Whose neighborhood is it?
- Janine Robben
- Portland Tribune - News
• McDonald's fight reveals an inner Northeast tug of war • Longtimers, 'gentrifiers' argue about who knows best Zoning battle ignites residents' passions
The fight is becoming familiar. McDonald's proposes a drive-through restaurant in an urban Portland neighborhood, and the Mac attack begins.
But the argument about the McDonald's proposed for Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard raises a bigger question confronting urban neighborhoods that are becoming 'gentrified.'
Who speaks for the character of a neighborhood in transition? Those who grew up there, or those who more recently have decided to call it home?
Danny Bell, 51, who grew up a few blocks from the proposed McDonald's, says it should be him and other longtime residents of the Eliot neighborhood.
Opponents of the McDonald's may be well-meaning, but they are mostly 'first-time home buyers, empty nesters, lawyers and developers from Southwest Portland who don't even live in inner Northeast,' Bell says.
But Constance Andersen, who bought a 102-year-old house on Northeast Grand Avenue 13 years ago, says she and other 'gentrifiers' have earned the right to represent the community.
'I bought in the neighborhood when it was not a popular place to be,' she says. 'I was told repeatedly, 'Live anyplace but (inner) Northeast.' '
McDonald's submitted its original plans to build a restaurant with a drive-through window at the former Raven Creamery site just south of Northeast Fremont Avenue in June, several months before abandoning its controversial plans for a similar drive-through restaurant on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard.
Its latest design went to the city's Bureau of Development Services on Nov. 1, and a public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 5. The site's current zoning allows a drive-through restaurant.
The site is just nine-tenths of a mile from another McDonald's at Northeast Weidler Street and Grand Avenue, one of a cluster of restaurants and fast-food eateries in that area.
It's also catty-cornered from a former McDonald's at MLK and Northeast Fremont Street that later became the King Food Mart. The market eventually closed and now is slated for mixed-use redevelopment by its current owner, the Portland Development Commission.
McDonald's chose the MLK site, which it has not yet purchased, based on its 'usual market, demographic and traffic analysis,' according to George Kyler, McDonald's real estate representative on the proposal. Kyler declined to provide details of that analysis to the Tribune.
A welcome investment
McDonald's plan has been supported publicly by the North Northeast Business Association as well as a few individuals, such as Bell, who are glad to see a business investing in an inner Northeast site.
Bill Leigh, chairman of the association's land use committee, says he thinks the fight about McDonald's comes down to a 'socioeconomic issue.' He says the opponents just don't like big businesses.
'I don't want to call them tree-huggers,' he says, 'but it (the opposition) is somebody who's not going to want a corporate thing, somebody who's going to vote for Ralph Nader.'
But Bell, who is black, thinks that the issue has more to do with race and income. He calls the opponents 'well-meaning white folks' who don't really know the neighborhood.
Bell, who grew up in the Eliot neighborhood, says he and his mother went to one public hearing on the proposed McDonald's, intending to testify on its behalf. But, he said, they left without doing so because testimony by the opponents Ñ who went first Ñ lasted for more than seven hours.
'I went to that hearing, and I didn't know one person,' Bell said. 'I didn't play with their kids. They weren't low-income, at-risk people, at least not from the core of the Eliot neighborhood.'
He is mystified by those who say that a McDonald's is a bad match for the neighborhood. 'MLK is a highway,' he points out. 'No matter how you dress it up, it's still going to be a highway.'
Bell looks around the neighborhood at lawn signs opposing McDonald's for offering minimum-wage 'McJobs.' 'For someone like me, who's never made more than $20,000 a year, $6.50 (an hour) is economically viable,' he said
'People who have come into our community within the last 20 years took advantage of the drug wars, bought houses for pennies on the dollar,' Bell says. 'Now they dictate what this community looks like.
'They make these comments abut the historic Eliot neighborhood. They weren't part of the historic Eliot neighborhood. My mother and I were. It's people like my parents who drove the prostitutes out; they're the ones that cleaned up the Eliot and King neighborhoods.'
Bell acknowledges that not all blacks in the Eliot neighborhood share his view.
'You can't drop the race card,' Bell said. 'People lose all rational thought. But if you can't have a rational conversation about race, how can you have a conversation about things like gentrification?'
Preference for individuality
Constance Andersen is willing to have that discussion about gentrification.
She opposes the McDonald's because she thinks it will detract from a neighborhood that is becoming more attractive.
'Is gentrification a bad word? No. At least not on this block,' says Andersen, who lives on Northeast Grand Avenue, near McDonald's proposed site and just inside the King neighborhood.
Andersen bought a 102-year-old house 13 years ago at what then was considered a 'wildly overpriced' $35,000, from a slumlord. She said she had to charge the down payment to her credit card because she didn't have the cash.
'I've paid my dues here,' says Andersen, a single woman who said she has spent thousands of dollars on the house during the years, struggled financially to keep it and rents out part of it to pay the mortgage. She says the value of the house had more than doubled since she bought it.
'These old neighborhoods are part of Portland's history and need to be preserved,' she says. 'Why would we want a McDonald's on MLK when we are working to protect the architecture and history of the area?
'A lot of people who are attracted to Northeast are attracted to its diversity, sense of history and sense of community. More and more, the people who move in here want to support local business. I'm sick of corporate businesses. They don't have the same sense of 'we belong.' '
Andersen has found numerous people who share her point of view. The Eliot Neighborhood Association, several surrounding neighborhood associations and a spun-off group of residents called the Friends of MLK oppose McDonald's plans. They point to potential problems with noise, trash, traffic and damage to the neighborhood's developing sense of individuality.
Neighborhood in transition
Wyman Winston, the PDC's director of housing, looks at the dispute from a psychological point of view.
According to Winston, a recent study showed that a disproportionate percentage of Portland residents who pay more for housing than the national 'affordable housing' standard Ñ 30 percent of gross income Ñ are living in inner North-Northeast. Those people, he says, may in fact support a low-cost restaurant but are unwilling to say so publicly.
'In the '90s, low-income people became the Willie Hortons of society,' he says. 'There are people with lower-class pocketbooks but middle-class values. These symbols of what are low income, i.e., McDonald's, become kind of a line in the sand. While the debate has centered on what appears to be an esoteric issue Ñ OK fast food, no drive-in Ñ these larger forces are driving people to take positions.
'This,' he concluded, 'is a neighborhood in change.'
Eliot and the other nine neighborhoods that make up inner North-Northeast Portland have changed dramatically during the last decade, both in their racial makeup and in the value of their homes.
After the 1948 Vanport flood destroyed that historically black section of Portland, many black families moved to inner Northeast neighborhoods. In 1990, census information shows that the Eliot neighborhood was 51 percent black and 43 percent white. The 2000 census showed a dramatic shift: Eliot now is 51 percent white and 34 percent black. (Before 1990, the city did not sort census data by race and neighborhood.)
The value of residential real estate in the 10 neighborhoods that make up North and Northeast Portland increased by more than 7 percent in the first 11 months of 2001, the highest rates in Portland, according to the Realtors Multiple Listing Service. But a predominant number of residents in these 10 neighborhoods have low incomes, according to the Portland Development Commission.
Lois Cortell of the PDC thinks that the frustration about McDonald's plans may be because of residents' high expectations for future development.
'Revitalization is finally happening on MLK, and a single-use, single-story McDonald's on an acre of property seems to many like a contradiction of the goals and values they told the city they wanted to see,' she says.