How Gentrification is Changing St. Johns

“What population(s) originally lived in St. Johns, and are those communities suffering now as a result of gentrification?”Leah Drew

That’s the winning question from our latest PDXplained voting round. Here’s what we learned, starting from the very beginning:

The area now known as St. Johns was originally inhabited by members of the Chinook tribe, which had villages up and down the Columbia River basin before American settlers arrived and committed the original act of gentrification.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that St. Johns started becoming the town we know today.

Thanks to a new rail line connecting Portland to St. Johns, major businesses like Portland Woolen Mills and St. Johns Lumber Co. either opened or relocated there, creating industrial jobs and attracting a blue-collar workforce to the peninsula.

St. Johns has held onto its industrial identity better than other parts of Portland (the 108-year-old dive bar Slim’s is just one example), but there are plenty of signs of gentrification downtown, from new apartment buildings to high-end coffee shops.

Housing prices are also rising faster than almost anywhere in the city, and the community is becoming less racially diverse at a time when Portland as a whole is becoming more diverse.

Anxiety about change in the neighborhood bubbled up publicly last month at a community meeting about a proposed tiny home village for homeless neighbors.

Despite the success of a similar tiny home village in neighboring Kenton, many long-time St. Johns residents (most of them white, we’re told) packed into the room to protest.

The backlash had echoes to another dark moment in St. Johns history, when residents assaulted a group of East-Indian immigrants who’d come to work in the town’s lumber mills.

The good news is that St. Johns does have groups actively working to prevent displacement, such as the nonprofit St. Johns Center for Opportunity and its allies on the St. Johns Housing Action Plan.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood has kept many beloved traditions alive, including the St. Johns Bizarre and the St. Johns Parade, which are both happening this weekend.

And it’s also home to one of Oregon’s most diverse high schools, Roosevelt High, where 73 percent of students are non-white and more than 20 languages are spoken in the halls.