Through the gentrification of Portland, Oregon, historically Black neighborhoods have been torn down and built up; and through these “renewal efforts” sacred spaces for people of color have been destroyed, and skyrocketing housing prices have pushed many long-time Portland residents of color out of the Northeast neighborhoods in which they used to call home and into neighborhoods of less environmental safety, further widening the racial inequalities within the health and medicine industries.
Through providing more spaces for the wealthy, white, migrants coming into Portland, we are seeing the out-casting of long-time residents, and this city is feeling far less welcoming to the Portlanders who established it. Throughout this essay, we will be looking at the Portland African American Leadership Forum’s “People’s Plan”, analyzing a few sections, and allowing the reader to understand how we can tackle racial disparities in this city through environmentalism, arts & culture, and health and medicine. By creating welcoming outdoor spaces and networks that celebrate and support people of color, we can tackle stress and other issues that unequally affect people of color in Portland. The issues we face here are not unique, and these same ideas can be applied in other cities and states experiencing the same kind of life-destroying gentrification policies.
Environmental Justice is Racial Justice
Time and time again we hear about cities that enact infrastructure updates through the construction of highways and the decimation of Black and Latino neighborhoods. Some of these neighborhoods are even located in the middle of highway and interstate systems, such as Griffin Park in Orlando, Florida, a neighborhood that is completely surrounded by highways. The neighborhood residents have historically suffered from issues including mold, rats, and most notably air pollution. Griffin Park is only one example of segregation policies and “redlining” in America.
In Portland, the Albina neighborhood had the most significant concentration of African Americans in the state (due to redlining and racial segregation), and in 1962 the Oregon State Highway Department demolished the heart of the neighborhood and carved Interstate 5 right through it. Portland never did replace the more than 300 homes in which they destroyed. The construction of these highways and interstate systems does three extremely damaging things:
1. Displaces hundreds of people of color and families of color.
2. Cripples neighborhoods by destroying shops and community enrichment areas.
3. Creates health disparities amongst the people who continue to live near the highways.
These environmental justice issues are racial justice issues, and in order to tackle the health and medicine inequalities amongst people of color, cities must first enact policies in which it becomes illegal to demolish neighborhoods of color and which the residents of these neighborhoods have a say in what happens to them. Unfortunately, most of these decisions are made without neighborhood or community consent and by people who live far from the neighborhoods in which they destroy.
According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to traffic pollution has been linked to many adverse health effects (sorry Los Angeles), including but not limited to:
1. Making asthma symptoms worse.
2. Decreased lung function.
3. Cardiovascular disease.
4. Adverse birth outcomes.
5. Childhood Cancer.
Thus, by simply living near highways, the residents of these neighborhoods and their children are prone to life-changing, and sometimes fatal diseases. In Portland, a city that is noted as the most sustainable city in the United States there exists a long legacy of racial injustice, segregation, and “institutional practices and policies [that] have served to effectively discriminate, disempower, disenfranchise, and disinherit Black people from the benefits of sustainability programs and policies,” (PAALF People’s Plan).
Environmental injustices in neighborhoods of color contribute to more than health issues, they contribute to the lack of physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of people of color.
Thus, these environmental issues directly contribute to the health and medicine inequalities faced by people of color in Portland and throughout the country.
We Need to Develop Networks & Spaces that Support Black Brilliance
In neighborhoods that were once culturally diverse and supportive of people of color, we now see yoga studios and overpriced cupcake shops; retail aspects of neighborhoods that are aimed towards making new residents feel comfortable shopping and hanging out, giving them a reason to spend time in the neighborhood. While these new businesses in historically black neighborhoods such as Albina and Alberta allow new residents and wealthy white migrants to feel comfortable, they continuously outcast long-time Black residents.
Retail gentrification is tied directly to racial capitalism, a system that is dependent upon inequality and oppression. While most gentrification focuses on the residential aspects of each neighborhood, retail gentrification allows us to see new and different ways to make Black residents feel oppressed and unequal to their new, white, counterparts. The perfect example of the suppression of Black brilliance, and the suppression of networks that support Black arts and culture, is ironically the Alberta “Arts District” a once redlined neighborhood in the heart of Northeast Portland that has been rapidly gentrified.
