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Reclaiming stories, health and self

Older Black Portlanders stake their claim through OHSU study
Three smiling Black women in glasses, gloves and hats stand outside in front of a bush
From left, Vickie Naylor, Donna Maxey and Bernadine Clay share childhood experiences in the Albina neighborhoods, reclaiming their history and their place in the present as they take part in Dr. Raina Croff's Sharing History through Active Reminiscence and Photo-Imagery (SHARP) study, September 20, 2017. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

When I was in seventh grade at Mt. Tabor Middle School in southeast Portland, I participated in the annual class project of creating a trifold display depicting my family history, a project that would set me on a path to research I will discuss in an OHSU Marquam Talk Thursday, Nov. 19.

close-in headshot of Raina Croff, Ph.D., a smiling Black woman in glasses resting her chin on her left hand.
Raina Croff, Ph.D. (OHSU)

My mother, who is white, helped me document her family back to Ireland and England, including my grandmother’s Gurney family crest, even to the Mayflower and as far as back as 1066.

But on my father’s side, beyond his migration to Portland from Mississippi, beyond my grandparents’ and my 11 aunts’ and uncles’ lives as sharecroppers there, the trail went cold.

I couldn’t even say when my grandparents were born; Black births often went unrecorded.

So, on the big night, I stood in front of my trifold display in the gym, the iconic Mayflower, names, dates and family artifacts on one side and, on the other, an illustration my mom found of an African king and queen taking the place of the branches of my father’s family tree that had disappeared into the dark hold of a slave ship.

Eyeing the full displays of my nearly all-white schoolmates – some of whom had at one time or another asked why my mom was white, was I adopted, could they touch my hair – I once again felt different. And angry. Angry that our story was taken from us. Angry that I had to fill in the blanks with imaginary kings and queens.

Black and white exterior shot of the entrance to Paul's Paradise Night Club in Portland, OR; a white car is in the foreground.
Paul's Cocktails was one of many Black-owned businesses along Northeast Russell Street in 1969. (City of Portland Auditor's Office)

At Beloit College in Wisconsin, I set out to reclaim stories. Studying archeology, I grew fascinated with cultural remnants from West Africa like blues music and the banjo, call-and-response singing, gumbo and Coco-cola thanks to the Kola nut, braided hair styles, and stories like Brer Rabbit. These weren’t imagined fill-ins but real bits and pieces that connected African Americans to our African roots.

Disappearing community

Yet during summers home, I was struck by the rapid changes happening in the historically Black north and northeast Portland neighborhoods where my father and my Grant High School friends lived. The N.E. 15th Avenue corner store where we bought candy in the early ‘90s was now Foster & Dobb’s selling “farmstead cheese, cured meats, craft beer, wine and hand-pulled espresso drinks.”

And with the corner store went the Black community.

From 2000 to 2010, the 10 neighborhoods surrounding Northeast Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard lost nearly half their Black population, going from 13,331 residents who identified only, or in part, as Black or African American in the U.S. Census to 7,270 residents, a trend that has only continued. Already dubbed the “Whitest City in America” (77% white) in 2015, Portland was also among America’s fastest gentrifying with 58 percent of eligible Census tracts gentrified since 2000.

But this was not just a turnover of families and businesses as happens in every neighborhood over time. This was the erasure of their homes, their businesses, their landmarks. Small commercial buildings and homes on Mississippi, Williams and Alberta were torn down to make way for multi-story condo and commercial space, or renovated into coffee shops, restaurants, bars, galleries and boutiques selling indie fashion and $200 designer jeans.

Outdoor, street-level shot of the Cook Street Apartments, a tall, beige building with a 'now leasing' sign in Portland, OR.
Gleaming new condo and apartment buildings began sprouting up more than a decade ago along North Vancouver and Williams avenues in this once-majority Black Portland neighborhood. (OHSU/Erin Hoover Barnett)

Our history was once again disappearing.

Even more painfully, it was preordained.

When Black families were steered through exclusionary real estate practices into inner north and northeast Portland, called Albina, after the Vanport Flood of 1948 wiped out the integrated shipyard worker community further north, banks took to denying them mortgages and home improvement loans.

