Portland Gentrification Surfaces Racial Divide

As inner city neighborhoods experience economic revitalization, higher property values push many long time residents out. A new program in Portland, Ore., brings people together to share their stories about the way gentrification affects their lives. Judith Mowry and John Canda explain the idea behind the effort.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm speaking with neighbors who've been participating in the Portland Restorative Listening Project. We've been talking to the projects organizers, Judith Mowry and John Canda. Now we're going to be joined by two people who've been participating in these meetings. Lisa Manning's a life-long resident of Northeast Portland, she's participated in several meetings of the group. Terry Masters just sold his home in Northeast Portland. He was part of what many consider the gentrification of the neighborhood. They're with us now from Portland. Welcome to you, thank you for joining us.

Ms. LISA MANNING (Participant, Portland Restorative Listening Project): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask each of you Lisa and Terry why you decided to participate in these conversations? Terry, did you want to start - I mean I'm not sure it's the easiest sell to say, you know, you moved into this neighborhood. You've got a great house that you love. And now we would like to have a conversation about the harm. I don't know if that's an easy sell.

Mr. TERRY MASTERS (Participant Portland's Restorative Listening Project): I was expecting that question. It is true, I moved into the Northeast neighborhood seeking diversity just like John and Judith had talked about. We were pretty clueless the gentrification, only hearing what our realtor said about the potential gain in property values. Anyway, we loved this house. We moved into it; we fixed it up. We started getting to know our neighbors. We wanted to know diverse people, but we weren't taking the initiative to actually seek them out so I'm certainly one of those well meaning whites. Am I effective? I don't know, but I intend to be and my selling, my house, our house in this neighborhood is an attempt to use those resources to apply to what I think are the larger underlying issues that racism is not just the problem it's a symptom of larger problems that are endemic in our society. Those are the ones I want to address.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that. But first I want to bring Lisa into the conversation. Tell me why did you want to participate into these conversations? How did you get involved?

Ms. MANNING: Well, Michel, I thought that the idea being a black resident in Northeast Portland, is not, you know, we've talked about gentrification and talked about it for years. I thought it was intriguing that we would actually have the opportunity to tell our story with white people listening - and really listening. Like I said, we've talked about it for years. I can say honestly that I have never felt like we were actually heard.

MARTIN: And Lisa, you had to leave the neighborhood right because you got priced out, isn't that about right?

Ms. MANNING: Yeah. I was downsizing, decided on my own to sell my home, but my intention was to stay in the community that I've grown - I was grown, born, and raised in and found that I couldn't find anywhere that was comparable to the mortgage I was paying.

MARTIN: So how did talking about that change anything for you? Because you still had to leave right?

Ms. MANNING: Yeah, that's interesting. Yeah, I still moved and I live over across the bridge in Vancouver, Washington, and that is one of the things that I have said that you can't un-ring a bell once it has been rung. Do I expect anything to change? No. I just wanted to have my say. I just wanted somebody to understand how that felt to me. And that it's hurtful and that I grieved the loss of my community.

MARTIN: What do you hope will result from these meetings, since you've already, sadly, had to leave the neighborhood where you were raised?

Ms. MANNING: And I'm actively seeking trying to come back and I think what I want people to see and to understand is it's almost like this myth of diversity. People move into northeast Portland thinking that I want to move there because it's diverse, but the fact of the matter is because of gentrification a lot of what made us, us in the community doesn't even exist. So you are moving in to a community to be diverse and all the people that you want to be around aren't going to be around anymore.

And I just want the stories of my father, Johnnie's father, our mothers and the history, the rich history that we have in Northeast Portland. I don't want 50 years from now for us to be erased because that is, like I keep saying, our history is being erased. There are whole streets where the streets and the land marks that my parents know do not even exist anymore. Where my parents met and fell in love doesn't even exist anymore.

MARTIN: Do you want white people to stop moving there?

Ms. MANNING: Hmm. That's an interesting question. There is a selfish part of me says yes. I do, but in realizing that when we were growing up there were white people around. It's not like north and Northeast Portland was exclusively black. There was always white people around. It's just that that was our safety place. Historically there were many places in Portland that black people couldn't live, at all. So no, I can't - the selfish part of me says yes I want everybody to stop moving there so some of us black folks can come back and get some houses back, but more than that, I think that I want just for people, the white people that are coming in to understand what our history was in the community and that we have a place. And you know, where they live now is because of what we've done and what my parent's done.

MARTIN: Terry forgive me for putting you on the spot, but if you're honest with yourself, can you just say is that in part why you are leaving because you came to believe that you are part of the problem?

Mr. MASTERS: Not at all, no I continue to want to attend these historical listing meetings because I have benefited so much, it almost brings tears to my eyes thinking about John and Lisa's stories. A little bit I know. There's so much more for me to understand. I didn't know what I didn't know.

And this project, in my view, is just scratching the surface. There is so much more on a feeling level where we can connect. I want to facilitate in a particular way, people coming together and sharing where it's safe for us, whatever we think and feel about people who are different than us and healing from that.

MARTIN: Judith, can I ask you something? At the end of the day, though, what do you say to those who say look, it's not about feelings, it's about policy? It's about social policy that makes it easier for somebody people, it's about head wins for some people and tail wins for other people and that if those head wins and tail wins are equal then that really is restorative.

Ms JUDITH MOWRY (Organizer Portland's Restorative Listening Project): Well, of course it is and like everything, it's holistic. Everything is connected to everything else. The reason the policies aren't what they need to be is that we don't have the political will in the majority white paradigm to make them so. What I believe is that if we actually get it, if we are actually willing to look at it then we will become passionate about creating that equality. There is nothing like sitting in a room with someone like Lisa Manning and hearing her experience. You walk out changed and you walk out feeling like it's no longer this abstraction of some black community. It is people valuing each other and starting to figure it out. And we can do that.

MARTIN: John, final thought from you, how will you know if this project, this program is a success?

Mr. JOHN CANDA (Organizer Portland's Restorative Listening Project): Great question. I know it is a success right now, as I am in what I would consider diverse company, men and women of different colors. And I mentioned to you before, Michel, that the connection has already been made between myself and Terry and if it were left up to us, perhaps that connection through our own means, whatever those means are on a daily basis, would not have happened other than for this Restorative Listening Project. When I look across at him and see him almost, but not quite, beginning to have a blur in his eyes from perhaps a tear as I have in mine, from listening to his heart and saying that he has been changed by these stories, it tells me that we are already successful.

MARTIN: John Canda and Judith Mowry are organizers of the Portland's Restorative Listening Project. It's a program they started in Portland, Oregon to help neighbors understand each other's feelings around gentrification. Terry Masters and Lisa Manning have participated in the Portland's Restorative Listening Project. They were all at Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, Oregon, and I thank you all so much for speaking with us today.

EVERYONE: Thank you, Michel.

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