Hello, Now Listen

(Photograph of grafitti behind chainlink fence) Photo Credit - Julianna Robidoux
By Chanelle Parris

Nov. 21, 2020

When you hear the word “gentrification,” what do you think?

How do you feel?

Based on the responses I’ve gotten over the years, it is a mixed bag. The one thing I have learned is, for a place ranked amongst the most gentrified cities in the nation, Portland understands very little about gentrification.

Depending on the person, the bias, or literature, you will hear it disguised as many things: “neighborhood change,” “urban renewal,” or “revitalization.” I like to call it what it is: “gentrification.” I used to work on a neurology study at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU).

The study, Sharing History through Active Reminiscence and Photo-Imagery (SHARP) took a multi-faceted approach. Its goal is to develop programs aimed at slowing the cognitive decline that leads to the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s in the Black population. This is achieved, in part, by considering the effects of gentrification on the brain health of Black residents of the historically Black neighborhoods of Northeast Portland.

At the time, my area of study was focused on Developmental Neuroscience, but I quickly took an interest in the question of how two seemingly unrelated concepts – aging and gentrification – had a very real effect on one another.

Through that work, I quickly developed an interest in the history of Blackness in Portland and how Black community was formed, sustained, and eventually destroyed. I read about the processes of gentrification, the practices of defunding and underfunding, the racist laws and policies, the redlining, pricing out, and the demographic shifts that brought us to where we are today.


The information was there if you looked for it – articles detailing the racist history of Oregon and the gentrification of Portland specifically, as well as several research papers online that discuss the rising trend of gentrification and its effect on minority communities across the nation. But when I spoke to the people around me, I realized there was something missing from the conversation about gentrification in Portland – the conversation itself was not happening.

Though I was born and partially raised in Portland, I lived in Texas for the second half of my upbringing before ultimately returning to Portland for college. Though we had lived in areas surrounding Portland metro, most of my extended family was established in the Northeast and we visited often, both while we lived here and after we moved away. I watched the neighborhood change quickly. I remember feeling confused when we visited because the neighborhood looked drastically different each time we returned. But I was too young to understand what was happening, let alone, have a word to describe it.

Only after I moved back to Portland and really started to pay attention to the stories about the neighborhood did I realize how little I knew. I was still attached to the illusion of Portland that I had built up in my head while living in the South; the narrative of a “liberal paradise” and “Pacific Wonderland” that was projected outward to the rest of the country by shows like Portlandia where Portland is portrayed as a tucked away, confused, yet quirky city that accepted those not welcome elsewhere; a place to eat amazing food and go hiking; where one could rent a tiny house and experiment with veganism for the weekend.

However, like many others, I did not know about Oregon’s white past; about its overtly racist history that can be traced back to the stealing of Indigenous land to give to white settlers, to their long-lasting anti-Black laws put in place following the abolition of slavery. Thus, the introduction and flourishing of a prolific Ku Klux Klan chapter that called Portland its home should come as no surprise. Nor should Portland’s apathetic treatment of Vanport or its racist property-ownership laws and redlining policies.

So while I had heard of gentrification, I did not know about gentrification. I was naively unaware of how it operated, how it had, and continues to so effectively erase an entire history of Black community and Black culture. I did not see the policymaking, planning, and engineering that took place to dismantle and remove Blackness; nor did I comprehend the far-reaching consequences it would carry with it. I understood enough that hearing the word brought about a particular feeling of conflicted resentment, but I did not know how to resolve it.


I believe many Portlanders struggle with this as well; transplants and the younger millennial generations unable to experience the city as it once was; who did not witness the thriving Black neighborhoods of Northeast Portland; who did not see the communities trying their best to take care of each other when no one else would, and while the City of Portland openly worked against them. Black neighborhoods were sold, their people displaced and community written over, only to then be blamed for its own execution.

Some elder Black residents remain – individuals born into and raising the inter-generational Black families that once made up the community; individuals who have lived in the neighborhood for decades, and saw its peak and inevitable downfall; people who went to these schools, bought candy from the corner markets, and knew every family on the block; the same people who now hesitate to leave their homes, lest they get lost among the unfamiliar buildings on streets they once knew. Blocks once dotted with homes have since been torn down; replaced with gaudy, oddly shaped art houses and towering neomodern apartment complexes.

So, when I talk about gentrification with people who have moved into gentrified neighborhoods, I like to pay attention to the responses I get in return. Some are genuinely interested, admitting they do not know as much as they should and are open to learning more – these are my favorite people.

The most interesting people, though, are the ones who feel a sense of entitlement; who see themselves as the savior who built up a broken neighborhood into what it is today. They, too, have a feeling about gentrification – a defense; one that stems from a different form of resentment; from feeling blamed and ashamed, called out for their role in the process.

They act interested as you talk, but have already shut down. Their defenses are up and you see them actively preparing their rebuttal as you speak. They are armed with their argument, one formed, refined, and practiced largely in conversations with fellow gentrifiers. Perhaps they have done a cursory search to learn just enough to contribute to a conversation, but shy away from deeper research in an attempt to avoid personal discomfort.

This is not uncommon – we tend to avoid things that make us uncomfortable. However, there is a need, now more than ever, to do the work and unlearn the biases we have accepted or created within ourselves. If we only discuss issues with the like-minded we develop a bias that harms. We risk gentrifiers talking to other gentrifiers about the issue of gentrification and then using those arguments to justify and gaslight the displaced and perpetuate a skewed definition all in the name of self-preservation.


We are afraid to learn about things that may make us feel worse about ourselves. So, we avoid and deflect, and then we lack the information to see how we are functioning within a system and society as a whole, rather than just among ourselves. And some people are okay with that, living in the reality they have created for themselves by themselves. This series is not for those people.

Outsiders have moved into Northeast Portland and reclaimed it as their own, but then get offended when they are called “gentrifiers.” Perhaps this is because the term has been corrupted by the feeling it provokes – the shame it brings up. But in order to make progress, we must get comfortable with what makes us uncomfortable.

One way to achieve this is by listening and learning about the histories that pre-date us instead of creating a narrative that fits our perspective. I look forward to delving into the preconceived notions and overlooked histories of Northeast Portland and its people with this series. We have reached a point where one wonders whether any progress comes from blaming those who have moved into gentrified neighborhoods.

Instead, should we redirect that energy and hold accountable the institutions who created the particular set of circumstances to undermine and force out established communities in order to capitalize off the land by appealing to a whiter demographic?

I intend to investigate and challenge this and other related topics in the coming months. I want this to be a learning experience for both the reader and myself. Though I have deep roots here, I still have much to learn and unlearn, and I look forward to doing so and sharing it with the readers of Rose City Residential.