It's Not About the Bikes 

Pinning the North Williams Uproar over Bikes Misses the Point—and the History

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IT STARTED OUT as a debate over 40 feet of road.

Portland's North Williams Avenue is 40 feet wide, with 35 of the feet being used by cars and five feet striped for bikes. There are six times as many bikes traveling along the street as when the bike lane was put in and traffic conflicts are common, so last spring the city asked: How should we rework Williams to make it safer?

What resulted was an explosion. Hundreds of citizens raised a furor over the plan, calling the city process racist and exclusionary. The New York Times and the Atlantic penned articles about bike lanes and gentrification. Town hall meetings were called. The city wisely put the brakes on the North Williams Traffic Operations Safety Project and added another eight months of public process. The issue is sure to reignite this March, when the project's final recommendation is due.

To many, the outrage is bewildering. And the outpouring of alarm and hurt is confusing, if the issue were really about a bike lane. But it's not. The public process on Williams is a hot vent for a community that's been grieving city-imposed change and loss for 60 years.

Small Change, Big Picture

The entire budget of the Williams project—including planning, outreach, and actual construction—is $370,000. To put that in context, the cost of one stoplight is $200,000. Of that $370,000 budget, 25 percent has already been spent on planning and public involvement, leaving a relatively miniscule pile of cash for executing ideas like adding a two-foot buffer to the bike lane, reducing the street to one car-travel lane, or building new crosswalks with flashing signs.

So, the project is unlikely to create radical change. However, the call for public input on the future of the neighborhood happened at a time when radical change on the street was snowballing at an astounding rate. A whopping 68 percent of the 62 retail spaces along North Williams from Broadway to Alberta have opened in just the past five years. Property values along the stretch have—at least—doubled in the past 10 years. The racial demographics have almost completely flipped: In 1990, 70 percent of the neighborhood was black and 21 percent was white. Today, the neighborhood is 27 percent black and 54 percent white.

Not everything is different. (Steve Kimes, who runs a homeless ministry out of his house across from Tasty n Sons, notes, "The crack dudes are still selling crack, they've just moved to a different corner.") But it's undeniable that North Williams has changed over the past 60 years from a black cultural center, to a slum, to a street that New Seasons is excited about moving onto.

For the city to publicly turn its eye toward helping the neighborhood now is insulting to some longtime residents. Safety—from guns, drugs, and, sure, cars—was as much an issue in 1990 as it is now.

"There's this sense that it's been a long time coming for funding in the neighborhood," says Paige Coleman, director of the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods. "The question we're hearing now is 'Why now?' and 'Where were you then?'"

Brief (and Mandatory) Historical Interlude

The bike riders and current wave of home-buying white people are just the latest blossom of massive change that took root 60 years ago.

Portland State University professor Karen J. Gibson's article "Bleeding Albina" (which should be required reading for all Portlanders, offered to newcomers in a welcome packet that includes a bike light and a vacuum-sealed Kettleman's bagel) spells out the factors that led the Albina neighborhood—North Williams is the center of Albina, which covers the area north of I-84, east of what's now I-5, and west of NE 20th—to become Oregon's largest black neighborhood, and then to disintegrate.

One can't really downplay the impact of straight-up racism on the neighborhood. In 1919, Portland's Board of Realtors declared that it was against their code of ethics to sell a house to a black or Chinese person in a white neighborhood. A study in the 1950s found that 90 percent of real estate agents would not sell a house to a black person anywhere other than a black neighborhood. While these "redlining" rules were eventually phased out, disparate lending rates remain today: During the mortgage crisis, it came out that banks were twice as likely to give subprime mortgages to black and Hispanic borrowers than to white borrowers of the same income level.

That redlining made Albina the black cultural center of Oregon in the late 1940s and 1950s, with North Williams as its beating heart. The corridor was lined with small black-owned businesses: groceries, bakeries, record shops, churches, pool halls, bars, and jazz clubs. Despite the difficulty getting loans, 57 percent of neighborhood residents owned their homes.

Then came another beast: destructive, progressive urban planning. Portland today is lauded for its forward-thinking urban planning, but renewal in the city during the 1950s and 1960s can be glibly summed up as: Determine a neighborhood is a slum, bulldoze neighborhood, make way for progress!

