Local clothing line fights gentrification
Donovan Smith went to a hip-hop concert last spring at the Blue Monk, a bar on Southeast Belmont that shut down a short time afterward.
On this evening, however, the headliner a Portland rapper named Illmaculate refused to perform after more than 20 Portland Police officers surrounded the venue.
Smith, 23, a Northeast Portland native, went home angry about what he says is unfair treatment of black people by the police.
So he designed a T-shirt one of many hes been selling at Portland street fairs in the past year.
It reads: I Survived Portland Police, with a rose lying across the front and a handgun on top of it.
Its a response to my mom telling me at 16, Dont wear a fitted cap because theyll stop you because they think youre a gang member, Smith says. Its responses to stuff like that.
Smith who now works and lives in North Portland, after graduating from Oregon Episcopal School in 2010 has created a clothing brand called Ignorant Reflections.
Hes releasing his debut collection of clothing designs this month, titled Reverse Gentrification. He hopes to establish what culture looks like to him as a black man growing up in the gentrified Northeast Portland.
He hasnt been arrested or involved in gang activity in fact he describes himself as middle-class but his designs come from experiences ranging from his past run-ins with police at 7-Eleven stores in Portland, to taking a trip to Ferguson, Mo., last August after the death of Michael Brown.
He joined in protests with the Black Lives Matter movement and helped rally for the #FergusonOctober movement, the effort to empower the black community by investing in black-owned businesses.
While Smith was there for only three days, he says he drew connections between Ferguson and North Portland.
All these injustices that are happening in regards to black people arent anything different than whats happening here in Portland, Smith says. It just has a different city name branded to it.
The goal of his brand, he says, is to provoke critical thinking about how we as individuals play into the world around us.
As a product of gentrification, he attacks it and any claims that it has brought good to the city.
Its by definition going to push people without resources and money out, Smith says. So the good things that come with gentrification ... was that (community) would be built for the people that existed here.
Smith started his clothing line in September 2013, after dropping out of the historically black Fisk University in Nashville.
I really wasnt into school at that point, Smith says. I wanted to do my own thing and it was in Nashville when I first said, Let me do this clothing thing.
Nowadays he works as a reporter at The Skanner newspaper, based in North Portland, which works to advance the cause of the black press. He works afternoons as a youth supervisor at the Regence Boys and Girls Club in North Portland.
However, he says his clothing brand is his passion.
Smith says the T-shirts have led him to a number of conversations with customers.
You know, I hear from people who tell me theyve had a gun pulled on them (by police), that say theyve been patted down for no reason or harrassed, Smith says. And I hear all of that because of my shirts.
A 67-page report released by the Portland Police Bureau in 2014 found that African Americans made up 12 percent of traffic stops in 2011, even though they make up 6.3 percent of the population in Portland according to 2010 Census data.
Smiths latest design reads Gentrification is WEIRD! styled similarly to the famous Keep Portland Weird slogan.
Smith thinks the famous Portland slogan has long been about excluding black people.
I realized that Keep Portland Weird was the brand that got established in these neighborhoods, Smith says. The weirdness is what furthered people moving in. The weirdness didnt include people like myself. The weirdness didnt include my grandmother, who has been living in North Portland for more than four decades.
Smith grew up in the Cully neighborhood. Census data from 2000 to 2010 revealed more than a 50 percent increase in the number of African American residents as development pushed blacks eastward, out of inner North and Northeast Portland.
Yet, in 2013, a study commissioned by Portlands Bureau of Planning and Sustainability identified neighborhoods at-risk for gentrification. Cully was one of the neighborhoods on the verge of gentrifying.
The neighborhood median home value is $279,200, below Portlands average of $319,000 according to real estate database Zillow. Yet the median home value has increased 10.4 percent in the past year, compared to 6.9 percent in Portland as a whole.
Around him, Smith sees signs of gentrification every day.
Longtime local businesses such as Magoos Bar and Grill are shuttering.
An empty lot on Northeast Killingsworth Street that sold for $60,000 in April 2014 has turned into a $490,000 duplex; developers are looking for investors to finish construction on the property.
Keep Portland Weird is the larger culture that is moving in, Smith says. Its the population that is growing this city and pushing the people who have been here for years out of the city. And thats black and brown people, to be very specific.
Smiths debut collection
Smiths latest design is the first in his debut collection.
He has been selling the gentrification shirt along with his police shirt and beanies and snapback hats with his Ignorant label stitched on the front.
He also has gentrification bumper stickers, available at No Limit Stickers at Northeast 17th Avenue and Alberta Street.
In the past year, hes set up shop at the Mississippi Avenue Street Fair, Last Thursday and Cully Farmers Market.
On Aug. 8, Smith will sell his apparel at the Alberta Street Fair, including previews of his debut collection.
One of the pieces includes a watermelon and the Pan-African flag, both fashioned in the same colors.
That stereotype of black people liking fried chicken and watermelon is one of those things thats been demonized by society, Smith says. Even though its roots are way deeper than we know.
Smith will be taking his designs to shops in Old Town such as Compound Gallery and Upper Playground, as well as traveling to Seattle to see if he can get them into stores there.
His dream is to open his own shop one day, hopefully in the neighborhood he grew up in, on Northeast 42nd Avenue.
This is my art, this is what I do, he says. This is what I spend all day thinking about.
For more: ignorantreflections.com