“In cities that function as growth machines, where economic growth is prized above all us, the needs of the poor and middle class are eclipsed by the desire to inflate the value of land.” Peter Moskowitz.
Two black youths — let’s call them Alex and John — were playing basketball in Kennedy Park last week, and musing about the neighborhood they live in: East Bayside.
It didn’t take long for their conversation to turn into statements expressing mutual anxiety. “How long will I be able to live here?” They wondered aloud. Although these immigrants from West Africa have been enjoying life in Portland for a couple years, they fear they’ll be forced to move to towns like Westbrook, South Portland, and Windham because of the rising cost of living in a growing, popular city.
“Some friends are worried about [their homes] getting too pricey,” Alex said. “We like it here, but things are getting expensive, because of places like that.”
Alex shooting some hoops in Kennedy Park last week. Luxury condos can be seen in the background.
Alex pointed to the luxury condos on Anderson St. adjacent to Kennedy Park where one-bedroom apartments are going for $1,650 a month. Many like them have been popping up downtown in recent years, and in once-poor neighborhoods like Munjoy Hill.
“The city’s changing for rich people,” said John. “It’s happening here [in Bayside] too.”
John was referring to a big development deal that Portland’s city councilors are in the midst of negotiating, which in many ways will dictate the future of the Bayside neighborhood.
Last month, 11 developers submitted bids and project proposals for 4.1 acres of unused, city-owned land in Bayside. Who the Portland’s city councilors decide to strike a deal with, will potentially transform the neighborhood, alter the demographics of the city, and, depending on how they develop the land, either help or hinder Portland’s poor and middle class.
It’s rare that a city the size of Portland has this much land available for sale and development all at once. For some, it presents an exciting opportunity to revitalize the neighborhood, by building artist studios, maker spaces, coffee shops, housing and green spaces, spurring economic growth and attracting outsiders. For others, it presents the perfect opportunity to build high-density, affordable housing for the most vulnerable in a time where housing in Portland’s getting scarcer and pricier, and in a neighborhood that’s home to Portland’s lowest earners — the median household income in Bayside was $20,700 in 2015, compared to the city’s overall median of $62,074.
Bayside, Portland's most diverse neighborhood, has been the central focus in a lot of local conversations around affordable housing, social services, and outside development.
The neighborhood is also home to the majority of Portland’s black, brown, and immigrant residents. About 24.4 percent of the population there is non-white, 8.4 percent more than the rest of the city, easily making it the most diverse neighborhood in Portland.
Indeed, if housing development and race relations were plotted on a Venn diagram, it would basically just be a circle, as noted by one author who visited Portland last week and has been documenting the relationship for years.
Unpacking the G-Word
A timely conversation was held last week between city council hopeful Joey Brunelle, and Peter Moskowitz, a queer, Jewish journalist who’s written for Buzzfeed, the Nation, the Guardian, and the New York Times.
Moskowitz is all too familiar with gentrification after being priced out of the Bushwick neighborhood he grew up in New York City. Shortly after, he traveled across America studying the effects of it in preparation for his latest book, How To Kill A City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, which documents the changing landscape and demographics in cities like San Francisco, Detroit, New Orleans, and New York City.
Peter Moskowitz, author of How to Kill a City.
At his Portland appearance, held two weeks ago at Longfellow Books, he offered a succinct understanding of the term to a packed room of Portlanders: (Moskowitz made a second appearance the following evening at Congress Square Park.)
“Think of it as a collusion between city staff and developers to radically alter the function of the city away from uses for the poor and middle class and toward uses that benefit the rich.”
His journey of understanding this relationship started in New Orleans, where five years after Hurricane Katrina, the city was changing before his eyes. Moskowitz said he would walk by a predominantly black neighborhood and see a gaggle of white people occupy a block sipping lattes, which made him curious: “What had happened here?”
The governor of Louisiana at the time, a white woman named Kathleen Blanco, said in a 2015 press release that it took “the storm of a lifetime to create the opportunity of a lifetime.” Blanco made moves to rapidly gentrify the area by firing state-funded teachers, shutting down almost every public school, and demolishing every single public-housing project, most of which weren't even affected by the hurricane. Meanwhile, FEMA was caught giving more disaster relief money to white neighborhoods over black neighborhoods.
