Portland Model May Lead the Way on Gentrification


Gentrification: a general term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, a related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district’s character and culture. – From the Documentary “Flag Wars”, 2003

It’s been a quarter century since the first brick toppled from the Berlin Wall. The reveling thousands on hand were witness to, and part of, an epic historical phenomenon a decade in the making – a populist coup that would begat a full-scale political recalibration the two Germanys are even now learning to navigate.

This often glacial pace of East-West post-reunification has been in part due to the East’s residual communist ethos and its place in a capitalistic Western democracy; all but ensuring sporadic tension between economic paradigms. While a reconfigured Germany has evolved into the very model for post-war economic recovery, the former communistic areas abutting the Wall have been in free fall as occupancy of nondescript Soviet-style housing has continued to dwindle, opening the way for international land speculators to flip thousands of acres and tens of thousands of apartments in the name of gentrification.

Despite concerted efforts to resolve tensions, Berliners are yet to endorse any single plan for balancing the needs of some of the city’s poorest citizens and the wants of middle- and upper-income renters and buyers. Meanwhile an ocean away numerous American cities have likewise just begun charting the impact of gentrification on their own communities – not only in terms of who’s immigrating and who’s emigrating, but also those less tangible qualities referred to by native populations as “traditions” and “soul”.

But some urban centers in the US are farther along the gentrification continuum than others. Take for example Portland, Oregon where citizen groups have the ear of their city council, advocating for rent controls and increased funding for public housing starts in historically significant but poverty stricken sections of their community.

Although not directly contained within the documents generated by Portland’s urban activists and researchers, their proposals are in keeping with those contained in a 2003 POV (“Point of View”) documentary set in a Columbus, Ohio neighborhood undergoing its own gentrification process.

Reviewing the film, writer and urban planner Benjamin Grant lists four shifts typical of neighborhoods undergoing gentrification:

• Demographics: An increase in median income, a decline in the proportion of racial minorities, and a reduction in household size, as low-income families are replaced by young singles and couples.

• Real Estate Markets: Large increases in rents and home prices, increases in the number of evictions, conversion of rental units to ownership (condos) and new development of luxury housing.

• Land Use: A decline in industrial uses, an increase in office or multimedia uses, the development of live-work “lofts” and high-end housing, retail, and restaurants.

• Culture and Character: New ideas about what is desirable and attractive, including standards (either informal or legal) for architecture, landscaping, public behavior, noise, and nuisance.

Grant posits that even with the best of coordination, gentrification nearly always means some degree of complexity, even social upheaval:

“The social, economic, and physical impacts of gentrification often result in serious political conflict, exacerbated by differences in race, class, and culture. Earlier residents may feel embattled, ignored, and excluded from their own communities. New arrivals are often mystified by accusations that their efforts to improve local conditions are perceived as hostile or even racist.”

Grant ends his comments with a true but troubling reminder that class and wealth always matter: “…Change…is an abiding feature of urban life. But change nearly always involves winners and losers, and low-income people are rarely the winners.”

Daunting as Grant’s analysis may be, we can take heart at the creativity and attention to detail Portland’s city leaders and citizens are putting forth on behalf of its at-risk neighborhoods. If reports are accurate, the city may soon be a training ground for cities like Berlin as they too seek to balance residents’ rights with newcomers’ visions.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Jackson, Ohio. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2015


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