Black people pursue arts & culture and creative expression in a myriad of different ways. In Black communities that support Black arts & culture, you can see formal theatrical performances, paintings, sculptures, and murals by Black artists. You will also see the less formal aspects of art, such as music and food festivals. These celebrations and informal gatherings allow professional and amateur artists to come together and contribute to their community’s cultural assets. These activities, both formal and informal, tangible and intangible, are essential to community well-being, economic vitality, and a sense of heritage and identity. So why, in the “Art’s District” of Portland, located in a historically Black neighborhood do we not see any Black-owned galleries, theatres, or even informal gathering spaces? Instead, we see white-owned businesses that appeal to newcomers and outcast long-term residents.
Daniel Sullivan and Samual Shaw wrote a paper titled, “Retail Gentrification and Race: The Case of Alberta Street in Portland, Oregon” detailing some of the many ways in which cultural symbols, both inside and outside of white-owned businesses reflect “not only the personality and tastes of new owners and their new clientele but also create symbolic boundaries that exclude longtime residents,” since these residents are not part of the new, white, subculture. Some of these symbols include restaurant tables on sidewalks, new, cutting-edge music pumped into the street, and inside of businesses, couches, and coffee; or products that are prominently displayed (and way out of the average person’s price range).
By continuously ignoring the needs of long-time Black residents in these historically black neighborhoods Portland is not only suppressing Black brilliance but contributing directly to health disparities that are caused by a lack of creative expression. Creativity is linked to multiple stress-relieving health effects such as decreased levels of cortisol and decreased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that responds to stress or tough situations. Stress itself has been linked to headaches, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco use, social withdrawal, lack of exercise, fatigue, lack of motivation, and other life-changing and sometimes fatal diseases. Stress that is left unchecked can contribute to sometimes fatal health issues, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Not to mention the psychological effects that unchecked stress causes.
According to the PAALF People’s Plan, “The Black community has experienced a loss of place due to the pressures of gentrification and displacement. This loss of place results in a strained connection to our cultural history.” Black Portlanders are feeling more isolated than ever, by establishing Black-owned and operated cultural networks and places, the benefits to the Black community would be incalculable. Not only would Black Portlanders be able to reconnect with their culture and their peers, the sense of community caused by creating social creative networks would limit stress, and thus contribute to limiting the adverse health outcomes caused by stress.
I argue, that by creating these networks and community outreach centers in historically black neighborhoods, such as Albina and Alberta, both long-time residents and new Black residents would feel connected and less disenfranchised; allowing them to proverbially let their guards down and by doing so, decrease their activity in their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Black Well-Being Requires Racial Justice
“The most difficult social problem in the matter of Negro health is the peculiar attitude of the nation toward the well-being of the race. There have… been few other cases in the history of civilized peoples where human suffering has been viewed with such peculiar indifference.” — W.E.B. Du Bois
Racial differences in health contribute to adverse birth outcomes as well as life expectancy. It is said that these racial disparities affect a person of color from before they are born to the day that they die. In the United States, Black women are two to six times more likely to die from complications of pregnancy than white women, Black women are also far more likely to experience complications during their pregnancy than white women.
Even before a baby is born, the stress that their mothers feel during pregnancy is passed on; startlingly Black babies that are born in the United States die at over two times the rate of White babies within their first year of life. In order to analyze the racial disparities in the health and medicine industry, we need to tackle restrictive policies in the United States based on acts of racial dominance.
Considering the dire implications that poor health has on people of color, we must begin to understand that by improving the social, structural, economic, and environmental factors of Black communities, you are also improving health, as well as life outcomes for the residents of these communities. In the 1960s the Portland Black Panthers understood this simple fact and began providing Black communities and neighborhoods with medical clinics, dental clinics, and a free breakfast program for children. By providing these simple community survival programs the Black Panthers carved out spaces of sanctuary for poor Blacks in an unjust social and economic system.
However, since the “urban renewal” efforts, of the 1960s and 1970s in Portland, this city has not only demolished neighborhoods but with this demolition, they have destroyed places that were critical to the enrichment of the lives of people of color in Portland. By destroying clinics, arts and cultural centers, neighborhoods, and the environmental aspects of these neighborhoods, each resident experiences trauma or Root Shock (emotional trauma from the destruction of his or her environment) with which they must live every day.
Much of the sociological research on health and race has been built upon and elaborated on the insights from Du Boi’s seminal work. For example, the list of contributing factors of poor health for Blacks in Philadelphia [in 1899] included, “poor heredity, neglect of infants, bad dwellings, poor food, and unsanitary living conditions.” Du Boi also noted that the causal factors of poor health were primarily environmental. These issues, the issues that Blacks in Philadelphia experienced in 1899, are the same issues in which Blacks experience in Portland and in the rest of the United States today.
