Alex DeSpain for DWP

"IT'S SORT OF a fusion of cultural geo-graphy, urban studies, and architectural history," says Reiko Hillyer, describing landscape studies, her area of interest. "The built environment as a historical text—the places humans build, how we organize space, how we design space."

BORC (British Overseas Restaurant Corporation)—the restaurant on N Williams that distilled South Asia's brutal colonization into $16 brunch items, and until recently went by the name "Saffron Colonial"—is a case study in this collision of history, aesthetics, and commercialization. Its messy attempt to romanticize a violent past for profit in a gentrified neighborhood raises questions about whose history gets rewritten for which consumer. As Hillyer puts it, we "don't necessarily think about issues of equity when it comes to aesthetics."

A Northeasterner with a book about the South, Hillyer is always assessing the present in terms of the past. In her decade of living in Portland, she's been on the board of Know Your City, devised a walking tour of Old Town history, and lectured for Oregon Humanities' Conversation Project. She currently teaches history at Lewis & Clark. Here's what she told me about density, affordable housing, and equal access to public space in Portland:

On the single-family craftsman: "Lots of folks are concerned about single-family homes being torn down—and while it could be a violent act of a developer taking someone's home and commodifying the space to extract more wealth from the land, it could also mean an apartment building that's going to house 40 people instead of a single family.

"I don't want to fetishize history or historic preservation at the expense of meeting the actual needs of people. As much as I enjoy having history in place and having those layers in place in order to engage us civically, I don't feel precious about it because what's most important is to serve a broad range of people who are living now."

On the aesthetic of grit: "Take the Pearl and its proximity to Old Town—in a lot of gentrifying places, we value 'grit' and industrial aesthetic without necessarily understanding the industrial history and labor that took place in those very spaces. Learning the history of Chinese and Japanese immigration in Portland and the black neighborhood that used to be in Old Town helped bring those spaces to life for me. Because otherwise it's just aesthetic: Here's a warehouse, but what used to go on here?"

On condos: "I don't believe in architectural purity. Cities are organic, they change, they're malleable. I'm sitting here on Division and I hear people complain about the rooflines and how big these buildings are. I'm pro-density, so that's not what upsets me about these buildings—it's that they're all incredibly expensive. And many of the new businesses are not very utilitarian. Give me a dry cleaner, a shoe repair, a Kinko's. I don't need another terrarium shop."

On McMenamins: "I like how when they redo a building, they incorporate the history of how the original building was used into the modern structure. You have a sense of layers instead of it being a tabula rasa, or an industrial-grit movie set as the shell with something completely unrelated on the inside. But the commercialization of spaces makes historical memory very tricky. As soon as you're commodifying memory, you have to deal with what's going to sell. People who want to have a pleasant consumer experience might not want to face a difficult past."

On discomfort: "When Portlanders talk about 'lifestyle' or 'standards of living,' I hope they ask themselves, 'Lifestyle for whom?' 'Standards of living for whom?' For consumers to enjoy the Pearl, there's an impetus to not just move homeless people along, but to criminalize that state of being for the comfort of other people. I find that horrifying. I think we can do more to see fellow Portlanders as having equal claim to public space and equal right to comfort and right to lifestyle—interpersonally, environmentally, and aesthetically."

Reiko Hillyer: Who Has the Right to the City? Design, Justice, and Public Space
Main Stage Talks at Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark, Sat April 16, $395 general admission for Fri and Sat lineup