I prepared this essay at the request of Randy Gragg, architecture critic for The Oregonian, as part of a special “Portland” issue of Arcade: Architecture/Design in the Northwest
White Like Us
Portland is a nice city . . . but it’s not an adventuresome city. Its moderately progressive politics and its racial homogeneity make Portland a comfortable place for its majority population, but also a place that may lack the sparks that fly from the clash and contrast of different ethnicities and cultures. The result, for better or worse, is a city that cherishes the public realm but may have trouble reaching beyond the received wisdom of “best practices” in planning and design.
So what’s to like?
We’re such a well-mannered set of folks that Portland ranks high on lists of “most polite” and “cleanest” cities. Portlanders love to recycle, and do so at rates 10 to 20 percent above the national average. They astonish visitors from the East Coast by walking half a block out of their way to find a trash can to pitch their cardboard fast-food boxes (no styrofoam in this town!).
We mind our manners when transacting public business. Civic decisions are made in polite committees where everyone (who knows the rules) has their say. Nobody (who counts) yells and screams–it’s serious, rational discourse from the moment the agenda is opened to the final handshakes.
Portland is full of nice neighborhoods that New Urbanists can only dream about–tidy, friendly, Ramona Quimby neighborhoods with miles of bungalows and front porches. New homeowner couples on Saturday morning stroll back from the latte shop before tackling the home upgrade project. Slightly more established moms jog along the streets with tri-wheeled stroller in front and Labrador panting behind. Older kids walk to public schools that still enroll nearly 90 percent of school age children despite a severe funding crisis. Boomers tend their rose bushes and azaleas and think vaguely about moving to a downtown condo.
The city feels snug, bright, tidy–”Scandinavian,” to journalist Robert Kaplan: “With its neat trolley lines, geometric parks, rustic flower pots beside polymerand-glass buildings, crowded sidewalk benches . . . Portland exudes a stagy perfection.”
As Leadbelly might have sung, it’s a bourgeois town.
But as the song suggests, “clean” and “nice” and “polite” can be code words for white. Portland is a great place for white, middle class, liberal professionals like me. What sort of place is it for people of color? Does Portland “work” because it is racially homogeneous?
PDX certainly feels white.
Check out the street scene downtown. Most of the shoppers, movie goers, students, and workers are white. Most of the edgy people and scary people are also white–suburban dropouts in heavily metalled clothes, skater punks, panhandlers. There are a few black and brown faces in the retail core and some Latino drug traders on the downtown fringes. But Portland has nothing to match the bifurcated downtown of Los Angeles, where five p.m. brings “L.A. Law” professionals zooming westward out of their secure basement parking for bucolic Bel Air while African American and Latino support workers wait on the street corners for buses to take them home in the opposite direction. In Portland, even middle income white folks take the bus and light rail.
Outside Portland’s core are a dozen or more old commercial streets that have recaptured the prosperity of the streetcar era with restaurants, galleries, and niche retailers. Here too the proprietors and customers are predominantly white. Even in the city’s North/Northeast quadrant, where the minority population is the greatest, it is arty whites who’ve been making over Northeast Alberta Street and North Mississippi Avenue–with due credit to a sprinkling of tacquerias and black-oriented businesses.
In a city where residential neighborhoods intermix at a fine grain, there is no 98 percent ghetto like Washington or Chicago. There are white faces and brown faces in every “black” neighborhood. The most racially neighborhood in the city is no more that two-thirds African American, and only a half dozen or so census tracts are more than half black.
Total minority population in the Portland region is also small. The 2000 census reported that 1 percent of the residents of the six-county metropolitan area are American Indians, 3 percent are African Americans, 5 percent are Asian Americans, and 7 percent are Latino. The figures record a substantial increase in diversity since 1990, but Portland still has one of the lowest proportions of minority residents among the nation’s fifty largest metropolitan areas. Even Multnomah County, which contains the city of Portland itself, is only 20 percent minority.
The population mix means a small base for ethnic businesses and institutions. Many of the successful black-owned businesses depend on white clientele. African American and Latino civic organizations and community development corporations depend on funds from the larger community of white-controlled philanthropy. Community educational goals are also framed within parameters set by the larger society. Conflict over education is conflict over access to success, not for minority control. There are openings for blacks in ladders of meritt–symphony conductor, school superintendent, university president, parks director, chief of police, City Council, County Commission. But political influence depends on alliances with the city’s relatively progressive power structure, not clout at the ballot box.
Because Portland’s black population has historically been small, it has had difficulty staking its own claim to public space. The first center of black life, near Union Station, was squeezed by development pressures in the 1920s and 1930s. A second center for businesses and organizations flourished briefly in the 1950s but fell to urban renewal and freeway construction. For the last forty years, the alternative spaces for community building have been inside churches and outside on the sidewalks and streets–with little middle ground for constructing a public political presence.