Clearly, the institutionalized racism and the racialized social structures that govern the communities in which people of color continue to live have not changed much. The “peculiar indifference”, mentioned at the beginning of this section is astonishing, and in a city noted as the most sustainable city in the U.S., Black unemployment still remains double that of White Oregonians, with thirty percent of Blacks living in poverty. So, who exactly in Portland sustaining? I’ll give you a hint: the wealthy, and the white.
In comparison to whites, people of color have “lower-income at every level of education; less wealth (net assets) at every level of income; higher rates of unemployment at all levels of education; higher exposure to occupational hazards, even after adjusting to job experience and education; and less purchasing power because of higher costs of goods and services in their residential contexts,” (Conrad & Leiter 2012:37).
In Portland, housing insecurity significantly impacts Black residents, considerably more than it impacts white residents. With all of these factors combined, it must be understood that one’s traumatic stress reaction is a cause for extreme health outcomes. Thus, by tackling urban living conditions and improving access to cultural centers, programs, and projects, we are also tackling the health disparities that Blacks in Portland continue to face. In order to tackle these issues, we must begin first with tackling systemic racism and racially restrictive policies in the United States; including but not limited to, reproductive justice, housing laws, restrictive employment opportunities, and the demolition and gentrification of Black neighborhoods.
So, what now?
The PAALF People’s Plan explains three different aspects of health and well-being:
1. Health is a fundamental building block of individual and community well-being.
2. Because health is shaped by our environment and surroundings, improving Black people’s health means that we need a comprehensive approach through policies, programs, and projects.
3. We must target institutionalized structures that produce our urban living conditions, with an explicit emphasis on neighborhoods where Black folks live.
Though one may not be able to tackle every single institutionalized structure that produces urban living conditions, I argue that by tackling the lack of arts & cultural centers in Black neighborhoods, and by tackling environmental factors in Black neighborhoods, we can begin seeing noticeable health changes in the lives of people of color. Beginning with the environment and surroundings of Black neighborhoods, we must enact policies that limit the construction of highways and interstates through Black neighborhoods; and cities must include people of color who reside in said neighborhoods in their decision-making processes.
Within Black neighborhoods, especially neighborhoods that are consistently being gentrified (such as Alberta and Albina) there must be policies that both construct Black-owned and operated cultural centers and preserve Black-owned businesses with rent-stabilization laws. With these laws in action, the city will be providing people of color with community enrichment centers, rather than tearing their community centers down and building high-rise, overpriced apartments, in their place.
By targeting institutionalized structures such as forced evictions, banks not loaning to people of color, and not providing fair housing to people of color in historically Black neighborhoods; we are then challenging the government in its fight to further segregate cities. In Portland, the formerly “redlined” neighborhoods are now home to more whites than Blacks, and the neighborhoods that now do house Blacks are in areas that are overrun with liquor stores, fast-food restaurants, and local markets that cost more money or food chains that offer sub-par food for lower prices.
Segregation does not just happen, pushing people of color to the fringes of cities does not just happen, these acts are planned and cultivated.
Laws and policies must be enacted to stop systemic racism, both in Portland and the rest of the United States. In order to preserve historically Black neighborhoods, we need to ensure that Black residents do not simply survive, but instead thrive in the cities in which they live.
By constructing creative social networks, Black community centers, and environmental areas in Black neighborhoods such as parks and walkways, cities will contribute to the health and wellbeing of their Black community members. By tearing these enrichment areas down, and gentrifying a city to the extent that Black residents feel they do not belong, these cities are also contributing to adverse health outcomes within communities of color.
There must be country-wide laws that enrich the lives of people of color and cease to allow the “urban renewal” efforts (or disguised gentrification) in historically Black neighborhoods. Instead, these “renewal” efforts must be aimed at bettering the lives of people of color, increasing their life expectancy, and most importantly contributing to their happiness and limiting their stress. There should not need to be specialized groups, such as the Black Panthers, in order to see free health and dental clinics and to ensure that children eat in Black neighborhoods. These community survival programs should simply exist, and not be tackled by overzealous police, and uncomfortable white people. By contributing to the well-being of Black communities, you are contributing to the well-being of the country.
Please visit https://www.paalf.org/ and donate to their cause.