So while they could live in Albina, Black families struggled to own homes. If they managed to buy on contract or through other predatory lending means, they couldn’t borrow money to keep them up. Meanwhile, Black children were relegated to substandard neighborhood schools, and parents faced hurdles to land decent-paying jobs or break into middle class professions. Black-owned restaurants, stores and businesses, while plentiful, were denied business loans or liquor licenses to spruce up or make a real go of their ventures.

A former neighborhood association leader in one of our focus groups shared, “Back in ’89, we started cleaning up Alberta Street. And I said, ‘Oh, it would sure be nice if we can have Alberta look similar to Hawthorne [street].’ I had no idea that would happen [with gentrification]. [Black people] had all kinds of businesses up and down Alberta… The city would not give us loans.”

The opportunity wasn’t lost on the Crips and Bloods. The street gangs and the crack cocaine trade came up from South Central L.A. in the late 1980s and found pockets of dispirited adults seeking escape and kids – like some of my high school classmates – looking to belong. By the time I graduated in 1995, gang shootings were so common in these neighborhoods that they stopped making the cover of The Oregonian’s Metro section unless someone died.

In 1990, The Oregonian had documented the systematic disinvestment in the Albina neighborhoods; the name of its award-winning series: “Blueprint for a Slum.” 

The blueprint came complete with a convenient narrative for what would come next.

Resourceful and strong

Soon the “inner city” moniker morphed into “close in,” and the “strong bones” of the Victorian homes and 1920s bungalows and walkable streets with old storefronts attracted young professionals seeking affordability and developers drawn to a creative and lucrative challenge. Encoded in the media’s praise of the hip new restaurants and coffee shops, organic grocers and doggie-daycares, condos complete with bike garages — was a familiar white savior subtext: gentrifiers “saved” these violent, run-down neighborhoods.

Black and white photo of a 1963 NAACP parade, showing a group of about 50 men, mostly Black and wearing suits or trenchcoats, following a drummer around a residential street corner.
Portlanders march from Dawson Park at North Williams Avenue and Monroe Street to the federal courthouse as part of the NAACP Medgar Evers Memorial March for Democracy in Alabama in 1963. (Oregon Historical Society)

Yet what and who was there before, invisible to the newcomers and too often to the media, was a small, intensely close-knit Black community born of necessity to survive. A community of people like my dad with a shared experience of racism and hardships that made them strong, resourceful and brimming with purpose.

One of my focus group participants recalled, “My parents said, OK, this isn’t going to be Texas. We are going to fight. We had protest marches and everything. My parents took us to NAACP meetings in the basements of churches … . All the churches were connected.”

This was the community that rallied around youths like me, with after-school science programs like Math Engineering & Science Achievement (MESA), scholarships from service organizations like The Links, Incorporated and church-sponsored activities.

By the time I moved back to Portland in 2007, Yale Ph.D. in anthropology in hand, many families, not realizing that their homes were goldmines, had sold for far below market to speculators. Some reasoned that maybe they, too, should get away from the crime that dominated the news coverage of their neighborhoods.

Many moved to the city’s edges, far from the neighbors who looked like them, the churches, hair salons, familiar shops and community centers. Those who stayed in inner-north and northeast became like strangers in their own land.

“When we were growing up, [Black people] just saw each other at school, at church, at the Salvation Army. I mean some place we saw each other … . Now that it’s just more dispersed … . [people] are isolating. They’ve become reclusive … . As we get older, that’s not good,” said another focus group participant.

But this time I was no longer the seventh grader with my missing family history on display amid a noisy gymnasium. Now I was a researcher at OHSU.

My mentors, the late Dr. Linda Boise and Dr. Jeffrey Kaye of the OHSU Layton Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Center, embraced my vision of bringing Black history and culture into my work.

Research shows the socio-economic inequities and stressors that contributed to the decline of Black neighborhoods were also impacting Black adults’ cognitive health, driving risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia to more than twice that of whites.

