Albina 1996: North Williams Avenue, portrait of a once-thriving Portland jazz scene
On Sept. 8, 1996, The Oregonian published a 6,000-word story by reporters Jim Barnett and Steve Suo titled "Albina: Up or out?" The article, serialized here, identified evidence that after decades of neglect and disinvestment, the neighborhoods of inner North and Northeast Portland were on the cusp of frenetic growth in home values and rents.
Sunday at last. The young shipping clerk rushed up North Williams Avenue, past strolling couples, the men's hair slicked back, the women's legs swishing forward under their skirts, past musicians gathered on the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes and looking cool, past the smell of sweet baby-back ribs from Mallie's and through the door to Paul's Paradise, straight into the tingling vibration of red-hot jazz.
That afternoon in July 1954, when 12 Seattle musicians came to jam at Paul's, was a zenith for Portland's jazz scene and for its African-American community.
The shipping clerk went on to become a cop, a television newscaster and a Portland city commissioner. Dick Bogle says the music still has the same effect on him.
But little else is the same. Two decades later, the black community was scattered by urban renewal and ravaged by economic decline. Paul's was a paradise lost.
"It was always hard for me to understand what happened," says Bogle, 65. "There used to be restaurants and clubs. All of a sudden, as blacks had broken the color line, some of the nitty-gritty stuff we always took for granted disappeared."
Albina has been a central home to Portland's African-American community since just after World War II. Thousands of blacks, drawn from the South to wartime shipyard jobs, were left homeless by a 1948 flood that destroyed barracks housing in Vanport, along the Columbia River near what is now Delta Park. Many moved where they were steered by real estate agents — the old city of Albina.
A bustling, independent railroad town in the 1880s, Albina already showed signs of decline. In the teens and '20s, the wealthy left their Victorian homes in the urban core for new suburbs accessible by car. The community also was Portland's first home to waves of European immigrants, who secured a foothold with blue-collar jobs and, by World War II, had moved up and out.
Blacks filled in behind. By 1950, their numbers in Lower Albina had grown about 3,500 while the white population had declined an equal amount.
Although Albina was underscored by poverty and substandard housing, it was, in the '50s, a vibrant community. Black barbershops, dry cleaners and restaurants served neighbors shut out of white businesses downtown. A half-dozen black-owned music clubs stood within walking distance of North Williams, known as "The Stem."
But in the 1960s, the black majority neighborhoods in Albina were tagged as Portland's ghetto. And, in an era of urban policy that was played out across the nation, city leaders devised programs to rid the core of "blight."
To the government, it was urban renewal. To residents facing bulldozers, it was "urban removal."
The prime targets were dilapidated homes and businesses in what are now the Rose Quarter and the Emanuel Hospital complex. Like a modern-day Atlantis, old Albina was swamped beneath a sea of concrete.
Between 1950 and 1980, the number of housing units in Albina's core — west of 8th Avenue and south of Fremont Street — declined 57 percent, from 5,072 to 2,169. Memorial Coliseum, built in 1957, and Interstate 5, opened in 1964, each displaced about 300 people.
"We destroyed more enterprise zones than we could ever hope to create — in the name of progress," says Ed Washington, a Metro councilor who grew up in Albina.
At the height of urban renewal efforts in the early 1970s, Emanuel Hospital wanted to expand. Standing in its way: The historic Albina business district at Williams Avenue and Russell Street.
With $3.7 million in federal money, the Portland Development Commission leveled 22 city blocks, displacing and relocating 162 families.
Two years later, Emanuel canceled the expansion, citing insufficient funds.
The wave of construction drove black families further north and east in Albina, which spurred a new round of white flight. The geographic heart of the black community also moved north and centered around Skidmore and MLK.
And in that heart, poverty found a home. Between 1970 and 1990, the poverty rate among Albina families increased from 10.9 percent to 16.5 percent. In the worst pockets, straddling MLK, the rate topped 36 percent in 1990.
Chastened by the past, city officials now are working to recreate a vibrant artery that maintains a strong African-American identity.
The Portland Development Commission has loaned $2.8 million to 61 inner North and Northeast businesses since 1992 — nearly two-thirds of them owned by African-Americans. The city has issued $204,000 in federal block grants to spruce up store entrances.
Banks are boosting commercial lending. In the late 1980s, the U.S. Small Business Administration guaranteed about $600,000 annually in new bank loans in inner North and Northeast; in the early 1990s, that annual average more than doubled, to $1.4 million.
And after a long slide, the boulevard is pulsing with new life.
Coral salvias and lavender daisies bloom in the garden that gives Roslyn's Garden Coffee House its name. The corrugated aluminum facade of the tiny building on 14th Place went up with an $8,000 city grant. Inside, Roslyn Hill brews lattes with equipment bought with $35,000 of her own money and $32,450 from the city.
Doris' Cafe, a barbecue spot at Russell Street, opened with a city loan. Steen's Coffee House next door made it without government help.
And Phyliss Gaines used private funds to open the nearby Vessels, a dinnerware boutique featuring African designs.
"I had an idea, and MLK was the perfect location for it," says Gaines, who also is an assistant vice president and consumer loan officer at Key Bank of Oregon. "The fact that there was a lot of development going on encouraged me."
The sour memory of earlier renewal policy leaves some veteran residents skeptical.
Much of the business property Emanuel acquired remains vacant; the hospital transformed some of the land to parks and affordable housing and hopes to dust off expansion blueprints sometime in the next 30 years. Since the Fred Meyer on MLK closed in 1989, Albina has made do with one major grocery, the Safeway at Ainsworth.
"It ain't going to work," says barber Willie Harris, 54, who for decades has run businesses in the ragged remains of the old Albina core. "It's a program again. America don't operate on no program. America operates on being capitalist, ambitious and educated."
But others think the joint efforts of government and private enterprise can override history.
Back in the '60s, Paul Knauls Sr. owned the Cotton Club, a music house on North Vancouver Avenue. Now he and his wife, Geneva, run Geneva's Shear Perfection salon on MLK.
"The avenue is on the move," Knauls says.
NEXT: Portrait of a homeowner