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.