. In much of Northeast the only business loans were for liquor stores, bars and pawnshops, hardly the stuff that a healthy local economy is built on. While it was officially forbidden in the 1960s it was common into the 90s.

Rising housing prices and city administrations which wanted urban renewal ended the practice. Unfortunately for the people who lived there it meant that many were priced out of their homes, and newcomers started the businesses. Such is gentrification in an insane housing market. On the other hand, it is much safer and life is generally better. When I lived here in the late 1980s Northeast Alberta Street seemed to have declared unconditional surrender in the War on Poverty. There were few businesses. Many were liquor-related or the traditional auto-body, valve-grinding, garbage company sorts of places you find in commercial space in poorer areas. During my brief stint with the Guardian Angels we met in a rickety abandoned building with boarded up windows, no heat and only a couple of lightbulbs on the corner of 15th and Alberta.

That building is now the mostly-organic Alberta Food Co-op. It's brightly lit, freshly painted and has lots of windows.

Business loans and relaxation - though not elimination - of informally enforced segregation completely transformed the neighborhood. The last of the idle buildings are being brought up to code and house shops, restaurants, the Oregon Tradeswomen, and a few civic organizations. The area has switched from mostly rental to mostly owner-occupied. And in all fairness many of the new owners are old renters. Turning a tenant into a stakeholder changes his perspective and attitude like nothing else. Most of the businesses will fail. But the investment they made in the infrastructure and the area's new attractiveness will make it easier for their successors to get started. The entrepreneurial earthworms will make soil from the detritus of dead shops.

I suppose you could say that Tiel and I were either the last of the old or the first of the new. Ethnically mixed, educated, not much money, upper middle classupbringing. We were on the cusp.

If you turn South at the corner of NE 15th and Alberta and head walk four or five blocks you'll find yourself on NE Prescott. For a long time there was a house on one corner, a dilapidated drug house on another, a rundown convenience store on the third and a long-closed unlicensed social club on the last. The drug house was sold, remodeled and sold again. The convenience store is still rundown but has been repainted, Lord only knows why, in battleship gray. There is talk about how much more valuable the land would be as practically anything else. I expect it will be sold, torn down and sprout a mixed-use complex pretty soon.

The dull, dirty social club is the interesting one. Its history resembles nothing more than ecosystem succession. First there's nothing. Then the small first colonizers arrive and a simple ecosystem develops. Populations succeed each other. Eventually a balance is reached until the next chance occurence or change in the environment alters conditions and the mix of species again. World without end.

A few years ago the building was sold. A video store moved into part of the space. Then a really good taqueria opened up. More of the building became a carniceria, a hair and nail place, and a Mexican specialty store and so on. The carniceria folded and was replaced by a panaderia. The rest of the businesses mostly owned by Latinos and most of them from Guerrero or Chiapas. I had some doubts about the bakery. The owner didn't charge nearly enough for what he sold. A hand decorated half sheet tres leches cake should cost more than fifteen dollars. Flan at three for a dollar is a steal. No matter. He seemed happy.

The building lost its old gray/black shades a piece at a time. Chilango's Taqueria went through a couple of shades before settling on its current hue. The whole building has been repainted in colorful greens, yellows and reds.

A few months ago the panaderia, the Mexican goods and the hair and nails place all went out of business at pretty much the same time. Chilango's was closed during what used to be prime business hours, and a few familiar faces were gone from counter and kitchen. When we asked we were told that Immigration had done a big roundup. The missing businesspeople were probably illegal immigrants. I believe pretty strongly that a nation has the duty to defend its territorial integrity and should only allow in those whom it deems in its national interest to welcome. But the loss of productive businesses in a formerly blighted area doesn't seem terribly productive. It should be difficult. It should be expensive. It shouldn't be as easy as "You broke the law for enough years that you get in ahead of the people waiting honestly in line." But there should be a way for people like that to legitimize their residence.

Chilango's is still there. The video store closed. A barbershop and a coffeeshop, both owned by lifetime neighborhood residents, have just opened. The Mexican goods store is an upscale bar, and the panaderia's space is going to re-open as a barbecue joint. Life goes on. Alberta becomes Hawthorne. Hawthorne becomes Northwest Twenty Third. Somewhere there's a can of paint in a different shade waiting to be brushed onto the storefronts on the corner of 15th.

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