PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — One of the last remaining African-American owned barber shops in Northeast Portland closed Tuesday, three days before PP&L was scheduled to shut off its power.
But owner Rickey Brame does not blame the utility company for the demise of Studio Six Nine Hair Design. The power is being shut off because of a construction-related dispute with a white-owned restaurant being built next door.
“This is all about gentrification. It’s like all the other black-owned businesses that got pushed out of the neighborhood by white-owned businesses,” says Brame, whose family owns both the barber shop and the building where it is located, at 543 N.E. Killingsworth St.
But Brian Alfrey, the co-owner of the restaurant under construction at 533 N.E. Killingsworth, says the accusation is unfair. Alfrey says he was born and raised in the neighborhood, and the dispute is the kind of thing that happens at redevelopment projects all over town, regardless of the races of the owners.
“This is a simple business matter that we’ve tried to resolve,” says Alfrey, the secretary of Alley Rally Inc.
At issue is the location of an electrical meter on the outside wall of Brame’s building facing the construction project. Because Alfrey’s project is being built up to the property line, there will no longer be enough room for PP&L meter readers to access it. So the meter needs to be relocated to the front of Brame’s building, even though he was not planning to ever move it.
A retired electrician, Brame says moving the meter will require much of the wiring in his building to be brought up to code. He estimates that could cost $50,000 or more because the building is so old. It was first built in 1922 and remodeled in 1948, he says.
“When you take out an electrical permit, the inspector will require you to bring everything else up to code. Everyone knows that,” Brame says.
Alfrey says he and his partner offered $10,000 to Brame to pay for moving the meter, an amount they thought was more than enough for the project. He says they were surprised when Brame turned it down.
“We’re improving the neighborhood by redeveloping a building that was in really bad shape,” Alfrey says.
Brame says the construction project could have shut down the entire building, including a beauty parlor in the rest of it. That’s because PP&L originally wanted two other meters on the side of the building moved, too. But because they are on an outside well set back farther from the property line, Brame was able to negotiate with PP&L to allow them to stay.
“At least PP&L was willing to work with us,” Brame says.
The building under construction, which formerly housed Keys Locksmith, had fallen into disrepair. Alfrey and his partner have demolished most of it, but preserved the distinctive brick facade for their new restaurant, which will be called The Keys.
The two men previously redeveloped a former service station into the Radio Room restaurant at 1101 N.E. Alberta St. Alfrey says their intention is to honor the neighborhood’s heritage by preserving as much of it as possible.
Brame says Alberta already has been gentrified by such businesses, and he does not want the same thing happening to Killingsworth. He says most of the barber shop’s customers already have been driven out of the neighborhood by rising housing costs.
“What I’m going to get is a restaurant where people will sit outside with dogs and not even say hello when I walk by,” Brame says.
However, there’s not much Brame can do to stop the street from changing. His other neighbor owns and operates a food cart.
Ross Caron, spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Development Services, says the city code does not require Brame to bring the entire building up to current standards. But Brame says that if he takes out a permit to move the meter, a city inspector will come out and find much of the electrical system isn’t allowed today.
“They may say I won’t have to bring the building up to code, but the inspector’s going to say you have to fix this and you have to fix that before they’ll turn the power back on,” he says.
So Brame decided to simply let the barber shop close and move its existing barber into a space in the beauty parlor. He says that makes the most economic sense, even though it means the end of a business that his father started many years ago. Brame points to his father’s experiences in Northeast Portland as proof his family has been been pushed around by gentrification in the past.
“My father’s first barber shop was where the Memorial Coliseum is now. The city gave him just a little bit of money for it. He moved to Northeast Tillamook, and then here when the family bought the buiding,” Brame says. The business is named for the year he graduated from Jefferson High School — 1969.
“All the athletes from there used to come here to get their hair cut,” says Brame, pointing to pictures of former customers on the walls of the barber shop that seems frozen in time.
During their negotiations, PP&L recommended that Brame contact Prosper Portland, formerly known as the Portland Development Commission, for financial assistance. He refused, however.
“My father taught me to do things myself and not depend on anyone else,” he says.
The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.