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On Gentrification

September 15, 2008

We’re hurting. Hard. The school I teach at is severely under-enrolled right now, and we keep losing kids. Why? Well, there are different reasons (many of them based on the transient population we serve*), but the biggest one is this: gentrification.

Now, when I talk about gentrification right now, all I’m talking about is property costs going up in certain areas, forcing out those who used to live in the area (usually those in a lower economic bracket). Usually this happens when the middle-to-upper-middle-class moves in. When coffee shops start popping up on every corner, hip bars and restaurants appear, and the streets get a little white-washed.

But this isn’t how it always is. It’s not always about race and the immediate area getting noticeably fancier. Sometimes, it’s so subtle that nobody is really aware of it except for people in certain situations that make them see it first-hand. Like those of us working in my school.

Because people who know Portland “know” the gentrified (or gentrify-ING, more specifically) areas of town: the Alberta Arts area, the Pearl, MLK (proceeding steadily northwards). But they wouldn’t really think of the area my school is in. Because it’s just not as obvious. Sure, the steady creeping is visible, but not far enough that you would think of this as a “gentrified” neighborhood.

Partly because it’s not necessarily people of color that are getting moved out. Most of those we’ve lost who have had to move far out of town to find affordable housing are white kids and their families (I guess that’s naturally how it works in a city as white as Portland). So it’s a lot less visually obvious when they are getting replaced by more white folks.

Second, there aren’t a lot of coffee shops around here. The fancy stores and boutiques haven’t crept in (and probably won’t for a while). In fact, the coffee shop that opened across the street has already closed. Because it’s just not that kind of neighborhood yet. There aren’t any condos on our main street.

But it’s coming. Oh, yes – it’s coming. Because the steady shift has already begun. In fact, it probably started a few years back, but now we’re starting to feel the first tremors, here on the ground. I’m watching kids that have finally found a school that works for them, where they can actually trust the staff around them, have to up and move out of town because of economics. Many of them.

So much so that our numbers are devastatingly low. Which is going to hurt our funding, which causes us to have to make compromises to make up for it, which leads to us not being able to do our best work. It’s this trend that has seen many public schools in Portland closed due to under-enrollment (and let’s just say it’s not the ones in the “better off” areas of town). It’s this trend that is squeezing the working-class of this city. And in this time of increasing gas costs, having to move FARTHER from work hurts all the more.

But there’s not much that can be done, as far as I can tell. The only people who really care about it or are affected by it are the ones without the power or voice to really DO anything. Many of the folks who work in organizations like mine trying to SERVE those people affected by this trend are also – ironically – the ones moving into these neighborhoods; being proud of the “diversity” of where they live while displacing the original residents. And then everybody else is excited about it all because it shows that Portland is in a time of “renewal” and has so many “up-and-coming” neighborhoods.

So who do I talk to to stop this? Is there really a point in trying? Are we just going to lose more and more kids until we become an alternative school for the children of the “hip,” middle-class liberals that replaced our original families?

I don’t really know. But it worries me. And bothers me. And saddens me when my kids keep coming in and telling me that they’re not going to go to this school anymore because they have to move. Sure – it’s all part of the job I took on. It’s all part of who we serve – and I am aware of that and able to handle it. But I still don’t like where this is all leading . . .

* I teach at an alternative middle school that serves primarily “at-risk” youth. I hate using that term because of how much it smacks of catch-phrase, but most people know what I mean by that. It’s kids who have gotten kicked out of the public school system or were otherwise unsuccessful for many different reasons (although poverty often plays a large part).

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