Racism had not only eroded their quality of life, it was robbing them of their memory.

Raina Croff directs participants in her Sharing History through Active Reminiscence and Photo-Imagery (SHARP) study during a January 14, 2020 walk along North Williams Avenue with guest Camara Jones; the photo includes 5 Black women standing together on a sidewalk in a residential neighborhood.
Raina Croff directs participants in her Sharing History through Active Reminiscence and Photo-Imagery (SHARP) study during a January 14, 2020 walk along North Williams Avenue with guest Camara Jones, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., second from left, in town to give the OHSU Hatfield Lecture. (OHSU/ Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Staking their claim

So, working with PreSERVE Coalition for African American Memory and Brain Health, I set out to not only elicit and preserve but deploy the stories of older Black adults to forestall their memory loss.

I gravitated toward images. My team and I gathered images of the businesses that used to be in Albina, like Joe’s Place on Alberta, the House of Sound on Williams, the Talking Drum Bookstore. Of social clubs like Mason Prince Hall on Russell, eating spots like Geneva’s Food and Drink and institutions like the Black Panthers’ Fred Hampton Memorial People’s Health Clinic. And images of people like our celebrated Black physicians Dr. Unthank, Dr. Reynolds and Dr. Pruitt, and social events like the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church Fashion Show, Albina Clean-Up projects, the Delta Sigma Theta skits and productions by the Portland Black Repertory Theater.

I used the images for my SHARP study in 2016, Sharing History through Active Reminiscence and Photo-Imagery, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and later the National Alzheimer’s Association and the National Institute on Aging.

We divided longtime neighborhood residents into trios to walk three times a week over six months, following 72 pre-designed one-mile routes. While walking, a smart tablet prompts them with “Memory Markers” – news clippings, photographs, advertisements and artifacts such as political campaign buttons – tied to certain locations, such as a school, church or the route of a civil rights march.

And we documented that the combination of vigorous walks and active reminiscence correlated with more energy, improved mood and modest improvement in cognitive assessments, particularly among those with mild cognitive impairment. 

Black and white photo of a Billy Webb Elks Lodge dance, showing a row of seated men and women in formalwear at the edge of a wooden dance floor.
Formal events were common at the Billy Webb Elks Lodge that still stands at 6 N. Tillamook Street. (Special Collections: Verdell Burdine and Otto G. Rutherford Family Collection, Portland State University)

But the real power of the SHARP study has been the experience of these Black adults physically walking down North Vancouver Avenue past the DIY Bar, New Seasons Market and the gleaming new apartment and condo buildings, talking instead about the Burger Barn, the Cotton Club, and Brooks Grocery that used to be.

Black motorists, who have become unaccustomed to seeing their peers in the neighborhood, roll down their windows just to say hello. White motorists do doubletakes; passersby take notice. “They look at you like, ‘Where are you coming from?’” one SHARP participant said.

BEAM (Black Educational Achievement Movement)'s homebase in a purple residential home in Portland, OR; there are multiple posters and signs affixed to the outside of the building with messages about community values and stolen blackhood
A Boise neighborhood homeowner tells a counter narrative, chronicling Albina history and the growing Black Educational Achievement Movement, founded by long-time resident Noni Causey. (OHSU/Erin Hoover Barnett)

SHARP participants aren’t anti-change. They’re pro-acknowledgment of what led to it: the systematic denial of property improvement loans yet the story of “blight” to justify renewal; the “if it bleeds it leads” media coverage of gang violence over stories of the community’s enduring strengths, setting up the “progress” narrative of gentrification.

SHARP walkers are not only reclaiming their history, they are claiming their place in the present by telling a more accurate and far richer story of the past.

This, now, is their purpose.

“It’s our history,” one walker told me. “It’s something I need to do.”

Please join Raina Croff, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology and medical anthropologist, OHSU School of Medicine, for her virtual Marquam Talk, “Redrawing Story Lines: Reclaiming Health for Older African Americans in Changing Neighborhoods,” and meet one of the SHARP participants during the question/answer period. Learn more, register and get the link here.

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