White Gentrification Hits Northwest Cities

Blaine Harden, Washington Post, June 18, 2006

PORTLAND, Ore.—Already the whitest major city in America, Portland is rapidly becoming even whiter at its core.

“The heart of the black community is gone,” said Charles Ford, 76, a black activist whose neighborhood in Portland has flipped in recent years from majority black to majority white. “There ain’t no center anymore.”

About 150 miles north in Seattle, the nation’s second-whitest major city, the same process of downtown demographic bleaching is accelerating for the same reasons.

An invasion of young, well-educated and mostly white newcomers is buying up and remaking Seattle’s Central District, the birthplace of Jimi Hendrix and the once-bluesy home of the young Ray Charles. What had been the largest black-majority community in the Pacific Northwest has become majority white.

“I am concerned and I am frustrated because I don’t know what the alternatives are,” said Norman Rice, who in the 1990s was Seattle’s first and only black mayor. “It clearly isn’t racist; it’s economics. The real question you have to ask yourself is: Is this good or bad?”

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But as it accelerates in Portland and Seattle, where the percentage of black residents was already the lowest among the nation’s largest cities, white gentrification is erasing the only historically black neighborhoods these cities have ever had.

In many cities with large black populations, gentrification has caused only marginal racial change. In the District, for example, the percentage of white non-Hispanic residents increased 2.7 percent between 1990 and 2004, according to William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

Still, Washington remains less than one-third white and about 60 percent black.

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As black residents leave the central areas of Portland and Seattle for the suburbs—either because they have sold their homes or been forced out by higher rents—their community is being splintered by geographic dispersal and racial integration.

“It’s destroying us, socially and politically,” said Ford, the neighborhood activist from Portland. “It is just a total inconvenience and disrespect to black folks.”

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In both Seattle and Portland, which take considerable pride in being green, liberal and tolerant, the fading away of black inner-city communities has occasioned considerable hand-wringing among the overwhelmingly white population. Portland is 76 percent white and Seattle 68 percent white.

“Many of the white liberals who condemned white flight are just as angry at the white folks who are moving back into the cities,” Dan Savage, editor of the Stranger, an alternative weekly in Seattle, wrote last month in his blog about movement from the city in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

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