Study documents neighborhood's changes over past 23 years

PORTLAND TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Albert Street Project Field Supervisor Deborah Moore and Project Co-director Michael 'Chappie' Grice in front of the building that once housed Portland's first African-American owned movie theater, the Alberta Cinema. It is now home to the Alberta Rose Theater.Vast improvements have occurred along Alberta Street in the past 23 years: Renovation of older homes and buildings, around 140 new businesses, a big increase in property values, and a sharp drop in crime.

But many of the earlier residents and business owners are not there to enjoy the benefits. They have been displaced due to the rising property values and rents.

Public school enrollment has been cut nearly in half, with African-American, Native American and Asian students being increasingly replaced by whites and Hispanics. And only five of the 17 churches in the area remain unchanged in name and location.

“Many people had to move out of the area and can’t afford to come back,” says Michael “Chappie” Grice, a longtime local African-American educator and community leader.

“Plenty are still here,” he says, “but they aren’t involved in Alberta Street activities. The new residents don’t know who they are and don’t involve them in their activities.”

PORTLAND TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - One small example of change: a Pacific Power & Light substation at 2701 N.E. Alberta that is now The Station neighborhood pub.Measuring “progress”

The changes are documented in two unique studies of the 186-block area around Alberta and Northeast 15th Avenue. The first was conducted in 1992 and the second was completed a short time ago. Both recorded the conditions in the area using the same method — local, young African-Americans hired to walk the area, interview residents and business owners, photograph houses and commercial properties, and research demographic, education, real estate, law enforcement and other information about it.

Both studies were organized by Grice and Bob Zybach, a forest scientist who lived in Portland in the 1960s and now lives in Cottage Grove.

“We paid kids to learn and document the conditions in the neighborhood. They got paid and learned valuable job skills,” Zybach says.

The recent study compares the situation in 1992 with the area today. It provides a detailed look at the effects of gentrification, the changes that occur when investment occurs in lower-income areas.

Preventing the negative effects of gentrification is one of the hottest political issues in Portland today. Many close-in neighborhoods are currently being transformed by an influx of new residents and businesses, pushing established residents, businesses and even churches to the edges of the city or completely out of town.

The new study also documents the undeniable benefits of gentrification, including the revitalization of a historic part of town that had been going downhill for too many years.

“I hope the studies teach people that if they are going to change a neighborhood, they should do their research and learn everything about it first, and involve the residents in the plans,” says Deborah Moore, who worked on both studies as the field supervisor.

Area was blighted

Both the 1992 and 2015 studies focus on a portion of Northeast Portland bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the west, 33rd Avenue on the east, Prescott Street on the south and Killingsworth Street on the north, plus Alberta Park as a more northern extension. Alberta Street is the only commercial street in the otherwise residential study area.

The area is included in the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area administered by the Portland Development Commission, which has helped fund redevelopment efforts there over the years, including $20 million just allocated by the Portland City Council to build affordable housing in North and Northeast Portland.

The original 1992 study was organized by a nonprofit organization formed by Grice and Zybach called Urban Forestry, Inc. It raised money and hired Moore, who oversaw students from Jefferson High School. The purpose was to encourage the redevelopment of Alberta Street, which was blighted by vacant buildings and trash-strewn empty lots.

Zyback, Grice and Moore reunited for the 2015 study, this time supervising a team of young African-Americans from Worksystems Inc.

Funding and other support came from the Oregon Websites & Watersheds Project, the World Arts Foundation, the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs, Portland Public Schools, Portland Development Commission, and the Portland Police Bureau.

Documenting gentrification

The result may be the most detailed historic study ever attempted of a Portland neighborhood. Although demographic changes in the area have been documented by various organizations over the years with census and other data, the two studies include side-by-side comparisons of properties and personal accounts of previous and current community members.

“It’s just so different now. The business owners are happy so many people have moved in, but it’s a different vibe,” Moore says.

The 2015 study runs 140 pages and includes photographs of dozens of buildings from 1992 and today. The changes look as though much of the area has participated in well-funded historic preservation projects.

Many structures that were rundown or vacant 23 years ago have been completely refurbished. They include: a dilapidated bar at 1801 N.E. Alberta that is now Solae’s Lounge; a 1909 apartment house at 2403 N.E. Alberta that is now the repurposed Rexall Drugstore mixed-use building; a Pacific Power & Light substation at 2701 N.E. Alberta that is now The Station neighborhood pub; and the former Albina Cinema that is now the Alberta Rose Theater at 3000 N.E. Alberta. Numerous houses restored over the past 23 years also are depicted in the photographs.

In addition, new buildings now fill a number of former vacant lots along Alberta. They include an apartment complex at Northeast 25th and Alberta and a number of mixed-use buildings in the 1400 block of Alberta.

The resulting increase in property value has been huge, typically more than 1,000 percent, according to the study. And the increase has been accompanied by a similar decrease in crime, the study says, making the area an even more desirable place to live.

Black community dispersed

The 2015 study relays how the African-American community has been shortchanged by the revival. It documented 20 African-American-owned businesses in the study area today — the same as in 1992 — while the total number of businesses has jumped from 79 to about 220 today.

And the population of African-Americans living in the area has declined dramatically over the past 23 years. It dropped from more than 50 percent in 1990 to around 20 percent in 2010, according to U.S. Census data included in the study.

The change is also reflected in area school enrollment. Between 1997 and 2014, the number of black students enrolled at two grade schools and two high schools that draw from the area dropped from 1,966 to 750.

And it’s reflected in the loss of 12 African-American churches since 1992.

“Much of what people intended for the area has been realized, but more community members left than was anticipated,” says Sam Brooks, founder and chair of the board of the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs, and an early advocate for redeveloping Alberta Street.

New findings

The first study included eight recommendations for improving the area and supporting the African-American community there. The 2015 study revisits those recom mendations and offered five updated ones:

• The entire North and Northeast Portland community should support new and existing African-American businesses there.

• African-Americans should create programs to help buy business and residential properties in the area.

• A neighborhood improvement program should be created along with safe recreational areas.

• African-Americans should be included in new community events, such as Last Thursday and the Alberta Street Fair.

• Better landscape planning and maintenance for properties that still need such work.

The study also recommends that similar investigations be launched in other changing parts of Portland.

Find out more

Two studies of the area around Northeast Alberta Street detail the changes over the past 23 years:

• To read the original 1992 study:

• To read the 2015 study:

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