So, yes, Portland is white–demographically and culturally.
And there is also something about the ambiance that goes beyond the census: Portland sits in a white neck of the woods.
Oregon was historically a white man’s frontier whose nineteenth century settlers came, in part, to avoid the problems of living in a biracial nation. They embedded antiblack clauses in the first state constitution. Their descendants made Oregon a KKK stronghold in the 1920s. And their successors defeated a Portland civil rights ordinance as late as 1950.
The entire Northwest, of curse, still suffers this regional racist hangover. In the 1980s it attracted Aryan enclaves and violence, including the brutal murder 1988 murder of an Ethiopian immigrant by Portland skinheads. Behind the headlines is an important but little-remarked migration. Since the 1980s, white Californians have been moving to whiter states–Idaho, Utah, Alaska, Oregon. In Oregon they supplement a population already heavily leavened with white refugees from the blizzards of Montana and the Dakotas.
Portland and its regional siblings sell their woodsy lifestyle. Natural resource issues dominate much of the public discourse: salmon, clean rivers, nature in the city, open space v. new housing. Portlanders are beach walkers, hikers, hunters, and anglers. They are more likely to read field and stream magazines and Organic Gardening than auto racing, golf, or home handyman magazines. Up on Mount Hood the lift lines bear witness to the unbearable whiteness of skiing.
For a black population two or three generations removed from the rural life of the border South, this woods-loving lifestyle may not be a comfortable natch. African American writer Evelyn C. White, in “Black Women and the Wilderness” (1995) reflected on a visit to the Cascade foothills and the “sense of absolute doom about what might befall me in the backwoods.” How to explain to outdoor-happy white colleagues, she wondered, “the memory of ancestors hunted down and preyed on in rural settings.”
While African Americans in Portland have slowly been spreading toward suburban areas from their earlier inner city neighborhoods, Latinos have been moving the other direction. Many were originally attracted to Oregon by the farming economy and settled on the metropolitan fringes, where they share space with urbanizing farm towns (transforming the entertainment program of the Washington County Fair in the process). Many are now moving inward to lower-cost neighborhoods in the city, adding substantially to the ethnic mix and beginning to influence local politics.
These cultural and political realities have design implications:
A vanilla city likes understated design–low in gesture and high in references to nature. Compatible buildings are admired. The ensemble outscores the superstar in a sort of chamber music approach to architecture. Water features are always popular. Public artists can’t go far wrong if they work miniature mountainscapes and/or fish into their work. There are “rainbow neighborhood” murals on the back sides of libraries and ethnic restaurants but little “power to the people” art–another sign that we’re closer to Kansas than California. Some of the most successful design projects highlight nature rather than artifice. The Eastbank Esplanade along the Willamette is highly successful in reuniting the city and its river. In a recent design competition for an aerial tramway from Oregon Health and Sciences University to the riverfront, Angelil/Graham/Pfenninger/Scholl won by promising to blend high tech transportation into the landscape background.
There is nothing to get in the way of the continued expansion and intensification of Portland’s core. There are no close-in concentrations of minority residents left to replace (urban renewal took care of that in the 1950s and 1960s). Suburbanites and upper crust matrons can use downtown with only a mild distaste for panhandlers, not a fear of racial confrontation. There is every reason to expect that the center will continue to capture all the major institutions and public places.
The small totals of blacks and Latinos, and their wide dispersion through the metropolitan area, means that almost every older neighborhood is a target for middle class reinvestment. The last decade has therefore brought booming housing markets to previously ignored neighborhoods on the “wrong” (east) side of the city.
Because city-suburb politics are not racialized, there is no insurmountable barrier to regional cooperation on transit, and none of the racially motivated decisions that controlled siting of rail transit systems in cities such as Atlanta and Miami. In contrast to Seattle’s chip-on-the-shoulder politics, Portland’s homogeneity and tradition of civic rationality has allowed city-suburban cooperation over light rail planning and construction.
Portland, I think, may be the California’s own new California. In the first half of the twentieth century, Southern California offered an Arcadian alternative to the Mississippi Valley for millions of white Americans. Los Angeles in its Arcadian age was a city of bungalows filled with transplanted middle westerners (remember the settings for Laurel and Hardy shorts). Portland is still a city of bungalows housing similarly homogeneous inhabitants.
At the start of the twenty-first century, Portland may be the new California, an alternative for Americans who like elbow room, a moderately stimulating level of sophistication, a nostalgic social environment, and a pleasant, comfortable urban setting.