CNN show blames hipsters for Portland gentrification

The episode airs Sunday

COURTESY CNN - Alex Bernson, writer, talks with W. Kamau Bell on for an upcoming episode of United Shades of America. Bernson denies being a hipster, despite the obvious signs.

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — What do the Ku Klux Klan, San Quentin prison and Portland hipsters have in common?

According to African-American stand-up comic and political provocateur W. Kamau Bell, they are all harming minorities. He makes his point about Portland hipsters in the most recent episode of his CNN series, “United Shades of America.”

In the episode — which runs at 10 p.m. Sunday, May 29 — Bell blames trendy young whites for driving longtime minority residents out of inner Portland neighborhoods. Although he admits that is a simplistic explanation for gentrification, Bell tells the Portland Tribune, “One group moves in and the other moves out.”

The episode repeats at 10 p.m. Friday, June 3.

What: “United Shades of America”
Host: W. Kamau Bell
Episode: “Is It Cool to be Hip?”
Subject: Portland gentrification
When: 10 p.m., Sunday, May 29
Repeats: 10 p.m., Friday, June 3
Where: CNN

Bell says the Portland episode was no accident. He has performed at local comedy clubs several times in the past, and was stuck by the city’s racial make-up even before his first show.

“The first time I was scheduled to appear in Portland, I looked it up in Wiki(pedia). When I got to demographics, it was, like, 76 percent white. And I thought, how can that be? And when I got here, the crowd was even more white. And I was upset about that and brought it up, and they were, like, we don’t want to go there,” Bell says.

The episode is titled “Is it Cool to be Hip?” In it, Bell interviews several young Portlanders he describes as hipsters. None accepted the description, despite their tattoos, piercings and designer glasses.

“I keep reading that Portland is one of the best places to live. They should say, one of the best places for white people to live,” Bell says.

The episode also includes scenes where local African-Americans talk about how much gentrification has hurt them personally. In one, members of a predominantly black church cry when describing the changes to their neighborhoods to Bell.

“That was powerful,” says Bell.

COURTESY CNN - W. Kamau Bell and with Ural Thomas, a longtime local musician, discuss gentrification in Portland. Thomas misses his old North Portland neighborhood but still likes living in town.
COURTESY CNN – W. Kamau Bell and with Ural Thomas, a longtime local musician, discuss gentrification in Portland. Thomas misses his old North Portland neighborhood but still likes living in town.

In another scene, Bell walks along Northeast Mississippi Avenue with Ural Thomas, an older African-American musician. Thomas points out upscale, white-owned businesses that have replaced the black-owned businesses he grew up with.

“He was nostalgic for his old neighborhood,” Bell says.

Bell admits that gentrification is an issue in many cities, including San Francisco, where he currently lives. There, predominantly white high-tech workers are displacing lower-income residents.

“San Francisco had a higher minority population to start with. In Portland, it’s just more clear,” Bell says of the racial aspect of gentrification.

In the first episode of the series, Bell met members of the Ku Klux Klan in Kentucky and Arkansas, and even attended a cross burning with them. In another, he toured San Quentin, where the inmates are disproportionately minorities.

Bell hopes the episode will prompt Portlanders to talk about what is happening in the city.

“People told me they didn’t feel comfortable talking about this, but they need to have conversations, even if they can’t solve it,” Bell says.

Bell previously explored controversial race-related subjects in his late night FXX talk show, “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell” and the podcast “The Field Negro Guide to Arts & Culture “with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. In his new show, Bell travels the county with a documentary crew to locations where he says he does not feel welcome.

Despite the occasionally harsh tone of the episode, Bell says he likes Portland and plans to return for more comedy shows in the future.

“I will be back and people can talk to me up close,” Bell says.

Bell says the show has been getting good ratings and hopes it will be renewed for a second season.

The Portland Tribune is a media affiliate of KOIN 6 News


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