Gentrification

Sellwood is the place to be, if you can afford it

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

I live in the tony neighborhood of Sellwood, in southeast Portland. It is one of the whitest and most upper-middle-class areas I have ever lived in. Overall, I really like it here because of the many amenities I can stroll to by foot.

It is a safe place with an amazing walkability score, if you are into real-estate speculation. I love the local eateries, the nearby public library outlet, the pubs, the winery, the bakery, the New Seasons food store, the Wednesday farmers market, and access to the Springwater bike corridor that connects with north and east Portland.

So why the heck wouldn’t everyone want to live here, if they could afford homes at $750,000 or more? Why wouldn’t developers consider tearing down existing homes and rebuilding massive mega-houses, condos, and new apartments given the logic of real-estate development and the construction industry?

According to the website of the local neighborhood association, the Sellwood Moreland Improvement League, or SMILE, there are more than 30 projects underway in the Sellwood and Moreland neighborhoods.

In the past month it startled me how quickly a house can be torn down, trees cut, and land leveled for some medium and higher density projects. In some cases there are just McMansions that are testaments to the pure gluttony of excessive wealth, and we have those in this area. More are surely coming.

A lot of commercial building activity is taking place, in areas zoned for that. But the demolishing of a home is always jarring. The promotion of higher density development in the inner urban areas of Portland like Sellwood have also spurred a housing and rental crisis that saw Portland’s rent rise at the fastest rate in the country in 2016.

Density not Entirely Welcomed

There is an active, homeowner-driven backlash against higher density, often pitting middle- and upper-middle class homeowners against each other in some areas near me, notably the upscale Eastmoreland neighborhood, while other areas like my neighborhood are seeing the impacts of higher density during the past three years.

I overall support higher density, but I am deeply worried very little affordable rental housing stock is being built, further limiting the ability of lower-income and middle-income renters to enjoy what may soon be off-limits to many.

In the November 2016 election, city voters by a strong margin approved a $258 million bond to build more affordable housing, but it is not clear how those dollars will be spent long-term.

Just this week, Oregonian reported, “Renters, stretched financially and pushed geographically toward Portland’s outskirts and suburbs, loudly demanded solutions—joined in some cases by powerful business interests who saw the issue as a threat to the city’s otherwise growing economy.”

The paper said a typical two-bedroom apartment is now out of reach for most residents. Those are people very similar to me. The paper further noted, “The city’s concentration of struggling renters has only grown. Rents have climbed 30 percent since 2012.”

Meanwhile the bulldozers are clearing a few lots, and I can bet that most of the coming replacement units are not meant for those in my income bracket.

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North St. Louis, a gentrification-free zone

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on separate picture page.)

I recently visited the St. Louis, to see my family. I normally use my visits to tour historic sections of the once proud and fourth-largest U.S. city in the late 1800s. But those are the long-gone glory days.

Today, the city is struggling to define itself in the post-NAFTA, post-industrial reality of the “new economy” that has led to the greatest level of income inequality the nation has seen since before the Great Depression.

The pain and fragments of this change are visible everywhere in the city, mainly in the form of shuttered factories and feral and abandoned houses that almost give Detroit a run its money as the epicenter of U.S. urban decay. They are most pronounced on the city’s north side, historically the racially demarcated home to the city’s poorer African-American residents for more than eight decades. That is the story I went out to photograph this trip, in June 2016.

Love can be in short supply in north St. Louis.

Love can be in short supply in north St. Louis.

St. Louis experienced what many Midwest, industrial cities confronted during and after World War II. The U.S Interstate System promoted out-migration to the surrounding county. White flight rapidly accelerated population losses following the 1950s. (See a superb illustration of that white flight here: http://mappingdecline.lib.uiowa.edu/map/.) The population dropped from 880,000 residents at the start of the 1950s to a mere 315,000 souls in 2015, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimate.

Industry, including automobile manufacturing and other sectors, began a long slide to obsolescence. St. Louis and the surrounding region were once major players in automobile manufacturing and home to several “Big Three” plants: one Ford, two Chrysler, and one General Motors. The city’s world-famous Corvette plant closed its doors in 1981 after a 37-year run. At its peak it had a payroll of more than 13,000 employees. Since then, Ford shuttered its plant in nearby Hazlewood in 2006, and Chrysler closed two plants between 2008 and 2009 (north and south plants), costing the region about $15 billion, according to one study. (GM still has an assembly plant 40 miles from St. Louis in Wentzville.)

I wanted to see first hand how things look on the city’s infamous north side, or “home” as it is known to its residents. It had been years since I did such a trip. I was startled by the lack of businesses except gas stations, beauty shops, food and restaurant establishments, and garages.

I met a sixty-something man on a street just off Vandeventer Avenue and North Market Street. He told me he had worked for Chrysler until being laid off in 2009, when the Fenton plant was shuttered for good, before the factory was razed to the ground. A grandfather, he called himself T-Bone, and had just purchased his two-story brick home for $24,000. He hoped to acquire two adjacent lots through a process that allows property owners adjacent to vacated lots to acquire those lots at no cost after three years of maintenance. He told me he wanted to become more engaged in local politics to help restore his section of the city. He lived two houses down to a boarded up, abandoned home, one of several on his block.

Beautiful old brick homes have long gone feral in the economically challenged neighborhoods of north St. Louis.

Beautiful old brick homes have long gone feral in the economically challenged neighborhoods of north St. Louis.

Today, more than one in four St. Louis residents live in poverty. The U.S. census puts the median household income in the Gateway City at $35,000, well below the U.S. average of $53,000. Racially, the city is as divided as ever with blacks and whites evenly divided, and now Hispanics and Latinos numbering (officially) under 5 percent.