Today 95,000 fewer black Americans live in New Orleans post-Katrina as a result of this disaster capitalism.
“I saw evidence of them making the city impossible to live in for lower income people of color,” said Moskowitz.
As Bayside burgeons into Portland’s next hotspot, locals are wondering how will this affect the populations of people of color living there.
But What About Cool, Sexy Buildings?
One developer, Rory Strunk of O'Maine Studios, pitched a complex with a rooftop garden dedicated to food festival events for the property on 64 Hanover Street.
Although gentrification is widely understood and well-documented, it’s still something of a buzzword that takes on different meanings depending on who you’re talking to.
Take Bayside resident Sarah Michniewicz’s understanding, for example:
“For a lot of us who have lived in Bayside for a really long time, gentrification can be defined as not having to clean up someone else's crud from your property. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask.”
Dinah Minot, the director of arts organization Creative Portland, also diminished the effects of gentrification by valuing aesthetics over impact, saying that tall, high-density buildings shouldn't be built in Bayside.
“In terms of branding our collective assets in the future, this is an opportunity to create some cool, sexy buildings,” said Minot. “They can bring the community together next to Bayside Bowl and invoke a fun enjoyable community and attract people to our neighborhoods.”
These comments symbolize the disconnect between those affected by the term and those that aren’t. For people like Minot, whose focus is stimulating the creative economy instead of nurturing the street-level forces driving it, a neighborhood isn't a community, it's an asset. To those whose job it is to attract tourists to Portland, gentrification is a good thing. After all, what’s wrong with installing hip places to hang out in the neighborhood and stimulating economic growth with shiny new storefronts?
Well, according to Dawud Ummah, a resident of Portland’s Oakdale neighborhood, nothing’s wrong with it, so long as they’re built to serve the community around them. In short, who’s going to work in these businesses and where are they going to live?
“I haven’t heard anybody saying that these developments will create jobs for the residents of Bayside,” said Ummah, who came to Maine from Cleveland and is the president of Portland's Center for African Heritage. “If you’re planning on having affordable housing, you need to have people working, in a much more holistic way. People that live in Bayside should work there too.”
Mike Curran, identifying as a young working-class writer and artist from the twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis — an area grappling with its own gentrification issues — echoed this sentiment and said that development projects, no matter how aesthetically pleasing, can have disparate effects for disparate groups.
“I currently live in Minneapolis, where the ideas of ‘sexy and innovative’ have led to a huge displacement of immigrants and people of color,” said Curran. “I’d hate to see that here.”
Back here in Portland, some believe it’s already happening, and are organizing to raise awareness. Marena Blanchard, a black resident and activist who has protested frequently in town around issues of systemic racism, police brutality, and indigenous rights, distributed a zine last month about her vision for Bayside titled, “This Is A Call To Repair.” Later, she brought friends and supporters to the second public comment session on the issue, that took place on the last Tuesday in June in a basement conference room of City Hall. Blanchard and others were there to hear what the 11 developers wanted to do with the land, and share with them that black youth in Bayside have begun using the language “Defend Kennedy Park.”
“This idea of building sexy buildings and attracting folks that have no connection the neighborhood is destroying a community that already exists there,” said Blanchard.
“I haven’t heard anything that’s going to improve the lives of kids living in Kennedy Park,” echoed fellow protester Mariana Angelo, a Portland resident and woman of color, to the councilors and developers.
Maryan Mukhtar, an 18-year old Muslim student at SMCC, joined Blanchard for her first "Defend Kennedy Park" protest and was quick to link gentrification to white supremacy.
"I hate gentrification because it's a human right violation," she said. "Black and brown people are going to be the main ones impacted by it and have been for decades. Rich white folks creep into our neighborhood and exploit us, pushing us out then denying access to our neighborhood because the rent price increased. Fighting white supremacy is very draining because it curtails people's progress by destabilizing and uprooting."
A tense public comment session
Many residents of Bayside already consider it home to a vibrant, culturally-rich, and attractive community. But the language used by some developers at the public comment session suggested the opposite perception. For them, the neighborhood represents a “new frontier,” one where a community needs to be built from scratch and made to look hip, polished, and trendy.
