Rekindling a Promise
Historic displacement of Black families addressed
Beverly Corbell | 2/22/2022, 5:50 p.m.
The Emanuel Displaced Persons Association 2 (EDPA2), comprised of families affected by the hospital expansion, partnered last year with graduate students in Portland State University’s Masters of Urban and Regional Planning program to create an in-depth study demonstrating the negative impacts from housing displacement of Black community members.
Much of the historically Black Albina community in north and northeast Portland was labeled “blighted” in 1973 and marked for Urban redevelopment, which allowed the city to condemn hundreds of homes and businesses.
The executive summary of the report, titled “Reclamation Towards the Futurity of Central Albina,” states that in the early 1960s, Emanuel Hospital (now Legacy Emanuel Medical Center) and the Portland Development Commission (now Prosper Portland) began Urban Renewal projects that entailed the removal of hundreds of Black families and the demolition of nearly 300 homes and businesses.
Community members protested by forming the Emanuel Displaced Persons Association, and their efforts secured a promise by city stakeholders in 1971 “to guarantee restitution for their taken homes and businesses,” according to the report, but that promise was broken and no replacements were provided.
The city’s answer to claims by both EDPA and EDPA2 has been to build affordable housing units such as apartments, but Byrd says that does not satisfy the original agreement because an apartment is substandard to a house, and does not allow for the accumulation of wealth by those families.
Ed Johnson, director of litigation for the Oregon Law Center, told Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2020 that building more apartments does not equate to restitution.
“Affordable housing is not the remedy to what happened to these specific families because you can’t build wealth in affordable housing you don’t own,” Johnson said. Instead of trying to generate cash from the land, the City Council needs to focus on its unfulfilled promises, he said.
Using eminent domain, the city took 55 acres for the expansion of Emanuel Hospital, but according to the report, “much of the expansion area remained vacant and disinvestment by the city blighted the neighborhood.”
“The ensuing wave of gentrification has earned nationwide attention,” the report states, “and the area that was once the heart of Portland’s Black community has become whiter than Portland overall.”
The report pulls no punches in laying blame: “Racist planning and urban renewal practices carried out by the City of Portland, the state of Oregon and other institutions have caused a range of harms against Portland’s Black residents.”
In addition to the loss of real estate properties, which can be quantified, according to the report, there are incurable losses to the Albina community that include “broken social networks and loss of ownership and control over neighborhood institutions and assets.”
Those hard to quantify incurable losses, according to EDPA2 members, are as valuable as curable assets and the impacts “leave an indelible pain and memory that accompanies the survivors of forced removal for the rest of their lives.”
Following the release of the report on Feb. 14, Byrd led an EDPA2 Zoom meeting that stretched to two hours, with input from many survivors and the PSU task force that created the report, led by grad student Stephen Greenslade.
Greenslade said before properties were confiscated for the Emmanuel expansion, the Albina community was one of the only places in Portland where Black communities could live.
“It was beginning to thrive in the late 1950s and ‘60s and we found the blight was the effect of urban renewal rather than the mitigating cause,” he said.
In the Zoom meeting, Byrd recalled the redlining that was prevalent in times past, but that early residents of the Albina neighborhood were able to get financing for building or repairing their homes not from banks, but from first-generation immigrants.
“My grandmother purchased a house from a German, and Jewish people and Austrians sold to Blacks,” she said.
Many voices spoke out during the Zoom meeting, including Sharon Gary-Smith, president of the Portland NAACP, who strongly criticized the city.
“Taking homes for pennies on the dollar, declaring multiracial neighborhoods ‘blighted’ in order to condemn and take them for the ‘public’s best interest,’ that’s theft,” she said. “The data (in the PSU report) is not just academic, it lives and centers on the lives of the people impacted.”
If Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler can suggest giving a $25,000 re-hiring bonus to police officers who have quit or retired, then the city has the money for restitution to Albina survivors and descendants, Gary-Smith said.
“We know he can find the money to repay community homeowners who were stolen from,” she said.
Byrd and others are also planning further action, including the purchase of a home in the Albina area which will serve as headquarters for EDPA2, with a gofundme.com account at https://bit.ly/3s5b0R9..
“Black folks in this country are in a constant state of reclamation, a constant state to have to reclaim what was yours because of various reasons, and it goes back to slavery,” she said. “It’s reclaiming what is ours.”