All of these numbers mean that the city, and its poorest residents, are struggling. That struggle can be seen on just about every block north of Delmar Avenue, all the way to the city’s borders with adjacent and also struggling municipalities like Jennings. Anyone visiting the city should soak its charms—the Gateway Arch, the amazing churches, the historic downtown, and especially charming and historic Lafayette Square.

Then they should take a drive for an hour or two and see what life in the new urban, post-industrial America looks like. Gentrification is not a problem that is displacing residents in the city’s north side. No urban, yuppie, or tattoo-covered and scrappy millennial pioneers from the affluent suburbs are rushing to create art centers or startups in old factories sites. This is the place people leave if they can.

This is not Portland, Seattle, or Boston. This is a much tougher, more violent, and grittier place. It is also in many ways a more friendly place too, where people will still say hello if you have street cred and give them respect. This is St. Louis, and the recovery, if it comes, is still a long ways off. Without long-parted industry, that future is still not certain.

Downtown Portland, a profile in Northwest-style gentrification

Portland is no stranger to gentrification. I’ll use that term to describe the redevelopment of urban properties that “revitalize” areas from being low-value for tax collectors to high-value and geared to serve people with high-income levels. That is my own definition. One piece of downtown that has transformed over the last two decades is around Burnside Street and the blocks of SW and NW 10th through SW and NW 14th. One of the anchor businesses here is Powell’s Books, a great institution. Whole Foods moved in more than a decade ago, and there continues to be a lively debate if the company follows the prevailing winds, or moves the local real-estate market up in price once it chooses a site. (For the record, I have shopped and eaten here many times.)

The landmark building in this section of downtown is the old Henry Weinhard’s Brewery. This is a classic late 19th century brick factory style structure that once was home to the former local beer company of the same name that is now folded within the larger MillerCoors brewing empire. The old factory is now mixed-used retail and condos, following the redevelopment completed in 2002. The building retains a facade of a brewery, but it doesn’t brew beers. Scores of other fine microbreweries do that around town. On any give night, there is a lot of foot traffic, and people usually pack the Henry’s Tavern located inside the old factory. When I first moved to Portland in 1983, I remember this part of town as being a popular area to many homeless residents, warehouses, and retail businesses that came and went.

Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.

Under the off-ramp, eastside Portland

This is the underside to one of the Interstate 5 off-ramps on the eastside of Portland. Many homeless residents stake out spaces here to escape the rain and camp, like you see in the distance here. Warehouse businesses are found here, along with produce distributors and other enterprises that need cheap land for rent. This is also known as the Central Eastside Industrial District. I have known this place for decades. Today many services for the homeless and mentally ill can be found just of Highway 99 and Martin Luther King Drive. There is now talk about how this section of town may be redeveloped. Change is inevitable, and Portland is seeing this all along its riverfront. (Click on the photo to see a larger photograph on a separate picture page.)

Belmont Street, old meets new and with a bit of art thrown in

Belmont Street is one of those quintessential streets in Portland that fuses “weird Portland” and gentrifying Portland. Off the main drag one can find the old Portland wooden Victorian homes, painted in lovely colors. Sunnyside Plaza is quite boisterous, with an entire intersection painted, and I would like to see more of this. The upscale food store Zupan’s has an entire city block of Belmont, surrounded by businesses like the Anasasi Beat African drum and crafts store and Stumptown Roasters coffee shop. (Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

What half-million dollar and more Sellwood homes look like

I live in the Sellwood neighborhood of Portland. It is a lovely, walkable area. There are cool little cafes, a nice bakery where I buy fresh bread, a wine bar, an Italian restaurant, several Asian-themed restaurants, an art space, yoga studios, a library, a high-end grocery store, a spice shop, a tea shop, a bike shope, and more. And this is all within seven blocks. I live within a half mile of two nice parks, too. So you bet that walkability score is going through the roof. And with that, and nice old homes, comes hefty home prices. I did a quick scan on Zillow, and houses near me, not much different than the two smaller ones you see here, range from $500,000 to $800,000. These larger homes I have captured too would be well over $1 million.

One reason I left Seattle was because of out of control price escalation and the influx of flippers who had in several years literally priced out anyone lower class from my old neighborhood. Guess I have landed in the middle of that again in Portland. (Read and listen to this nice story by Marketplace on gentrification.) The problem is, I like walkable neighborhoods. I just will not ever be able to afford a home in one. So, I continue to rent, which is my choice, and I’m fine with that.

Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.

A few more scenes from a trip to Alberta Street

Yesterday I published a video highlighting NE Alberta Street. Here are a few more pictures from that outing, as stills.

Alberta Street, that oh-so popular place in NE Portland

A colleague I know who grew up in Portland described the Alberta Street of his youth as a place his mom told him not to visit. It was not that friendly. It was in an area that used to be defined by low-wage earning residents, clear social and crime problems, and inattention by the City of Portland. The story is a long one, involving the building of a nearby interstate, the demolition of  African American residences nearby, a great flood in 1948, and the emergence of the new Portland in the late 1990s.

Today the street is a local if not national darling of Portland’s vaunted urban revitalization. There are plenty of restaurants, small business, and cafes. I tried to go to a boulangerie last weekend, when I filmed this video, but it was packed. Northeast Portland also use to have a lot more African American residents. That is no longer the case. There remains plenty of buzz about this place. I say, take a look for yourself. Do not let the hype or even this video sway your mind. Decide for yourself. It is most defnitely a shining star of the Portland I know, as Portland would define things.