My View: In white-majority city, see what's missing
It's a gorgeous summer evening at Dawson Park.
Families laugh across picnic blankets, children monkey up ropes on the playground, couples sway to the sounds of Locarno, a Mexican folk band from Vancouver, British Columbia.
The crowd, like Portland itself, skews white but there's ethnic diversity here: Asians, Latinos, African-Americans, everyone enjoying the night. The nexus feels especially meaningful given the city's soul-searching on race following the MAX attack in May, when two men were fatally stabbed after confronting a fellow train rider shouting racist and anti-Muslim slurs at two teenage girls.
Portland's current introspection is necessary and arduous, and, one hopes, generative and lasting.
The makeup of the concert crowd also is meaningful because of the setting. Dawson Park served as the green beating heart for a vibrant, deeply rooted historic community of black North Portlanders, a community upended by racist lending policies and forced moves, and more recently displaced by gentrification.
The park sits within a newly christened "Williams District" — a designation created by businesses wanting to promote the recent infusion of new shops and restaurants along the Williams Avenue corridor. Brochures about the neighborhood lie on an unmanned information table and one section alludes to the past: "Does History Pique Your Interest? View the community displays at New Seasons Market and Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. Also, watch the Oregon Public Broadcasting documentary 'Portland Civil Rights: Lift Ev'ry Voice' for an eye-opening discussion about the history of our area."
One is encouraged by this, grateful for the invitation to learn more. Then the rest of the brochure starts to register, the meat of it, as it were: the beautifully art-directed, expertly photographed images of lovely Williams District life.
There's white people enjoying beers at an outdoor cafe, a blue bike rack featured prominently in the foreground. There are white women smiling their way through barre exercises in a light-filled studio. And look, there's Dawson Park itself, a white family walking through this very playground, following an especially winsome blond-haired boy proudly peddling ahead on a red tricycle.
I know little about business marketing, but a friend of mine with decades of experience tells me that aspirational advertising goes both ways. It's not just about showing your audience that they too could have this, be this. It's also a reflection of what the marketer is hoping for, either consciously or unconsciously, in terms of the world they want to bring into being and sustain.`
Still, it's far too easy to criticize the promoters' efforts without first asking hard questions of ourselves: How often do I notice who's missing in the room, around the table, on the panel, at the dais? Do I even register who's figuratively and literally being left out of the picture in my day-to-day life, in our collective, civic life? Most importantly, if I am aware, what am I doing to change things?
In the end, it's not only underrepresented communities that are diminished by a white-washed, air-brushed version of the city that we love. It's all of us. By exploring and embracing the breadth of human experience — including race, gender, age, nationality, language, faith, disability, and socio-economic background — each of us is immeasurably enriched.
Merriam-Webster defines diversity as "the condition of having or being composed of differing elements," which one might say is another way to define, simply, life. At the Dawson Park concert last Wednesday evening, such life was on full display. There was a grandmother rocking her grand-baby to the music, two strangers delicately picking their way through dance steps, a man in a wheelchair tilting his head up to the sky. The fullness of the night was hard, if not impossible, to capture in a single image or series of images.
But it would've been well worth trying.
Angela Uherbelau is a writer who lives in Northeast Portland. Read more of her writing at