The North Portland that I Used to Know

Recently, we were approached by a young man who grew up in North Portland's St. Johns neighborhood and wanted to tell his story. He had an interested point of view on gentrification and we wanted to include some of his experience in the project. Since he now lives in Los Angeles, he was good enough to write some thoughts down so that we could post them on this site. We've left the story in his voice and we think it deserves a read. -- Cornelius Swart, producer.

My name is Zach Garman. I am 21 years old and reside in the Los Angeles area. However I grew up in Portland, Oregon during a very definitive time.

The year is 1999. I am only 5 years old at this time but I can remember everything as if it were yesterday. The small street I lived on was comprised of mostly older and run down bungalows, craftsman, and two small apartment complexes. It was extremely noisy where I lived. There was always someone yelling or sirens flying past the end of the block on the street perpendicular to mine. My family lived in a partially renovated 1905 farmhouse previously occupied as a crack house. There were a few other families on the block as well. Our neighbors, the Jacksons, lived on the corner. They’re a large family of Old English drinking, lifted truck driving, rednecks from Arkansas. They have grit and attitude like most of the families in the neighborhood. They play music all night through the summers on subs loud enough for literally the next three blocks over to hear. The rest of our street is just as eclectic. There are a few black families, an old white lady, and some recluses that never seem to leave their homes.

I remember the summers most. Maybe because it was the only time my ADHD wasn’t locked inside for the nine rainy months out of the year. My brother and I would play basketball with the half a dozen boys that lived on the next block over in one of the beat up apartment complexes. They were almost all refugee kids from East Africa or the Hmong people group of Southeast Asia. We would all shoot hoops at the basketball goal across the street from our house until the sun went down or my Mom called me in. When my Mom called me and my brother in, it either meant we had to get ready for bed or there was some sort of drama happening on the street. The latter was a common occurrence growing up where I did. My neighborhood was full of drugs, and I knew it from a young age. This obviously meant there were drug dealers, violence and everything else that came along with it. It was at five years old that I sat in the front window of our house and watched SERT pull up with armored trucks and raid the neighbor’s house across the street, for meth sales and production. Gunshots were a pretty normal bedtime lullaby during these summers. On multiple occasions my Dad would run out the house to break up a street fight or chase dope dealers out of our yard. I was no stranger to the dysfunction of our neighborhood from a young age. I was used to it though. It’s just where I grew up.

North of the infamous Rose Garden Arena and west of Williams Avenue was the quadrant of the city I was raised in. Its official name is North Portland or “NoPo” as many of the earlier yuppies dubbed it. For myself and the native youth raised there, we know it simply as “The North.” For almost a century and more this section of the city carried a stigma as tough and poor. It reflected the urban construct of social issues America’s inner cities often face. I grew up at the far edge of this quadrant we call The North, in a small and sometimes forgotten neighborhood known as St.Johns. St.Johns is actually a unique place in that it is on a freshwater peninsula and sits at the confluence of where the Columbia and Willamette Rivers meet. This left it isolated to itself for much of its existence as a neighborhood.

If you grew up in The North, you carried a chip on your shoulder whether you wanted to or not. The two high schools, Jefferson and Roosevelt, were historically the two lowest performing and poorest schools in the state of Oregon.  They were synonymous with gang bangers, future felons, and a lack of government funding. I happened to attend Roosevelt for a year and multiple grade schools all throughout The North. It was tough where I grew up. If you were a young man, you had to always be on your guard if you weren’t already accustomed to fighting. I was always the skinniest and smallest kid in class so I made sure I always knew who was behind me. I didn’t fit the profile as well. While a large majority of the public school students were of minority racial groups, there were a large chunk of white kids. The white kids I grew up with came from the same socially dysfunctional homes and environments as their black and Latino counterparts. I came from a supportive family of parents who happened to be Californian transplants. My Dad was a surfer in his time, so I resembled a miniature member of the Beach Boys while the rest of my neighborhood mirrored more of a Marky Marks persona. 


Poverty was one of the highest in my native 97203 zip code within the city of Portland. That poverty never saw race. While my parent’s income greatly fluctuated, we spent many years living poor and using federal resources like much of our neighborhood. My parents moved us there to do community development and ultimately see how they could serve the people of St. Johns and The North. A small community church named Red Sea was the catalyst by which they chose to do their work. Most of our neighbors were blue-collar workers that held minimum wage or low skilled trades. While it was hectic at times, our section of the city had pride and sense of community many other areas didn’t seem to carry. There was deep history and a heritage to St. Johns and The North. We loved where we came from, regardless of how we were viewed. 

I remember the first business that opened with a “different” appearance from the rest of the neighborhood. It was a Thai restaurant on Portland Blvd. This later became Rosa Parks Blvd and Denver Way actually. I must have only been about ten years old and remember thinking: “wow that place looks cool and unique.” Then it started happening more and more. The second business to open I noticed was North Star Coffee shop near the North Interstate and Lombard. This was the same intersection I spent many hours as a teen waiting for the bus and watching firsthand as dope dealers exchanged money and pimps moved their “girls” around the city. My home was changing. The change became exponential. Soon luxury condos were being built where abandoned lots or older businesses had been. A new Max line was built right down Interstate Avenue cutting through the heart of The North. From the surface many of these changes seemed great, but I began to notice interesting things around me taking place. The kids I had grown up with often commuted back and forth from The North to The Numbers, 82nd Ave. and East, just to attend school at Roosevelt. This was the case for more than a handful of friends of mine. During this time I took note of the new gangland that “The Numbers” had become. I found more times than not that the suspects in crimes out there were in fact the kids I had grown up with in The North. I know more than two dozen kids today who live in “The Numbers” and still “bang” The North.

I wasn’t at ease with what I was seeing for many reasons. Young professionals were taking over our neighborhood with little regards for the indigenous culture meanwhile the poor natives were being pushed out to The Numbers. To quote the great Seattle hip-hop duo Blue Scholars: “New homes, new stores, still a hood underneath/ No good how we chilling in the gut of the beast/ A national question, with no answer in the least/ It's no resting ‘til the cancer meets defeat.” I saw little relational work being done to ease the growing tensions between natives and the new yuppies coming in droves. Many thought the “redevelopment” being done would cure the social issues found in the North and the inner Northeast Portland. I truly believe it backfired, causing issues to spread across the city.

To this day I don’t know if anybody has figured out the formula. I believe the foundation for the formula must be a person-to-person work though. Right now we have to look at how gentrification in the city of Portland was mishandled and in turn help other cities walk through their process better. We need to teach residents of other neighborhoods potentially at risk of gentrification how to invest in their neighborhood and become more than tenants. We need to put political correctness aside and all contribute to the conversation. The soul and heart of American cities are disappearing as we speak. Our nation will regret it one day and wonder what we could have done.