MOST OF the motorists traveling NE MLK on Monday must have thought it odd: a cluster of people in suits, sitting in the middle of a sun-scalded field as temps stretched toward 90 degrees.
The distance would have made it impossible to recognize the mayor and various other dignitaries collected there. Their brief remarks, over a microphone that threatened squealing feedback with each consonant, would have been lost to the hum of traffic.
One guy honked a couple times. He, at least, saw the gathering for what it was: A hopeful, halting beginning to amends for decades of injustice.
African American Portlanders have long been sent packing from the neighborhoods around that field at the corner of MLK and Cook. First those neighborhoods were starved of resources, then teeming gentrifiers began driving property values sky high. The narrative is commonplace by now.
In many respects, so was the announcement officials had come to deliver on August 17: The long-vacant city-owned lot will soon be turned over to private ownership free of cost, and at least $4.5 million in city funds will be spent on up to 70 low-income apartments. That's what the Portland Housing Bureau does.
What the housing bureau does not do—what no one's even sure it can do—is try to ensure its projects benefit the very people Portland's checkered past has so specifically wronged. This is the vision for that MLK field, and hopefully more fields to come. "Even though this is just one site, it is the beginning," said Maxine Fitzpatrick, executive director of Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, the affordable housing provider the city's selected to own and operate the new project. "What happened in the past does not have to continue into the future."
You'll recall how this effort began. In 2013, the Portland Development Commission floated a deal to hand over another piece of land—down the road at NE MLK and Alberta—at a steep discount, to make way for a Trader Joe's. Outcry followed, and Trader Joe's—ever wary of controversy tarnishing the zest and crunch of its pricey cashew snacks—pulled out. (A Natural Grocers will open instead.)
The whole thing was a much-needed slap in the face to a city used to acknowledging past wrongs, but struggling to atone for them. Before long, Mayor Charlie Hales had scrounged $20 million for housing and anti-displacement efforts in North and Northeast Portland, and formed a committee to help spend it.
It's hugely positive, but right now one of the chief ideas to come with that money brings along a lot of questions. Officials are crafting a "preference policy" that will award housing to people who can prove they've been displaced with official documents.
The problem: No one's sure whether most people can locate those documents. Even if they can, there are questions about whether people will have the resources and energy for another move.
The stakes are huge. If Portland finds an effective way to welcome back the displaced, we've just set an important and useful precedent in this growth-encumbered city.
If it fails, it's a blow to an effort that's built a lot of hope from some very raw feelings. Then again, there are more fields (fewer every year, though), and this is too important to not keep trying.