In a season already fraught with bad news – Arkansas executions, skyrocketing arms sales, more black teenagers shot by police – a page-8 headline in the last issue of Eliot News stopped me cold: “Major Expansion Project Planned for Legacy Emanuel Medical Center Campus.” For me, those 10 words echoed the hospital “expansion” that dismantled the last of Eliot’s African-American community, 44 years ago.
A native Oregonian, I happened to be roaming outside the state at the time, though in 1994, when I moved to Eliot and began doing oral history, several of the older residents related personal accounts of the chain of forced displacements that began with whole blocks of homes and businesses torn out in order to erect the Memorial Coliseum. There swiftly followed more blocks razed to install the Minnesota Street section of the I-5 freeway and to make way for the Portland Public Schools offices at 501 N Dixon.
Emma Brown, my neighbor across Rodney Avenue, related how she and her husband moved to Vancouver from Biloxi, Mississippi, after the war. When Finn got hired on at Rich Manufacturing, they shifted over to Portland and took an apartment on Benton Avenue. “Right where the coliseum is sitting,” she explained. Their building was torn down in the late fifties, with no relocation money given to renters, but they were able to find a new apartment a couple of blocks away.
“It was sitting right on the corner of Hancock,” Mrs. Brown told me. “We had a kitchen in one room and a bed in the next room.” But then came another “blow down,” forcing her and Finn to move again. “They have the school district there now,” she observed.
In 1948, when 6,300 African-Americans lost their housing in the Vanport flood, most had been redlined into Eliot (then called Albina). And now, as the African-American hub at the east end of the Broadway Bridge got displaced, they found lodgings further north, on both sides of Williams Avenue. There the Browns managed to buy a house, on Rodney Avenue. Fortunately they were south of Russell, which meant they were not in the path of the next relocation.
The federal Housing Act of 1949, aimed at eliminating substandard housing, had triggered a national trend to label certain communities “blighted” and target them for clearance.
By the time Emanuel learned that their grant had not been approved, the intersection of Williams and Russell, formerly the bustling center of Portland’s black business district was no more, and Emanuel now has a 52-acre campus, much of it still unused.
So that’s the good news: the new Oregon Burn Center, which is the reason for the current expansion, will be built on land the hospital already owns, on the west side of their huge campus, between N Kirby Avenue and Medical Office Building 2.
But the busiest commercial corner of the former African-American community is still open pasture. Four decades after the bulldozers charged through.
Bad memories lingered, especially of PDC’s hostility toward citizen input and the bargain-basement prices paid for their property.
As conspicuous a person, Paul Knauls, sometimes called “the mayor of Northeast Portland,” was among those cheated in the Eliot condemnations. In a 2003 interview, Knauls told me he was never compensated for the loss of Paul’s Cocktails, which sat at 19 N Russell. “In those days, if you had another business in another location, they didn’t give you any relocation money,” Knauls explained. “1970 is when everything stopped in that neighborhood.”
Today the tin-covered dome of the old Hill Building caps the Dawson Park gazebo, across the street from Immaculate Heart Church. At the time the Hill Building was demolished, it housed a drugstore on the main floor and apartments above.
However, administrators of the hospital – now known as Legacy Emanuel Medical Center – have clearly reflected on the pain of those relocations. In 2012, as they commemorated the institution’s 100-year anniversary, Legacy Emanuel took it upon themselves to apologize to the people affected and to Portland’s black community at large (many of them former neighbors).
They unveiled a permanent exhibit, hanging today in one of the hospital’s cafeterias, that tells the story of those anxious years. Acknowledging the Past, Embracing the Future consists of ten large panels of text and historical photographs that recount how African-American families owned homes and businesses within walking distance of the hospital and lost them. The exhibit names names. And not just names of homeowners, but of every child forced out with their parents.
An introductory letter accompanies the exhibit, signed Dr. George Brown, CEO of Legacy Health and Dr. Lori Morgan, CAO of Legacy Emanuel Medical Center.
