Here in Northeast Portland is a place called In Other Words Women's Books and Resources, a nonprofit bookstore founded in 1993. I've only lived in Portland for a year, so most of what I know I've learned from talking to people and reading news articles, like this.
A few nights ago I went to a screening of a short documentary called Moving In: A nonprofit feminist bookstore and the politics of place. The documentary, created by Dawn Jones (who's on the board of Bitch; photographed below), examines the bookstore's 2006 move, which resulted from being economically displaced from their original neighborhood, to a historically African-American neighborhood. The film is fantastic; you should see it if you have the opportunity.
Following the documentary, community activist and educator Roslyn Farrington facilitated a discussion, featuring four panelists: Allyson Spencer, a longtime NE Portland resident who was involved in the Albina Arts Center (the organization that most recently inhabited the building); Sue Burns and Amara Perez, In Other Words former executive director and current program director, respectively; and Jeana Woolley, development consultant to the Albina Women's League, the nonprofit African-American organization who still owns the space.
I'm hoping Dawn will post a link to the video of the panel discussion, but in the meantime, here's my stab at summing up the main points of each panelist and the discussion...
Allyson Spencer shared her experience of coming upon the Albina Arts Center in the 1970s. As an African-American arts organization, it was less of a place for social activism, she explained, and more about love and the creative process. She emphasized her perception that IOW revitalized the space, and preserved the energy and spirit of what was there before; she said she prefers the term revitalization over gentrification because the Albina Arts organization was at one time "vital," but it had been empty for over a decade because funding for arts programs had dried up.
Sue Burns shared the history of IOW's founding. Its previous location (SE Hawthorne, for people familiar with Portland) was at one time a site of counter-cultural resistance but, like many of these areas across the United States, has devolved into a site of hypercommercialization. While at one time they valued the experience of being a radical voice on the street, they were eventually unable to afford the ever-rising rent.
Amara Perez focused her introductory remarks on what she sees as the complexities and contradictions surrounding the move, and highlighted the problem of a primarily white feminist organization moving into a historically African-American neighborhood. She explained the big picture of what happens in the process of gentrification: Increased property taxes, which result in forced displacement of low-income people (particularly of people of color); increased police surveillance, which results in increased harassment and abuse of people of color; the decreasing availability of public housing; the privatization of schools and other community and social services; the displacement of businesses run by people of color; and the overall change of the neighborhood's cultural and social character.
Jeana Woolley (pictured below) briefly explained the founding of the Albina Women's League in the early 1970s and the operation of the Albina Arts Center, which was in operation until the mid 1980s when funding dried up. She explained the idea of "disinvestment" from community, and what happens when a community has no access to capital. As an advisor to the Albina Women's League, she encouraged them to create this partnership with IOW because they're an organization with social consciousness and expressed interest in being a part of the community—creating a new community by working with the old community. She explained that because IOW commissioned a strong volunteer force willing to upgrade the building, the idea seemed even better.
After each panelist made their introductory remarks, Roslyn offered her own opinion, that gentrification exists on a continuum. She explained her belief that because IOW made the move with consciousness and intention and has continued to evolve in ways that better serve the community, the move was healthy and a model for reinvesting in a neighborhood that had suffered disinvestment.
I think it was Allyson who added the importance of viewing the situation as an opportunity and be mindful of being solution-oriented—it's happened, so what are we going to do about it? What are the guiding steps to build community? How can we utilize the assets of community members, in terms of time, expertise, energy, and art.
The discussion was engaging and provocative, but also frustrating. Partly because there was barely enough time for it to get off the ground (I realize this was inevitable, and I think Dawn will be organizing future discussions to follow up). But more importantly, the frame of the conversation was limited, which led to this idea of "good or bad," this good-intentioned-but-not-honest-and-thus-not-useful discussion. And this worries me.
Someone in the audience shared how drugs and violence were rampant in the neighborhood (he lives about a mile from IOW), explained how community members had wanted the neighborhood to change but change wasn't happening.
Following his comments, Amara took "the other side," by posing the rhetorical question, "Is gentrification is a solution to poverty?" (Of course not, but I'm not sure he was arguing that it was.)
Amara started to bring the conversation to a deeper level, to the need to eradicate and dismantle the systems that lead to poverty...
And then, unfortunately, we ran out of time...
This was only the beginning of a conversation and I obviously wasn't expecting huge movement, but I left hoping for future discussions that allow for more nuance. It's scary, it's difficult. But I also think it's necessary.
A few months ago, I went to another neighborhood talk about gentrification. Nathan McCall, author of Makes Me Wanna Holler: A young black man in America, read from his latest book, Them, which examines gentrification through a fictional account of a neighborhood in Atlanta.
One of the most important points I took away from his talk was the importance of recognizing that gentrification is a complicated process, and while it has many "bads," it also has many "goods," including the literal goods and services being brought into a neighborhood previously neglected.
Acknowledging this isn't saying gentrification is "good." Rather, it's a necessary part of complicating the discussion, pushing us to honestly examine what's happening in our urban areas, pushing us to a deeper level of political analysis and critique.
Because if the frame of the discussion is good/bad, how do we make a determination if people (and I'm specifically talking here about the people who are long-time members of a community undergoing gentrification) have different truths? How do we acknowledge that the number of marginalized people is growing exponentially in this country, and avoid further divisiveness? How do we make space for other truths, like the truth that independent bookstores are marginalized and disappearing quickly in this country, themselves victims of the same forces that are displacing people? For the reality that the situation is even worse for feminist and nonprofit bookstores?
I don't know what the "right" questions are, but often as I'm watching people talk about gentrification, I wonder why the conversation so rarely turns to a critique of the economic structure we live in and instead remains on the level of "good or bad."
But maybe I'm being impatient. Maybe the conversation needs to start here. I just worry that when it starts from a dualistic frame, it's doomed from the start.
Anyway, one of the more useful/productive questions from this most recent discussion was how do we preserve the status of the original residents of neighborhoods while encouraging diversity?
Jeana explained the process of gentrification — how the simple act of investing in a community creates opportunities for people with resources and leaves people without resources at a disadvantage. The challenge, she explained, is to be proactive about finding a balance between the new and the old, to create a community that embraces everyone. When new people are moving into a neighborhood, they should be asking themselves, "How do I move in to an area and support its history, How do I meld to the community?" not, "How do I change it to make it comfortable for myself?".
How do we spread the wealth to make sure everyone benefits? How do we create opportunities for people who were already in a community?
I think the answers are out there; I just think we need to dig a little deeper. It's also something I want to give more thought to here at Bitch, as a new member of a community with a rich history.
I'm excited at the possibility of future discussions...
** Thanks to Dawn Jones for the photos **