Your View: How Can Portland Stay Portland As It Grows? That’s the Wrong Question

Tiara Darnell is a freelance journalist, podcaster, and chair of the City of Portland’s Cannabis Policy Oversight Team.

Sometime between seasons four and five of Portlandia, after a two-year stint abroad, I moved from the Kingdom of Morocco to the City of Roses. I settled first in rural Oregon. A year later I settled in Portland proper. And a couple enlightening years after that, I settled for the natural beauty and the promise of this place despite its glaring shortcomings. 

I’m talking about its lack of racial diversity and its history of racial prohibition. Its integration and then systematic marginalization of communities of color. And its circumstances today as one of the fastest growing metro areas in the country, or the way I see it, one of the fastest growing cradles for whiteness.   

It’s a reality that makes me question my decision to live here. And those thoughts echo thinking ahead to the central question on this week’s Setting the Table event: “How can Portland stay Portland as it grows?”

To some, this topic may provoke a range of emotions; if the nostalgia for the idea of “old Portland” enters your mind, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s followed by feelings of loss and resentment for what this city has become.

Trust me. I’m from Washington, D.C. I know what it feels like when the party is lit then broken up aggressively by guests and their entourage you didn’t invite, if you catch my drift. When it comes to “old Portland,” we can’t talk about heads without talking about tails: As a Black Portlander — and yes, a relative but studious newcomer — I feel differently when I hear others yearn for what this town once was. 

Shade to anyone who talks about the “good old days of Portland” without stopping to consider who those days were actually good for. (Spoiler alert: Overwhelmingly it’s people with white privilege.) 

Some in that crowd will point to examples of Portland’s legacy of progressive leadership, such as in the 1960s when the city rejected freeway expansion and embraced public transit instead. Okay, but what about when the city forced out black residents of Albina and razed whole swaths of land to make way for “urban renewal” projects like I-5, Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Emanuel Hospital?

What about redlining, under-resourcing of our schools and over-policing that Black and other communities of color were subjected to? What about more recent efforts that accelerated what the 1960s and 1970s put in motion? The past is still present and those are significant injustices that still affect the city and its most vulnerable communities today.

How can Portland stay Portland as it grows isn’t the question we should be answering. Ask instead: “How can Portland live up to ‘Portland’ as it grows?” 

In other words, how can this city — established within a white utopia that specifically excluded people of color — live up to the idealized, romanticized image it has of itself?

How can it create policies that enable it to grow and thrive in a way that’s truly equitable for those it intentionally left behind in decades past? What impact might it achieve if its equity work were monitored and audited as its finances are? What impact could be achieved if leadership across sectors divested power from problematic entities like neighborhood associations and funded and worked meaningfully with community organizers and organizations serving the underserved?

Bottom line: How can Portland grow toward “Portland” for the sake of Portland?