Portland film fest addressing gentrification

'De-Gentrifying Portland' screening Saturday at Sons of Haiti

"DeGentrifying Portland" features three films from nine young black filmmakers. (Facebook)
"DeGentrifying Portland" features three films from nine young black filmmakers. (Facebook)

PORTLAND (The Tribune) — A film screening this week delves into race relations in Portland, a hot-button issue made even more sensitive with the Ferguson protests here and nationwide.

“De-Gentrifying Portland” features the premieres of three short films made by nine young black filmmakers. The films address housing and displacement issues in Portland.

“The word gentrification is such a stale, frustrating paralyzing word,” says Sharita Towne, an artist who led an in-depth study of gentrification with local youth in Portland this past summer. “It’s great to add a prefix to it and say we’re doing something else right now.”

The first screening was Wednesday in East Portland at the Rosewood Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to making the Rosewood neighborhood prosper. The Rosewood neighborhood is the 15-block area around the intersection of Southeast 162nd Avenue and Burnside Street.

The other screening is in North Portland, from 2 to 4 p.m. this Saturday at the Sons of Haiti, the last remaining African American-owned business on Mississippi Ave.

“White Portland is implicated in gentrification,” says Rachel Gilmer, director of the African American Leadership Academy, part of the nonprofit Portland African American Leadership Forum. “It is really hard for people to own up to that. We sit in places where people say gentrification doesn’t exist.”

Gilmer’s group made its presence known in Portland this past spring when it protested the city’s move to bring Trader Joe’s to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The African-American leadership group objected to the city’s $2.4 million subsidy in what they felt to be a backdoor decision without input from the black community.

Trader Joe’s left the picture, and the city signed a deal for a Natural Grocers, which the African-American group says is a more acceptable anchor tenant for a development on the site.

Advocates are hoping the store will partner with the community to offer amenities such as gardening or cooking classes.

While gentrification can’t be reversed, “it’s really drawing a line in the sand right now,” says Towne. “We may not be able to reverse all of the effects, but at least we’re saying we’re done.”

Years of planning

The film festival hardly happened overnight. It’s been about a year in the works, coincidentally launching in the heat of the Ferguson protests.

This summer, Towne reached out to community groups to see what was being said about gentrification. She didn’t see anything involving youth.

Considering current events, she says, “The young people we’re working with are very thirsty to have these conversations.”

Using her background with the Black Creative Collective Brownhall (a play on town hall), Towne had the students spend time meeting with influential black leaders, educators and local artists.

The students walked through parts of North and Northeast Portland, did mapping and design projects, and recorded their work through photos, video and art.

“It was sad to hear from young people, ‘I don’t feel welcome anywhere,’ ” Gilmer says. “It’s empowering to create space where they’re able to say that and build solutions around it and center their perspectives.”

Some might say that along North Mississippi, North Williams and Northeast Alberta — where hip restaurants, cafes, bars and boutiques have sprouted in the past five to 10 years — gentrification has been a positive thing.

Towne, who lives in the Vernon neighborhood, says those people are missing the other side of the coin.

By her definition, “Gentrification is a negative term,” she says. “It’s not urban renewal. It’s people getting forced out. It’s not always an improvement for everybody.”

The “DeGentrifying Portland” program was made possible by grants from the Regional Arts & Culture Council and Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods.

Towne describes it as a “trans-media” event, featuring local hiphop artists, young black designers, and films by other local artists in addition to the students’ work.

Copies of a black-and-white photo book featuring work by 12 youth photographers, called “I am your Neighbor,” will be available.

“The idea is to spur action and conversations around these issues,” Towne says. “It’s not just about some public event, but this is how it begins — by listening to the youth, plugging their voices into different parts of the city.”

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