Existing conditions on Portland's North Williams Ave. Courtesy Jonathan Maus, BikePortland.org

The gentrification vs. bicycle infrastructure debate in one of the country's most bike-friendly cities

Donna Maxey’s family lost its home in Portland, Ore., to the bulldozers of “urban renewal” back in 1961. She was only 12 years-old, but she still remembers every detail of that house – the pocket doors, the built-in china cupboards, the towering English walnut trees in the yard. “I would dream about that house until I was in my 50s,” says Maxey.

It wasn’t just the house that was lost, it was an entire neighborhood: the thriving African-American enclave of Albina, home to legendary jazz clubs and countless businesses, all within walking distance. “It was a model neighborhood,” says Lisa Loving, who wrote about the destruction of Albina for Portland’s African American paper, The Skanner News. “What people had then was what people want now.”

Maxey, a retired educator and community activist, remembers it as a place where no one locked their doors and everybody knew each other. “I liken it to Ozzie and Harriet meets The Cosby Show,” says Maxey, who is black. In an overwhelmingly white state with an ugly history of discrimination against blacks, Albina was a haven of sorts. And then it was all destroyed to make way for interstate highways and a hospital expansion. “The African American community never did recover,” Loving says.

Today, after decades of neglect, the part of town once known as Albina is seeing a revival. Businesses are going in on North Williams Avenue, the area’s main business street. But newcomers to the neighborhood are overwhelmingly white and well-to-do – “yuppies,” Maxey calls them.

It’s a familiar pattern of gentrification, and the bitterness many felt about the neighborhood’s history might have remained unspoken except for another planning decision – this one seemingly the philosophical opposite of the destructive urban renewal policies of the ’50s and ’60s.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation wants to install a protected bikeway on North Williams Avenue, which sees as many as 3,000 cyclists daily, and in July a public meeting on the plan – part of a larger “traffic operations safety project” – turned into a contentious forum on the history of institutionalized racism in Portland.

Sharon Maxwell-Hendricks, a black business owner who grew up in the neighborhood, has been one of the most vocal opponents to the city’s plan for a wider, protected bike lane. She can't help but feel that the city seems only to care about traffic safety now that white people are living in the area. “We as human beings deserved to have the same right to safer streets years ago,” she says. “Why wasn’t there any concern about people living here then?”

The city didn’t get enough input from the African American members of the community, Maxwell-Hendricks argues, as they developed their plan. “They seem to be pushing their own agenda,” she says. “There was the feeling that the city just rolled through with this.”

In response to the outcry at the public meeting, the project has been put on hold until at least next spring. More African Americans have been appointed to the advisory committee, and a community forum will be held in October to have a full discussion of all the issues involved, including race.

“One of the big things we learned in this process is that the outreach process that works well for some people doesn’t work for others,” says Dan Anderson, interim communications director for the Portland mayor’s office. “It’s been very educational. Outreach needs to be tailored to the community. We need to slow things down and get more people around the table.”

Jonathan Maus, who runs the Bike Portland blog and has reported extensively on the North Williams controversy, thinks the city should have stood its ground and gone forward with the project, but wasn’t willing to do so in part because of the political weakness of scandal-plagued Mayor Sam Adams, who has been a strong biking advocate and is closely identified with the biking community.

“There’s been too much emphasis on consensus,” said Maus. “I’m all for public process, but I also want the smartest transportation engineers in the country on bicycling to have their ideas prevail.”

Maus, who is white, says the history of North Williams shouldn’t be dictating current policy, and that safety issues for the many people who bike on the street are urgent. “At some point as a city, you have to start planning to serve the existing population,” he said. “The remaining black community is holding traffic justice hostage. It’s allowing injustice in the present because of injustice in the past.”

Donna Maxey, though, says that by slowing down the process and allowing the discussion of race to be fully explored, the city has done the right thing. “There’s a way to fulfill the needs of everyone,” she says, noting that she recognizes the importance of North Williams as a bike route. “The problem with Williams Avenue was not that they want to change the street, it’s how they went about doing it.”

Debora Leopold Hutchins, chair of the stakeholder advisory committee for the project, is optimistic the community will be more willing to embrace the project now that the process has been slowed down. “I think in any community, people want to have their opinions heard,” she says. “We can’t change what’s happened in the past, we can only go forward. I think given time, we’ll be able to move past the gentrification issue and get to making North Williams a safer street.”

Maxey hopes that in the end, the street design might incorporate some historical exhibits that will allow current residents of the neighborhood to better understand what was there before. “I think they’re moving in the right direction,” she says. “People just wanted a chance to be heard.”

Special thanks to Jonathan Maus of BikePortland.org for use of the above image.

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