Saturday, October 24, 2009

Urban Commentator Fails to Show that Portland's Progressivism and Livability is Fostered by its Racial Homogeneity

In "The White City" on, urban writer and advocate Aaron Renn contends that mid-size cities most often cited for their livability and progressivism are in fact bastions of homogeneity, with minorities, most notably blacks, underrepresented in their populations. Renn focuses on Portland, Oregon as the most visible and "whitest", with only 6% African Americans in Multnomah County (which contains six municipalities) versus a national core county average of 12.8%. Renn contends that Portland's racial composition sullies its ostensible accomplishments, asking
Can you have a progressive city properly so-called with only a disproportionate handful of African Americans in it? In addition, why has no one called these cities on it?
Renn describes characterizes Portland as "White Flight writ large", asking
Why move to the suburbs of your stodgy Midwest city to escape African Americans and get criticized for it when you can move to Portland and actually be praised as progressive, urban and hip?
Renn contends that density and livability policies like urban growth boundaries (in Portland's case, a state mandate administered by an elected regional government) and restrictions on building materials make housing less affordable for the urban poor and disproportionately affect minorities. He concludes that cities like Portland should not be so self-congratulatory about ostensibly progressive policies enabled by racial homogeneity.

Portland, like virtually all US cities, has a history of racial segregation and other egregious forms of discrimination. However, due to Portland's location and relative lack of industrial muscle there have been few historical motivations for significant black migrations to Portland. Liberty Ship construction during World War II, resulting in the ultimately doomed segregated city of Vanport, was a notable exception.

While policies that encourage density often raise the cost of urban housing, they also stimulate redevelopment and benefit those of modest means by reducing the need for lengthy drives to work and errands. Walkable cities, parks and farmers markets foster health and convenience for all, regardless of race.

Portland is far from a paragon of livability for all of its citizens. Indeed, the poorest areas of the city often have the least access to supermarkets, as shown in this figure from a USDA study published earlier this year.  No city should be smug about its accomplishments, but while Renn shows that racism could motivate migration to Portland, he fails to show that a significant number of people have moved to Portland for that reason.

Is Portland's livability and progressive reputation enabled by its racial composition?  Cast your vote in the first Digital Millwright poll at the top of this page!


  1. I tend to think that a lot of liberal Portlanders like to think of themselves as being ultra-tolerant and that they "embrace diversity" (whatever that means,) but the fact is that they are mostly patting themselves on the back for nothing. As a matter of fact, a lot of the new residents and hipsters live in areas of the city that used to be a predominately black. I grew up in the NE section of Portland in the 70's and know how the demographics changed in the last 15 years or so.

    And downtown Portland used to have a lot more black folks hustling and such (don't shoot the messenger) and from what I can tell most of the blacks have moved to either Gresham or Beaverton, so seeing people of color downtown or thereabouts is a rare sight.

    I actually miss having the traditional african american communities in the inner NE and N. Portland areas. Sure there was problems with crime and such, but it is sad seeing a lot of folks pushed out due to rising home prices. I remember going to the corner store on 15th and Fremont and seeing pigs feet and chitlins on the counter. Now it is a yuppie cafe with Whole Foods (supermarket for guilty white liberals) across the street. Boring!

  2. Thanks for the comment!

    It is unfortunate that people, particularly members of minority groups, are being pushed out of the city due to rising home prices. Recently redeveloped areas, like the Pearl and the South Waterfront have some "affordable" housing, although I have no idea if it is truly affordable, or if the quantity is enough to make a difference.

    Since I grew up in New York City, the turnaround has been amazing. The poor and much of the working class were stuck in the inner city, while everyone who could afford it moved to the suburbs. Now, everyone wants to live in or near the city, so housing prices are being bid up, at least until recently. This is not the same, however, as the covert racial intolerance that Aaron Renn associates with city dwellers today.

    Certainly, Portland and other cities need to do more to ensure strong employment opportunities for growing populations. As our mayor acknowledged recently, livability is no guarantee of sufficient jobs. But I know of no way, other than requiring or investing in affordable housing, good public schools, and other necessities and amenities for cities in a capitalist society to reduce wealth-based displacement due to rising housing costs.

    Please post again on a topic of your choice!

  3. I've lived in both Portland and Kansas City, two cities of similar size and economic performance, but very different racial makeup: Portland has very few blacks, mostly white, with a fair number of asian and latino immigrants. KC is almost 100% black or white, with a black population more than five times as large as Portlands. It was just blindingly obvious that the racial aspect of city politics and city planning is huge.

    In Kansas City, race simply loomed over everything else -- you couldn't talk about transit or redevelopment or schools or anything without race being in the background, and often in the foreground. The sprawl problem was immense, not only because of whites wanting to leave black neighborhoods, but what really drove it was wanting to get out of the city / school district limits. Since in the 1970s African Americans got substantial representation on the KC city council and school board, whites wanted out -- not just to where they didn't live next door to blacks (few did to start with), but to where the city government and school administration were run by whites. Thus even all-white neighborhoods in KC emptied out as they moved to suburban school districts.

    You just did not see that dynamic in Portland in the 1970s, instead civic energy went into things like starting the light rail system. Race is certain an issue in Portland but it is nothing, nothing like what it does to city politics in metro areas with large black populations.

  4. What is unfortunate is that the author cited Indianapolis, as none progressive when the city has done a lot (in the past 8 years) to redo a whole district, while at the same time trying to keep housing affordable. But I guess, that's not progressive.

  5. I agree with the intent of both comments, although I don't have specific familiarity with Kansas City and Indianapolis. The absence of more diversity does not imply a lack of tolerance among the population, and many other cities have spurred redevelopment in an intelligent way. The media is very focused on Portland, though. Hardly a week goes by without another article highlighting or at least mentioning Portland in the New York Times.