In 1956, voters approved a measure to build Memorial Coliseum smack in the middle of the Eliot neighborhood—its construction demolished 476 houses, half of them home to African Americans. That same year, the Federal Aid Highway Act made money available to build I-5, which sliced through Eliot's western flank. In 1966, the city applied for federal urban renewal funds to demolish the homes and businesses on 25 blocks around North Williams and Vancouver so Legacy Emanuel Hospital could expand. In its application, Portland planners explained that the neighborhood had "the greatest concentration of Portland's urban blight," noting that the area had "approximately 75 to 80 percent of Portland's negro population," along with poor housing quality, high unemployment, and high crime rates. Despite protests from the neighborhood, I-5 and the hospital project tore down about a total of 1,100 housing units. Then funding fell through and the expansion died, leaving empty lots along Williams and Vancouver as the scars of progress.

A Brief, Also-Mandatory Interlude with Midge Purcell

"People talk about this area of Williams as being a social and cultural hub, but none of it's there any longer," says Midge Purcell, policy director of the Urban League of Portland, who refers to her nonprofit's building on the southwest corner on Williams and Russell as the street's "last man standing."

Purcell says, "There were music venues, social clubs. All the things that made it a community, those things are no longer here and the things that have replaced them are the exact opposite of what made this community. It's not about a bicycle lane. It's not about whether you widen or get rid of car lanes, although those decisions actually reflect the changing values.

"The City of Portland's policies want to encourage increased cycling and environmental friendliness," she continues. "That's all very well and good. But when people feel that those values are imposed upon them, especially when there's been all the other historic impositions on the community, then it really does become about a lot more than just putting in a bicycle lane. In a lot of ways, this is a real test. To see whether some of the lessons have been learned from previous projects where the outcomes have been really, really poor."

Property Worth 10 Songs and Dances

Paul Knauls has owned businesses on Williams and Vancouver since the days when he invited Duke Ellington and Etta James to play gigs in his legendary neighborhood venue, the Cotton Club. Let's just call Knauls the mayor of Albina. He wears a jaunty white captain's hat and has a smile so large and bright and a laugh so quick and loud that he seems to violate several laws of physics.

"It's beautiful!" says Knauls, of the current Williams Avenue. "If white folks hadn't come, it never would have been that beautiful. But you can go in practically any of those restaurants and not see a black face any time, any day. And that's too bad."

The Cotton Club is now a warehouse surrounded by a chain-link fence. Every other building Knauls owned on the blocks has been demolished—a new 84-unit apartment complex just broke ground on the North Skidmore corner lot that was home to a large community garden and his family restaurant, Geneva's, in the '70s. As a savvy businessman, Knauls is very aware of the benefits of gentrification. But the development-driven marginalization and forced migration of the African American community over the last 60 years pains him.

"I bought this building for a song and dance. Now it's worth 10 songs and dances!" says the mayor, bursting into laughter in the middle of his family's salon on NE MLK. "If you're a property owner and you didn't sell, you can benefit from gentrification. But in there—and this is what I keep saying—they need to have some affordable housing."

Two years ago, the city did open an affordable housing complex on the corridor: the Madrona on North Vancouver and Weidler. While its 176 subsidized units are certainly a success, they're reserved for people in addiction recovery or transitioning from homelessness—not the friends, neighbors, and grandparents Knauls has seen pack up and move east of I-205 for cheaper rent.

Today, urban renewal in the area is taking a much different form than bulldozing homes. These days, the city and Portland Development Commission (PDC) promote development primarily through tax breaks and business grants.

The new 72-unit Albert Apartments going up on the corner of North Beech and Williams received a $1 million transit-oriented development tax break—old-timers (people here before 2008) will recall the location as the former House of Sound record shop. Since 2001, the PDC has given out $606,000 in storefront improvement grants to 38 businesses along Williams and Vancouver.

The relatively cheap housing and city support opened up options in Albina for other Portlanders. Angela Goldsmith moved to the neighborhood in 1998. She was a single mom with two kids, and the Eliot neighborhood was where she could afford to buy a home.

"You can say we were the first wave of gentrifiers, if you want to put it that way," says Goldsmith, drinking tea on her lovely back porch in view of a North Mississippi condo tower. Goldsmith, a daily cyclist, now owns three properties in the neighborhood and got $5,400 in PDC grants to fix up the building that houses the Waypost café. While she sees buildings growing, Goldsmith is committed to keeping her rents low and change positive—she tore out a parking lot next to the Waypost in 2008 and let nonprofit Depave turn the land into a community garden. The property's value has doubled since she bought it and the nearby New Seasons is certain to increase it even more.

"I'm not selling my property, so I don't give a shit," says Goldsmith. But while the city help for new businesses has been great, in the hubbub of bikes, cars, and buses, Goldsmith no longer feels safe biking down its main business street. "I love living here, I love being here... but I don't bike with my kids on Williams anymore—it's too dangerous."

Infographics by Bethany Ng

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