They see fairly new establishments like Bayside Bowl and the Fork Food Lab as trailblazers in this endeavor. The majority of the proposals appealed to young, hip, millennial trends in the city like micro-apartments, incubator style workspaces, a food studio with a rooftop garden, a solar powered office building, and industrial studios for artist and beverage makers.
Bayside Bowl recently reopened after a 3 million dollar expansion that added solar panels, six new bowling lanes, and a rooftop bar to their already popular hangout spot.
The divergent visions for the future of Bayside were easily apparent after at least 15 people spoke up and said they were disappointed with the developer’s pitches.
Although the zoning in the area allows for up to 10 story buildings, only two developers called for buildings nearly that tall.
“It’s surprising and disappointing that nobody’s talking about building bigger buildings with more density,” said Peter Leavitt, a resident who’s bringing a new deli (his second one called Leavitt & Sons) to Kennebec St., across from one of the land parcels up for bid.
Only one developer — M. Nasir Shir of Community House of Maine — pitched a bid for low-income, high-density housing in the form of a six-story, 24-unit apartment building with parking on site at 56 Parris St. Although affordable housing advocates lauded Shir’s proposal, since it was only for one out of the six parcels, they felt it wasn’t enough.
One developer, Jack Soley, pitched 20 one-bedroom workforce condos starting between $178,000 and $199,900, provoking visible consternations from the crowd. Jack Soley, a former City Councilor and the son of Joe Soley, who owns many buildings throughout the Old Port, called his project the Periscope Lofts and dubbed them “affordable.”
It didn’t take long for someone to challenge Soley's definition of affordable.
“I can tell you that $200,000 for a 400-square foot space is not affordable for a family,” said Curran, the creative from St. Paul, Minnesota, who was present at the meeting. “It’s not really affordable to anyone I know.”
Affordable housing is meant to be defined as housing, either rental or owner occupied, that is affordable no matter what someone’s income is. The U.S. government deems affordable housing as anything that costs at or below 30 percent of one’s income.
Using the federal government’s standard for affordable housing, a person earning Bayside’s median income would be expected to pay at least $512 a month for rent in the neighborhood, a figure that’s drastically lower than any of the priced units that some developers mentioned.
Soley later clarified to the Phoenix that his development proposal is for workforce housing, which is defined by Housing and Urban Development as no more than 120 percent of the area median income. His goal is to build condominiums that are affordable “to many folks that work in the Portland area but have been priced out of the market by the recent housing boom” with units retailing between $178,000 and $199,900.
“I understand that there are people that will not be able to afford our units,” said Solely. “No project will satisfy the needs of everyone. Many of these potential buyers are already part of the community but have not been able to find permanent housing that meets their budget. We believe that this is an important sector of Portland’s population that is not being served by any of the new development projects.”
But others at the public hearing had different ideas as to who’s underserved in the city of Portland.
“I’m disappointed to hear there’s not a lot of talk about general assistance or people living in the Shalom House, or people living in sober houses,” said Tanya Iron Lima who lives on Preble St. “There’s a rising homeless population. People are literally dying, from addiction, from hunger, from illness. You say that we’re innovators in the United States and that Portland is one of the best places to live, but our most vulnerable population continues to get pushed off the peninsula, away from the services that they need. Building a four-story condo will not address that issue.”
Lima then urged the councilors to “do the right thing” and weigh the impact any development deal would have on the public good.
A (Very Short) History of Gentrification and Race
A scene from a changing neighborhood.
Gentrification, no matter your definition of it, is an intersectional issue that has to do with identity, class, healthcare, and policing (as expensive developments often leave room in their budgets for an increased police presence in the area, much to ire of some minorities who fear racial profiling). And according to Moskowitz, there’s a 100-year-old reason why a certain demographic comes to mind when thinking about who’s doing the gentrifying.
“The history of housing policy is explicitly based on race,” said Moskowitz. “The reason why the stereotypical gentrifier is usually white is because their parents and grandparents were literally gifted hundreds of thousands of dollars of wealth that carried over to them. Even if white people are cash poor they hold more wealth in housing on average over their black counterparts.”
In his book, Moskowitz traces the beginning of this housing discrimination to the 1930s when American was in the middle of the Great Depression. The federal government got together with homeowners to come up with ways to stimulate the economy. What they ended up doing was creating government-backed mortgage instruments for the first time in history, allowing people to buy entire homes with just 20 percent down. But banks would only lend to people from neighborhoods with a specific set of characteristics.
