Cities’ black neighborhoods fading away

PORTLAND, Ore. – Already the whitest major city in America, Portland is rapidly becoming even whiter at its core.

“The heart of the black community is gone,” said Charles Ford, 76, a black activist whose neighborhood in Portland has flipped in recent years from majority black to majority white. “There ain’t no center anymore.”

In Seattle, the nation’s second-whitest major city, the same process of downtown demographic bleaching is accelerating for the same reasons.

An invasion of young, well-educated and mostly white newcomers is buying up and remaking Seattle’s Central District, the birthplace of Jimi Hendrix and the once-bluesy home of the young Ray Charles. What had been the largest black-majority community in the Pacific Northwest has become majority white.

“I am concerned and I am frustrated because I don’t know what the alternatives are,” said Norm Rice, who in the 1990s was Seattle’s first and only black mayor. “It clearly isn’t racist; it’s economics. The real question you have to ask yourself is: Is this good or bad?”

White gentrification is hardly unique to Portland and Seattle. It is changing Harlem, the District of Columbia and many other cities. But as white gentrification accelerates in Portland and Seattle, where the percentage of black residents was already the lowest among the nation’s largest cities, it is erasing the only historically black neighborhoods these cities have ever had.

In many cities with large black populations, gentrification has caused only marginal racial change. In Seattle’s Central District, though, the change is anything but marginal. The non-Hispanic white population in the area jumped from 31 percent in 1990 to 50 percent in 2000, according to the census.

Local demographers say white growth since 2000 has gained momentum, while the percentage of black residents appears to have fallen to less than 40 percent. With real estate prices rising about 25 percent a year, the Central District appears to be getting whiter and richer by the month.

As black residents leave the central areas of Portland and Seattle for the suburbs – either because they have sold their homes or been forced out by higher rents – their community is being splintered by geographic dispersal and racial integration.

“It’s destroying us, socially and politically,” said Ford, the neighborhood activist from Portland. “It is just a total inconvenience and disrespect to black folks.”

Rice does not view the changes as nearly so dire, especially for people who have been able to sell their homes at a substantial profit and set aside money for retirement.

Census figures suggest blacks in Seattle and Portland have not been displaced into homelessness and aren’t economically worse off in the suburbs than they were downtown.

But Rice said the newly suburbanized African-Americans are being isolated from one another and “will have to find new places to embrace our black heritage.”

Neither blacks nor whites, Rice said, appear to have found a way to stop or slow the disappearance of core black neighborhoods. “They are concerned, but they don’t have an option or a plan,” he said.

Cities of 500,000 or more with the highest proportion of white residents.

Portland, Ore.: 75 percent

Seattle: 68 percent

Indianapolis: 67 percent

Columbus, Ohio: 67 percent

Oklahoma City: 65 percent

Source: Washington Post analysis of 2000 census data

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