By Mindy Cooper/The Portland Observer
In a world, which is constantly shifting, one local historian and author of the book Portland’s Woodlawn Neighborhood has watched both the people and trends of the neighborhood change over time.
Author Anjala Ehelebe moved to the Woodlawn district in northeast Portland with her husband nearly 28 years ago, when they settled into their new home in an area known decades previous for its street cars, bakeries and bustling commerce.
Inside her old, well-kept house that rests on the corner of Northeast Brazee, she said she has watched an evolution of the area, which at one time attracted residents from all walks of life from throughout the city.
“After World War II, the Vanport flood in 1948 displaced many African Americans,” she said.
“When my husband and I first moved to this neighborhood, I wanted to help make good things happen,” she said. “So I joined the neighborhood association.”
Although many people don’t enjoy the association meetings, which she described as “sometimes not the most exciting,” Ehelebe kept going year after year, and she began to hang around with older neighbors and ask them questions of the times before she arrived.
“They began to share their stories and old documents about how life had been in the Woodlawn when they were youngins,” she said. “This is when I began to call myself the historian of the neighborhood.”
One year, she said the chair asked her to write a history, originally an article, of the neighborhood, and after her documentation became public, a publishing company asked if she would be willing to write a book.
Publishers gave her a formula to include 200 photographs and 76 pages, and Anjala began her research adventure, once more, to capture the history of her neighborhood.
“Researching history is a blast,” she said.
According to Ehelebe, before the Vanport Flood, the Piedmont neighborhood was the bedroom community to the Woodlawn’s merchant practices.
“Piedmont had a convention so that no business would be located there, so that people would come over here to shop,” she said.
Back in those days, the demographics of the neighborhood were predominantly white working class people, Japanese families, and a farming community.
In 1948, Ehelebe said African Americans began to move into the area after migrating for work opportunities in the ship yards and rail lines.
“After the flood, people needed a new place to stay, and housing was affected here.” she said. “There had been red-lining, which is the practice of bankers and realtors not offering housing to minorities.”
Although she said there is not much documented evidence of racial tension within the neighborhood at the time, Ehelebe explained the migration of African Americans into Woodlawn catalyzed a lot of white people to move out. She said, “In our neighborhood now, black people have been homeowners for three generations.”
Ehelebe said, however, in addition to her historical research, she has watched throughout the years as the neighborhood constantly transitioned as banking practices changed, and the housing market shifted.
Although laws to end environmental racism have been enacted, she said, the neighborhood at the time remained redlined, and banks would not loan money for home improvements. “There have always been reasons for banks not to loan money to certain customers,” she said. “Such was the time, for a number of years.”
Eventually, predatory lending practices by banks emerged, targeting those who lived in the Albina neighborhood while the housing stock declined, and houses, while not all, became increasingly “rattier.”
Ehelebe also remembers when violence emerged in the 90s as a result of gang violence within the area, which she attributes to the implementation of a park within the neighborhood in the 80s.
“Woodlawn Park bloods were actively having gang warfare with the crips,” she said. “And there were major criminal operations in different parts of the Woodlawn because of deliberate disinvestment.”
Bullets were shot through innocent people’s front doors on a distressing basis, she said.
Neighbors came to the Neighborhood association to try to find remedies to these problems, including a variety of neighborhood policing, she said. “But enforcement wasn’t there for a while, and property values plummeted. There were houses in the next block, which sold for $10,000 each.”
In the past couple of decades, she said policing has improved and the violence has seen a decrease. “Things quieted for a while,” she said, yet explained the belief by some that the lack there of enforcement in the neighborhood was a “conspiracy to drive down prices.”
“It was quite astonishing when prices started picking back up during the real estate boom,” she said.
With the poor economy, which has affected residents from all over the Portland area and in cities throughout the country, everyone is attempting to make ends meet.
“Some individuals who bought their house for $6,000 in the past are thrilled to sell their house for $300,000 and move to a less crime ridden neighborhood,” she said.
“But the over inflated housing market made it really easy for people to get loans they couldn’t afford, so there are a number of vacant houses bought by people beyond their means.”
She said property taxes also increased as houses began to sell for $300,000, and consequently, some people had to move because they couldn’t afford to pay.
I can point to two or three houses where people have lost their homes, she said, looking out her front window at the street. “But they could not afford payments when the rates increased,” she said.
“You’ve got to remember, some people have lived here for generations, and during the easy money times, they may have refinanced their paid for houses with variable rate loans.”
Despite the fluctuating history of the rental market, which has caused a lot of changes in demographics within the Woodlawn neighborhood, she said the area has improved in recent years, and she is proud to be a part of the neighborhood association.
“We have, and always have had, a very diverse neighborhood association, and we continue to support projects that have improved many things about the neighborhood,” she said. “We have new neighbors who really reach out and bring a new degree of neighborliness, and it is a deliberate action when they reach out.”
Ehelebe said she is especially proud of a new mural painted to decorate the street corner of 9th and Holman. “We have a community garden, a farmer’s market, and a local chapter of Food not Bombs,” she said.
“It is exceedingly important to document your neighborhood and things as they are, because what you photograph and document is history.”
A lot of the places in this book are no longer there, she said, flipping through the black and white pages.
“And we are constantly making history.”
Anjala Ehelebe’s book Portland’s Woodlawn Neighborhood is for sale at various locations in northeast Portland, including Reflections, Café Eleven, Salt and Straw Ice cream, Buffalo Gardens and Belief in Motion Studio.