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Give ‘Em One Reason to Say No to Trader Joe’s

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Today we bring you a guest post on community relations and corporate reputation by Donnell Alexander, who lives and writes just outside Portland. He is author of the enhanced ebook Beyond Ellis D.

Accumulation from the February snowstorm was still piled around the city when everyone beyond the confines of Northeast Portland learned what had happened. Well, they learned at least a version of what went down.

This winter’s wacky sound-bite narrative of a historically-black Portland neighborhood turning away a Trader Joe’s grocery development because the deal would attract “too many white people” made noises that sounded like the breaking of the Internet. The very idea felt too weird to be true or ignored.

There’s a neighborhood that would oppose a Trader Joe’s? And Portland  has black people?

That version of what happened with the lot at the corner of Northeast Portland’s Alberta and MLK did its thing on social media, then jumped up another level, even finding its way into a Conan O’Brien monologue.

“In Portland, Oregon, a group of African Americans are protesting a Trader Joe’s because they say it will attract too many white people, which is ironic because Portland is the Native American word for too many white people.”

Ironic or not, the truth of the Portland Trader Joe’s story is one of greater complexity than memes and punchlines can possibly allow. Through the 20th century’s last half, more than eighty percent of Oregon blacks lived in Northeast Portland, in part because Oregon was founded as a whites-only state—the only American one in the north so designated. Along with adjacent North Portland, the tight-knit neighborhood nurtured black political and social life, as well as giving birth to organic backyard farming and other Portland innovations.

The truth doesn’t fit in a press release.

“For the last week, I’ve had over 500 emails, coordinated by the extreme right,” said Cyreena Boston Ashby, director of the Portland African-American Leadership Forum. The conservative driver that Boston Ashby refers to is BizPac Review, a Palm Beach County-based website. The privately held, for-profit right-wing website drove the story online with a collection of out of context quotes called, “Black residents reject Trader Joe’s because it would attract too many white people.” Not so much journalism as a business lobby press release.

“They’ve sent their people to my Facebook page,” Boston Ashby told me, “my email account, calling me everything but a black [bitch]. I’ve been called a black Klan member. I’ve been called Sapphire.  (They say) how dare we be racist; they say I’m a reverse racist.”

We sat at a bakery in Northeast Portland. While I asked the community organizer and lobbyist about Trader Joe’s, she was busy being a mom. Her focus was, however, unwavering.

On Feb. 3, Trader Joe’s and the Southern California-based developer Majestic Realty pulled out of an $8 million development deal that would have brought between four and 19 nearby retailers and a 100-space parking lot to the nearby two-acre site. The Portland African American Leadership Forum, the organization Cyreena Boston Ashby represents, objected to Portland’s Development Commission (PDC) selling the property to Southern California developer Majestic for $500,000.

Boston Ashby had only set out to study. The objection, serious and almost scholarly in its approach, was PAALF’s small, necessary obligation.

To grasp the significance of a research paper by a fledgling leadership organization upending a multi-million dollar construction project, it’s critical to first know the depth of the Northeast Portland Albina neighborhood’s black depopulation crisis.

“[T]he population has become divided: affluent white homeowners and poor black renters,” according to Portland State University’s “African-American Report“, released in January. “The combination of race and class makes ‘integration’ in Albina neighborhoods a significant challenge.”

The locals around this coffeehouse are leery of the changes going on around them: unfamiliar neighbors and steeply rising rents. Formed when the storied Vanport flood integrated Portland in 1948, Albina first experienced gentrification in the 1970s with the establishment of the Interstate Urban Renewal District. That city project promised an area hospital development that failed to materialize and, punitively, failed only after hundreds of residents sold their property and left the neighborhood.

In 1990, the Oregonian newspaper unearthed widespread redlining by local lenders. That same year, the Albina Plan was put in place to revitalize the historically black part of Portland.