Their letter reads, in part: “We believe it is past time for us to formally address the demolition of the North Albina neighborhood and the relocation of residents and businesses as part of an urban renewal program in the 1970s. The hospital did not conduct the demolition or relocation, but it was done largely on its behalf,” they write. “This process, and the way in which it was carried out, is one of the many injustices that were inflicted on the African-American community in years past.”
I find these sentences uncommonly moving, given the habit of institutions and corporations never to take personal responsibility.
Portland City Council, in contrast, has made plans and commitments that subsequent members of the council not only feel free to ignore, but are predictably apt to do so.
In 1988, for instance, Council adopted a Downtown Housing Policy committing the City to guarantee that 5,183 units of low-cost rental housing be kept affordable for the poor downtown. But with the changing composition of City Council, memory evaporated: over the next ten years, 26% of existing units were lost due to conversion to commercial use, demolition, fire, abandonment, or gentrification. The last time I counted (on behalf of Northwest Pilot Project, for decades the loudest voice reminding the City of its pledge), the inventory of downtown rentals affordable on a low income had dropped once again: by 2007, we were 1,803 units short.
No one is holding their breath waiting for the walls of City Hall to bear witness to Council’s betrayal of the housing promises – let alone, link the booming homelessness to any default on their part. It is equally unlikely that at PDC we would ever find an exhibit detailing their role of in the Eliot debacle.
In fact, PDC has even made it harder to find them: in May, they began operating under an alias. (On the subject of “Prosper Portland” see Professor Emeritus Carl Abbott’s guest editorial “Public agencies shouldn’t hide behind feel-good words”)
As for Eliot, my eyes were opened at a 2010 History Pub presentation on “Renewal and Removal in North/Northeast Portland.” There, Dr. Abbott, who had a long career as head of PSU’s Urban Studies Department, mentioned “blight” and then interrupted himself to add: “Blight was code for another “B-L. . .” word.”
Archivist Thomas Robinson, who has amassed a huge and valuable collection of historical photographs, followed with a show of visuals. Among the residences taken down were some beautifully tended homes and gardens. Not what anyone would call “blight.”
Then, in a 2015 presentation, Robinson pointed out that PDC had published, as early as 1962, a “Central Albina Study” that found Albina (as Eliot was known before 1968) to be a “worthless slum” and proposed clearing it in favor of cement warehouses and parking lots.
“With Emanuel, they found a perfect partner,” Robinson concluded.
I asked Kent Ford, former captain of the Black Panther Party, (Portland chapter active 1969-79) if he thought it possible that PDC was driving the entire effort to bulldoze Eliot south of Russell Street, and I got a passionate response.
“Of course! Of course!” Ford said. “It was just more of this Urban Removal, just like the Coliseum, when they moved all those blacks out of there. There’s another word for that: ethnic cleansing.”
No less prominent an entity as the City Club, in their July 29, 1971 “Report on Urban Renewal in Portland,” was critical of the tactics used by PDC and then-director Ira Keller in Eliot, particularly the lack of communication with residents until the condemnations were a fait accompli, and with an impatience with community reaction when it came pouring in. With bitterness still fresh over the original relocations further south, some citizens challenged the designation “blight” and had even suggested motives driven by racism or appropriation for profit.
Yet in the Emanuel letter, its authors take primary responsibility:
“Today, we operate what was then called Emanuel Hospital. We are not the same organization, but we now own both its name and its legacy. It falls to us to acknowledge what happened.”
For those new to Eliot who are curious about its history, I suggest you take an hour to visit the Heartbeat Café and study these ten carefully researched and illustrated panels. You don’t have to wander through long hospital corridors to get there, but can enter directly at 301 North Graham. Start at the far left end and read the beautiful letter, clear to the end:
“We cannot undo what was done, and we cannot restore the lost neighborhood. We are determined, however, to honor the memory of the neighborhood and the lives of its people. . . We do this because it is the right thing to do.”
This whole episode, from the refusal to loan money in Eliot to the day the bulldozers went silent is a long and complicated story that I have only barely sketched out here.
But I feel that Legacy Emanuel’s decision not to blame other players — not the bankers, realtors, developers, Congress, Housing Authority, Mayor Schrunk, PDC or any number of individuals and committees that created this perfect storm — is more than “the right thing to do.”
In fact, it verges on the noble.