Complexities of Gentrification: "Black Families Didn't Want to Live Here"

Gentrification is a complex issue and there are many different views, as an interview conducted during the first week of our Kickstarter campaign revealed.

While our fundraising efforts closed in on the 40 percent mark last week, interviews on the project continued unabated.  One such pre-camera discussion was with Fred Stewart, perhaps the state’s most prolific black realtor. He discussed his views on gentrification and they are very different than the typical story of privileged whites pushing out impoverished blacks.

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After a feisty exchange on Facebook last week, I spent four hours on Wednesday with Stewart, who is also a Portland city council candidate.  Stewart took me on a driving tour of the neighborhood. He went over local history, one building at a time. Stewart, who was born in Milwaukee, WI has lived in the Albina Community continuously since 1976.  

He rattled off the history of almost every properties from Walnut Park (do you even know where that is?) down into Eliot neighborhood.  

“The Peters lived in that house.  That house over there sold for $15,000, now it could sell for over a million,” Stewart said as we rolled through the streets in his SUV. “Black families owned that and that and that and all of this.”

Stewart began selling properties in Northeast Portland in 1988. At the time many black families were not interested in staying in the neighborhood, Stewart said.

“You couldn’t give some of these houses away,” Stewart said. “There was a stigma attached to this neighborhood. People (black families) wanted to live in Gresham, Beaverton and Vancouver.”

The commercial and residential redlining was still in effect then and the entire area was racked by the drug and gang epidemic. Census numbers bare out the migration of black residents to the middle ring suburbs.   But over the years, the question has been how many people moved voluntarily and how many were priced out.

Stewart has a wealth of experience with the former.

“If I offered to show a black family a house for sale in Northeast (back then), they would get insulted,” Stewart said. “It’s a lost opportunity. There have been at least three conspiracies to push black people out of the city, but gentrification is not one of them.”

Stewart doesn’t blame whites and other middle class investors for moving into the area, especially in the early 1990s when the neighborhood had over 2,000 vacant or abandoned properties owned by the county (see NorthEast Passage.) He does, however, think that the city and the community did plan for the gentrification and made little effort to spread economic growth in a way that would benefit black residents and businesses.

The producers are hoping to incorporate a tour of the neighborhood by Stewart into the final cut of Priced Out.

Please support the campaign so we can help amplify the many voices of the community as they and others grapple with the issues of gentrification and affordable housing.