A Vision of Albina

I don’t believe the Eliot News has ever printed a book review; however, Mitchell Jackson is a product of the neighborhood (raised in King) and the book is a memoir about growing up in Albina.

The recently published book, Survival Math, reminded me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Blue Highways, although was not well written. All three are male confessionals with significant philosophical, literary, and psychological digressions from the authors’ troubled, male perspective. Zen and Highways use interstate travel as a frame, while Math’s frame is Inner N/NE Portland and Vancouver and places of significance to the author and others in his circle of friends and relatives during the 1980-2000 era.

I am not drawn to memoirs, but Mitchell’s interview on OPB piqued my curiosity. I moved to Eliot in the late 1970s, about the time Mitchell was born. His recollections of life in Albina are consistent with my own. In contrast to a current myth being promoted, Albina in the 1960-2000 period was not Wakanda on the Willamette, but the locus for “prostitution”, drugs, and gang shootings and murders. This lawlessness was tolerated, perhaps even encouraged, to confine it to Albina and protect the rest of the (largely white) city. Mitchell describes his role in this mayhem. Although he was a bit player, he was imprisoned for multiple years. He talks about drug dealing, “pimping”, and “gangbanging” from the inside with as much honesty as he can without, I suspect, confessing to additional offenses. His digressions include history lessons on slavery, the origins of Portland gangs, and the night life of Portland’s Black underworld. He also explores the philosophical and psychological roots for his and his community’s behavior rooted in America’s systemic racism and paternalism. He takes responsibility for the disruption he caused, including about 60 pages of reflection on his abuse of women.

This book is an important contribution to the history of Albina and of Portland. The community he describes was one of struggling families and choices made to survive in the face of an establishment that either ignored or actively targeted it. It isn’t a complete history because it is a personal narrative. Although he comments on the contributions the Rose Quarter, I-5, Emanuel, and Blanchard projects made to dissolution of the Black community in Albina formed after the Vanport flood. It doesn’t cover the decline of Union/MLK in the 1960s and 70s and its subsequent home for prostitution and heroin dealing. He did not experience that history. The local narrative ends when Mitchell leaves for school and his career as a professor and author in New York.

Periodically Mitchell returns to Portland. During a recent book tour he visited his old neighborhood during his interview on OPB. He was asked about the obvious transformation since his life there. I was stuck by his response. Rather than bemoaning what was lost, he compared it to the transformation of the largely German/ Northern European community by the Black population that moved to Albina in the late 1940s and 50s. In other words, he described the change as a normal part of urban development. He also noted it was obviously much safer than in his day, and that was a positive development. He did recognize some of his neighbors but added many from his former life are likely dead or in jail, a sobering vision of Albina as it really was.

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