“They had to be single-family homes, they couldn't be mixed-use,” said Moskowitz. “And if there were people of color living in those neighborhoods, they got redlined.”
What this did was force black communities to stay in the poor inner cities, while white families were essentially gifted wealth in the form of suburban homes.
“I hate the term white flight because it wasn’t random, it was done purposefully to spur economic development,” said Moskowitz.
Fast-forward to today, and most homeowners would tell you that there’s not much wealth left in the suburbs. We’re living in a time where business and development interests have refocused back to the inner cities in a phenomenon the Marxist economic Neil Smith described as the “see-saw of capital.” In his 1982 essay “Gentrification and Urban Development,” Smith concludes that new markets always emerge, take advantage of economic depression, reverse it, and turn a profit.
Gentrification, Moskowitz explained, can best be understood through four phases, which start organically and end with deliberate changes at the city government level.
Four Cities, Four Phases
The first phase describes the migration of hipsters, artists, and other creative types into poor neighborhoods where they renovate some houses and generally spruce up the place. This new found interest initiates a second phase which attracts business owners to open up new restaurants and coffee shops in the area. Portland’s seen the effects of these first two phases for years.
A worker at a development site in East Bayside.
The last two phases involve more radical changes from the top down, like big developers buying land explicitly to expand their capital in the third phase, and even bigger institutions like banks radically altering the neighborhood, sometimes even changing its name, in the fourth phase.
Moskowitz doesn’t want to let individual gentrifiers off the hook, but he said that they are mostly irrelevant when compared to the deep pockets of corporations and the super-rich involved in the third and fourth phases.
“It’s not just a matter of individual decisions, it’s about these massive political forces,” Moskowitz said.
It’s in these last phases that Moskowitz argues there’s almost always a symbiotic relationship between city government and outside business interests to chase higher property taxes and money from away, negatively affecting, and in some cases outright displacing, the community that lived there in the area originally.
“Housing and development policies are being changed rapidly to disadvantage the poor and middle class,” said Moskowitz. “Any outside money is good money, and cities are addicted to that kind of cash flow.”
Detroit went through a similar gentrification process after the city’s 2013 bankruptcy crisis. The city busted unions, closed public schools, and became beholden to banks and corporations in hopes of breathing life into the economy. In 2014, Detroit also offered tax breaks to wealthy investors and they took the bait. Today there’s an area of Detroit called Gilbertville, named after Dan Gilbert because he owns most of the buildings in the downtown area and runs his own private security force there. The result is a small rich downtown hoping to sustain the life of a sprawling but dying city around it; out of the 145 square miles in Detroit, almost every development dollar has been funneled into the same 7.2 square miles.
“It’s a very dystopian situation over there,” said Moskowitz. “It might as well be the Hunger Games. People are fighting for scraps.”
The Bronx rose to be New York’s stylish new hot spot after a deliberate attempt to displace the poor people living there. In the ‘70s, the city government there conducted a study to find out where they would have to shut down firehouses to get people to leave those neighborhoods, and then did precisely that.
“When you hear that the Bronx was burning, it was burnt by the government to get people out of there. You have neighborhoods that were purposely depressed. Then you have an entire class of people who were gifted wealth coming back into those cities.”
San Francisco is unique in the sense that it sort of skipped over the first couple phases of gentrification, and went straight to one where the government woos tech companies through tax breaks and advertisements. Moskowitz writes that the city is addicted to tech cash, and despite operating with a $10 billion budget surplus, still doesn’t build much affordable housing or enforce rent control laws.
Although these are all very different cities with their own histories, cultures, and values, Moskowitz was comfortable comparing Portland’s gentrification story to San Francisco’s, placing our city somewhere between the third and fourth phase; instead of attracting tech money, Portland chases tourism, food, and beer dollars.
But despite different transformations, the underlying causes and effects remain the same: when cities are strapped for cash, the perceived solution labels poor people who don’t contribute to the tax base as a burden and billionaires as a necessity. The prevailing philosophy espouses the fallacy that if just a couple more rich investors move into town, than their wealth would stimulate growth and trickle down to those that need it most.
