Wednesday, January 19, 2011

on urban development and bicycle transportation

This just in:

On the one hand, I suppose a new brewpub in the neighborhood might be nice. On the other hand it's happening in a part of town that has seen wildfire-fast development, and where rising home values and property taxes have been pushing out longtime residents who once moved into NE Portland because they couldn't afford to live anywhere else.

One of the byproducts of urban development in inner North and Northeast Portland has been the change in the relative age and color of the demographic landscape.

Forty and fifty years ago, black families bought homes here in inner N/NE Portland because they weren't being shown properties in any other part of town, or because they couldn't get home loans for properties anywhere else. This was part of a gentlemens' agreement among local realtors who engaged in a variation of the practice known as "redlining". Black families were clustered together into three or four zip codes because it was easier to then sell properties elsewhere to white families without the attendant worry that a black family might move into those other neighborhoods -- and thereby bring everyone's property values down. Another form of redlining happened when black families would opt to rent housing in cheaper neighborhoods because they couldn't buy a house anywhere. That it was institutional racism didn't seem to upset the housing industry -- or state and local government -- at the time.

At the height of this part of the urban development cycle, Portland's black families, while still constituting a small minority in an otherwise pretty white town, built a community complete with restaurants, small shops and churches. While the encroaching gang epidemic and meth wars that began in the 1990's took a toll on the black community, those things didn't wipe the community out.

The largest demographic change in this part of Portland has come in the last five or six years, as the growth of new business in this part of town has skyrocketed, and the number of new people moving to Portland from out of state has also mushroomed. As a result, many of the homes in inner NE Portland that were formerly inhabited by black families are now being bought up by young urban professionals -- mostly white -- who are fixing up these old homes and putting down new roots.

My question is: where did all the former residents of N/NE Portland go?
Many were pushed out by rising home values and property taxes. Elderly residents moved out when they became too old to care for their homes, or when the rent got too high (lots of single-family houses in N/NE Portland were longtime rental properties before being fixed up and sold). Many families with children moved away when Jefferson High School -- Oregon's only majority black high school -- became threatened with closure several years ago, and the lack of the school board's support for Jefferson and the cluster of feeder schools in the surrounding neighborhood became glaringly apparent.

Lots of people who left inner NE Portland moved farther east, into Parkrose and other neighborhoods in mid-Multnomah County, where rents were (and are) still more affordable. Some left Portland altogether, moving to other cities where housing was affordable and there was a hope of finding work. (Portland still has over 10% unemployment, in case anyone's forgotten.)

But the people now living in Inner N/NE Portland, the ones who've bought up all those houses and developed all those businesses and grown all those bike amenities in the last five years, don't seem to be giving a ton of thought to the way urban development can change a neighborhood. Or maybe they are and we just don't think the same way. I don't know.

I'm not a sociologist, so I can't speak about demographic studies or anything else that's terribly scientific. But I wonder if, in the process of making Portland more bike-friendly, we are also in the process of alienating communities of color from a vision of safe, walkable and bikeable streets. Some communities of color see car ownership as a desireable goal. In many larger cities with urban blight and limited bus service in the poorest neighborhoods, riding a bike is something that only children and very poor adults do. To be an adult on a bicycle in those places is an embarrassing thing.

Now I wonder if the whole idea of transportational bicycling is being turned on its ear in Portland, to be seen by communities of color as something done only by Young White Hipsters With Money, also known as The People Who Moved Here And Made The Neighborhood Too Expensive For Everyone Else.

Ten years ago, hardly any of us had ever seen a Bakfiets -- one of those beautiful, long-body cargo bikes with the big wooden boxes in front that allow you to transport groceries, your dog or your children. Today, there are a few hundred of these cargo bikes all over inner eastside Portland, as more young families are able to move here and fashion lives that allow them to live within biking distance of almsot everything they need: schools, shops, doctors' offices and parks. Nearly every person I've see riding a Bakfiets (which costs about $3000, by the way) is white and looks to be under about age 50. I find it hard to believe they all grew up here and I assume that most of them came from somewhere else within the last decade or less. I'm willing to concede that I could be wrong about this hunch but I don't think I am.

There is a large and growing gap here, based partly on race, partly on mobility and partly on socio-economic class; and I am wondering what, if anything, can be done to close it. How do we make bicycling truly accessible to everyone so that everyone can come to understand the benefits of transportational, practical bicycling?

In light of the rampant development happening in formerly poorest parts of Portland, I honestly do not know the answer.

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