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Boise gets ready for bigger, better times

North Portland neighborhood, long neglected, embattled and resistant, grapples with gentrification and the challenge to keep it real

Nowhere has Portland faced a greater urban improvement challenge than in its Boise neighborhood.

In the mid-1980s, maybe only a half-dozen businesses were operating on the five-block North Mississippi Avenue commercial strip between Fremont and Skidmore streets in North Portland.

It was a grim, scary place rife with drugs, gangs, street crime, fear, prostitution, abandoned houses Ñ all the elements of urban decay. People were afraid to walk the streets.

Today, there are more than 40 businesses on the street. Restaurants, live music, coffee shops, a bike shop, a nursery, furniture makers, a home rebuilding center and even two recording studios may be the vanguard of a neighborhood that has its second street fair set for May 15 to May 17.

'It's going to be an interesting and fun street for Portland, racially diverse and full of artists and musicians,' said Philip Stanton, owner of the Mississippi Pizza Pub, 3552 N. Mississippi Ave.

What happened? For one thing, in 1999 the city of Portland created the Mississippi Historic District Target Area to improve public safety, upgrade housing and attract businesses.

The city brought an army of bureaucratic tools Ñ including home improvement loans, technical assistance and help Ñ in dealing with the new designation. And the results are now starting to play out.

Has the effort been a success? Maybe.

The city hasn't succeeded entirely in making sure that gentrification doesn't drive out existing residents. Yes, crime and drugs are down while optimism is up. But the area, home to about 4,000 people, still deals with undercurrents of racial and class mistrust in one of Oregon's poorest and most diverse neighborhoods.

Still, improvement is in the air. People walk to the shops by day; at night, live music can be found at the Mississippi, as Stanton's pizza place is known, where crowds and the music spill out onto the sidewalk on balmy nights.

The new Interstate MAX line is three blocks away, and neighbors hope that the low rents will attract more young artists who will help continue the revival. More than 60 percent of the neighborhood today is under 35, census figures show, a rate well above the city average.

'The street,' Stanton said, 'is going to become a Mecca of music venues.'

There are still plenty of boarded-up storefronts, to be sure, but renovation is under way in some buildings and developers are eyeing the potential in others.

This hasn't been an easy transition, though, and the growing pains are clear.

A few weeks ago, someone wrote 'White people out of North Portland' on one wall and 'Gentrification kills' on another. The work of an overeager young anarchist, merchants figure.

Gang signs used to be common, but the graffiti has grown more political recently, with anti-Bush, antiwar and pro-bicycle messages not uncommon from the activists who've settled there.

The graffiti comes in spurts and from a variety of sources, said Kay Newell, owner of Sunlan Lighting on Mississippi Avenue since 1991. Neighbors generally take it in stride, grabbing a bucket and a brush and quickly painting it over, she said. But it is frustrating, she said, because nothing much can be done to stop it.

Open-air drug dealing curtailed

Mississippi Avenue, populated in the 1800s by shipworkers of European descent, became home to blacks after the 1948 Vanport flood and was part of Portland's thriving postwar black community.

But in the 1950s, and 1960s, construction of Interstate 5 and Memorial Coliseum tore out businesses and scattered residents. As a result, Mississippi Avenue was cut off, customers moved away and the neighborhood fell into urban neglect, poverty and decay.

By 1985, when Leonard Smith opened his first Grandfather's Deli, many longtime residents were too afraid to walk the street.

'It was like Istanbul,' Smith said. 'Anything for sale on the street. They were making drug deals right there while they were stopped at the red light. We had to change the red light to a flashing light.'

Smith took to confronting the drug dealers with a shotgun. The tactic worked. Police would confiscate his shotgun after each encounter, but he always found another, he said.

In the 1980s, the neighborhood was about 80 percent black. Today, it is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the state, with more than 40 percent black, less than 40 percent white and 20 percent others, including Russian and Hispanic.

Boise offered a different challenge than other urban rehabilitation efforts, said Janet Bauer, who headed the project for the city. She said the city wanted to make sure that low-income residents weren't forced out by eager, upscale young people with money to spend on upgrading the low-cost housing Ñ a pattern seen in other neighborhood improvements.

'We want to see businesses and services that cater to the people here now, not that appeal to higher-income people,' said Dan Sadowsky, owner of the Purple Parlor, a cafe at 3560 N. Mississippi Ave.

How successful was the effort? Hard to tell, Bauer said.

Of neighbors who recently left the neighborhood, only 8 percent left because housing was too expensive, according to a recent survey the city commissioned a consultant to do for the Mississippi Historic District Target Area project.

'We want to bring people in'

Attracting improvements and investment means that property values will go up, Bauer said, allowing property owners to benefit, too. Among the big winners are owners who bought homes there three or four decades ago, most of whom are blacks, and now can realize big gains by selling.

But renters lose out when increased property values force rents up. And there are a lot of renters in the Boise neighborhood. Census figures show that 59 percent of the homes are occupied by renters, well above the citywide average of 44 percent. Upgrading the neighborhood certainly helps some residents, but those at the bottom of the economic scale can suffer.

'I don't think we've figured that one out yet,' Bauer said. 'People are still getting displaced, and we don't have the tools to do anything about it. A much more robust approach to displacement practices needs to happen if we're going to do anything about it.'

Sunlan Lighting's Newell says there's no doubt that the Boise neighborhood represents an old community that's in the throes of rebirth.

'There are some people angry at the changes and some people pushing to make it better,' she said. 'At the same time, we really want to maintain our character. We don't want to push people out, except the lawbreakers. We want to bring people in.'

The effort to upgrade aggravates old fears among longtime black residents. They remember how little attention they received during construction of I-5 and the coliseum. In those days, they had little political power and little access to the credit needed to start new businesses. Smith also faults bank practices, which he believes could have done more to help the area.

Some residents feel wary

Charles Ford, for one, is pleased that crime is down but doesn't think that conditions are a whole lot better.

'Yes, it looks better from an overall surface issue,' said Ford, a longtime resident of the Mississippi Avenue area. 'But don't take people and push them into no man's land. I don't have any problem with it becoming a busy, lively place. But help those who are here. Don't isolate us. The city has failed in its efforts.'

None of the new business owners is black, he said: 'They look like they came from the Hawthorne District.'

True, three black-owned business recently have been on the market.

Ella Sevier is selling the Soup and Soap, her renowned restaurant-laundromat that counts actor Danny Glover, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Portland Trail Blazer Rasheed Wallace among its customers. She's selling not because of anything to do with the street but because her husband and partner, Richard, died not long ago and she's ready to move on.

Similarly, the black-owned B&W Mart on Mississippi Avenue sold recently after one of the partners died. It's now undergoing renovation into a recording studio and cafe.

And Smith is hoping to sell his restaurant and retire to Alabama.

Bauer, who spent four years working with the neighborhood as head of the city project, isn't sure why the area hasn't attracted more minority-owned businesses.

'We'd love to be able to change that,' she said. 'The difficulty is, people have a hard time leveraging capital. Maybe it's discrimination or not enough equity.'

Aging, death and retirement among the longtime residents have a lot to do with why many are leaving, Smith said. The survey showed that a quarter of the local homeowners have been there for more than 20 years.

'The people who left here were the bad people,' Smith said. 'All the old people are still right here in the neighborhood. Now they can sit on their porches and walk around. None of the good people left.'

Contact Don Hamilton at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..