“You can’t solve the poverty problem this way, it just pushes it farther away,” said Moskowitz. “It’s a lose-lose. You gain money for the riches, you lose funds for the poor, and you lose the culture that makes cities great.”
A demand to help Portland’s poor
According to Steve Hirshon, the president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, the area houses about 400 homeless people, but at present capacity, they can’t take care of everyone.
A homeless man collecting bottles in East Bayside.
“God knows we’ve got enough brew pubs and coffee shops,” said Hirshon, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 25 years. “We do need housing. It gives people skin in the game and gives them an opportunity to give back to the neighborhood.”
The biggest homeless shelters in the city are situated in or around Bayside. They include the Oxford Street Shelter and Preble Street Resource Center with a combined 229 units, Milestone with 50 units, Salvation Army with 48 units, and the Portland Family Shelter with 45 units. The rest of the city’s 20 homeless shelters are scattered on and off the peninsula and range in size from 16 beds to just two beds.
According to Portland's Emergency Shelter Assessment Committee, 2,775 individuals sought emergency shelter in 2016 across the city. There may be more homeless people in Portland as the combined number of homeless people sleeping both in shelters and on the street is unknown. But what is clear is that there are not enough beds to go around, as most of the shelters run out of space on a daily basis, especially in the winter months.
The numbers attached to affordable housing in Portland are just as miserable. According to the latest report from Avesta Housing, one of the largest providers of affordable, government-subsidized housing in Portland, a total of 1,295 households sought an affordable home from Avesta.
However, due to scarce resources and limited turnover in their existing apartments, they were only able to assist 115 new households. As of two months ago, 1,864 households remain on Avesta’s waiting lists.
The stats paint a tragically obvious picture: Portland’s homeless problem is not ameliorating, and folks earning low-incomes often struggle to find an affordable place to live on the peninsula where they work.
“We’re pushing out the local residents,” said Karen Snyder, a landlord who lives on Munjoy Hilland says she rents to working-class people like teachers, firemen, speech therapists, and line cooks there. “They can’t afford to live here. Those statistics scare me.”
Wanna find Solutions?
Keep talking about it
Feeling despondent yet?
If you read this far, then you’ve made the first step toward challenging the pervasive problem of gentrification: building political consciousness around it.
Sadly, in many circles, the conversation has yet to be started.
But what else can the average person do about gentrification without contributing to it?
As activist Jane Jacobs wrote in her 1961 book, The Death and Life of American Cities: “Private investments shape cities, but social ideas and laws shape private investment. First, comes the image of what we want and the machine is adapted to churn out that image.”
Protests can be effective in churning out that image. For example, in Berlin, youth have protested on housing issues almost weekly in the streets and the government there is starting to take them seriously by instituting rent regulations and moratoriums on development.
Moskowitz ended his book talk with a rather grim outlook on the future but encouraged the crowd to take action anyway. He said that the market is never going to work for poor people because the land will remain expensive, and developers will never build affordable housing without government incentive.
Recommended reading for a much deeper understanding of the issue.
“I think we live in dark times,” said Moskowitz. “Gentrification is the urban form of globalization which is affecting every single part of our economy. We need to rein in control over this out of control capitalism that’s been deregulated year after year after year.”
Instead, Moskowitz suggested pushing for CPAs (Certified Public Accountants) on rent and property tax, and an increase in income taxes and housing regulations. Other steps to solutions include joining the Democratic Socialists of America (who mobilize around these issues), donating to the work of Fair Rent Portland (a citizens group fighting for a referendum on rent control), and urging Portland’s city councilors to settle for a Bayside development deal that offers a healthy balance of affordable, workforce, and owner-occupied housing.
Or better yet, Moskowitz offered a “pie-in-the-sky idea” suggesting Portland place the Bayside plots in a community land trust, where it can be kept off the market and used strictly for the public good.
If not, Moskowitz warns, Portland’s going to be simultaneously too expensive to live in, and void of the diverse culture that makes it so special.
“Portland’s going to turn into a San Francisco,” said Moskowitz. “You’re going to see this city as a jewel box, a playground for wealthy liberalism, where everything becomes a mirror to itself and reality is obscured.”
A previous version of this article referred to Dawud Ummah as an immigrant. He is from Cleveland.