The black community, now flung across Portland, settled in parts of town bereft of resources–the edge of Gresham, for example. According to Boston Ashby, 10,000 Albina blacks had been displaced between 2000 and 2010. That’s when the local Urban League branch partnered with a new Minneapolis group called the African American Leadership Forum, forming a Portland Forum.

PAALF’s Leadership Academy began an urban renewal study, focusing on an examination of the urban renewal practices of the development commission. ”The idea was that once they were done they would bring it to the steering committee and we would really do something long-term. Look at the PDC and audit it, possibly.”

No official statement can convey the speed with which this urban renewal study made the transition from idea to action.

In late 2012, PAALF’s Leadership Academy study group began requesting PDC expenditure records. Tensions between Ashby’s group and the PDC rose as the public records requests came back incomplete or with notes from the commission asking for as much as $2000, Ashby said. In turn, Patrick Quinton, Executive Director of the PDC, said the requests were so broad that to fulfill them would have required the hiring of an intern for six months.

While PAALF and the development commission went back and forth, the city of Portland had begun holding public meetings about putting a TraderJoe’s on that city-owned lot on Alberta and MLK. PAALF members attended some, but not all of these sessions–and by 2013, the Trader Joe’s idea held some popularity in the rapidly-gentrifying, undeserved area.

PAALF’s push to examine the PDC’s role in gentrification remained stalled. Leadership then set up a chartered bus tour of a portion of the Albina District that brought together local business and home owners with Quinton and Mayor Charlie Hales. On October 8, the stakeholders discussed impacts of gentrification on long-time residents and business people.

Neither in the bus or on the streets of Albina was there talk of a Trader Joe’s land deal. Yet, two weeks later the development arrangement with Majestic Realty hit the papers.

PAALF and its Northeast Portland constituents felt betrayed. Boston Ashby fired off an open letter. She called the deal, which gave a discount valued by some at $2.4 million to Trader Joe’s Los Angeles-based developer, “fraught with injustice.” (Edward Roski, Majestic’s CEO, is worth $3.7 billion, according to Forbes.)

“This decision,” the Dec. 16 letter said, “reflects the City’s overall track record of implementing policies that serve to uproot, displace and disempower our most vulnerable community members.”

A meeting between PAALF, Mayor Hales and the PDC followed. Ashby said that Mayor Hales confided: “I think you got a raw deal. I didn’t even know about it,” and that he agreed that mixed-use housing should be part of the development.

(The Mayor’s Communications Director Dana Haynes said Hales would never have made such a statement, as public hearings on the development had been ongoing.)

The PDC’s Quinton admitted that the PDC handled the announcement of the transaction, which had been brewing for years, imperfectly. No deal for the lot had been in place on the date of the tour, according to Quinton.

“I think there was a middle ground. Obviously we misjudged that,” the executive director of the development commission said. “I would have encouraged Trader Joe’s to go public sooner, so that it wasn’t a bombshell.”

PAALF’s study gone rogue met with undeniable difficulty in February. Yet, the approach seems to be winning over the long haul. No, Trader Joe’s is not coming back. “They’re a beloved brand. They aren’t used to bad press. They don’t have to be at that location,” said the PDC’s Quinton. But perhaps something less perfunctory than an anchor-store model shopping center could be coming to town. In March the city of Portland approved a $20 million affordable housing program aimed at North and Northeast Portland.

Maybe something’s coming that’s beyond the imagination of the BizPac Review.

The imbroglio over that lot at the corner of Alberta and MLK ultimately netted the opportunity to figure out what it is, specifically, that Northeast Portland does need. Albina residents don’t have the same immediate needs as, say, a locally-based contractor. And which Albina residents are we talking about?

“This is not a black issue,” insists Boston Ashby, still being a mom in a Northeast Portland bakery. “To be clear, African-Americans were the first to be redlined in this area. We were also the first to be displaced. And historically, in this town, it’s African-Americans who have been the first to speak out against injustice. But the use of urban renewal areas–tax increment financing, with out-of-state or in-state developers–on these plots of land without telling people, it’s going to happen in other parts of town. It already is happening.”

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