Trader Joe’s, the privately held retail grocery chain, has cancelled plans to open a store in a poor neighborhood in the northeastern section of Portland, Ore., following “negative reactions” from the local community.
The Portland African American Leadership Forum (PAALF) objected to the proposed development partly because it feared that the new retail complex would eventually push up rental prices in the area and drive out the local black community. PAALF officials cited that they held no animosity toward Trader Joe’s whatsoever but were concerned by the city government’s history of displacing African-Americans from their homes.
According to The Oregonian newspaper, California-based developer Majestic Realty Co. had plans to build an $8 million retail complex in a vacant two-acre lot in Northeast Portland at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Alberta Street. The project was to include a Trader Joe's store, as well as up to 10 other retailers and a 100-space parking lot. The Portland Development Commission (PDC) had already OK'd a deal to sell the acreage to Majestic for $500,000, leading to optimism from the city fathers of an economic renaissance in the deprived area. However, now that Trader Joe’s and Majestic have both backed out, municipal officials called the decision "a loss for the city” and particularly for Northeast Portland.
"When it comes to choosing Trader Joe's store locations, we are deliberate and work hard to develop store sites with great potential for success," a company spokesperson told The Oregonian newspaper. "We run neighborhood stores and our approach is simple: If a neighborhood does not want a Trader Joe's, we understand, and we won't open the store in question.”
Former state senator Avel Gordly of PAALF said at a press conference that the plan to open a Trader Joe’s was “just the latest in this long history” of businesses and political leaders driving out black people in the name of economic progress in Portland. “In the past, we have settled for far less,” Gordly added. “This is a people’s movement for African-Americans and other communities, for self-determination.”
PAALF had called for the city to construct affordable housing on the vacant lot (in conjunction with the Trader Joe’s project), among other demands for City Hall. They also asked the PDC to provide a modest small business assistance to existing shops and restaurants in a nearby shopping center called Vanport Plaza. In January -- in what was something of an unprecedented move -- PDC officials admitted that in the past they had undertaken projects that uprooted black communities, but nonetheless rejected the PAALF’s demand for affordable housing to form part of the comprehensive Trader Joe’s deal.
In late January, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also entered the fray. In a blistering op-ed published in the liberal Huffington Post, Dedrick Asante Muhammad, the NAACP’s senior director of economic programs, condemned the Trader Joe’s project as a new kind of “gentrification.” “Economic inequality has reached an epic height in our nation, shutting the doors of opportunity for millions of Americans,” Muhammad wrote. “In urban centers we see this growing inequality through gentrification. Too often the ‘development’ of urban centers means the displacement of low- and moderate-income longtime residents and new housing and amenities for the rich. A first step in ending the growing economic inequality, which is deeply tied to ongoing racial inequality, is to stop this displacement.” Muhammad further noted that in stark contrast to its image as a liberal bastion, Portland has a long history of gentrification and “urban economic disparities” that will persist as long as the “structural inequalities of our economy remain.” The upward redistribution of wealth through public-private partnerships, he said, “have rewarded real estate speculators, exporting longtime black residents and bringing in higher-income, predominantly white residents.”
However, some neighborhood residents said they were looking forward to Trader Joe’s opening and resented the PAALF’s stance. “All of my neighbors were excited to have Trader Joe’s come here and replace a lot that has always been empty,” said Nghi Tran. “It’s good quality for poor men.” (The property has been vacant for 20 years.) Tran, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, blasted the PAALF, noting, “They don’t come to the neighborhood clean-ups. They don’t [even] live here anymore.”
Some local businessmen also expressed their frustration. “There are no winners today,” said Adam Milne, owner of Old Town Brewing Co., which is located near the proposed Trader Joe’s complex. “Only missed tax revenue, lost jobs, less foot traffic, an empty lot and a boulevard still struggling to support its local small businesses.” Another resident, Kymberly Jeka, an artist, wondered: “Was there a vote? This should be re-evaluated. This is not what the neighborhood people want. This is terrible.”
Grayson Dempsey, who lives near the vacant lot, said Trader Joe’s would have revitalized the neighborhood. “I moved here when there were gunshots out the window,” Dempsey said. “I appreciate that [PAALF] is trying to talk about the origins of gentrification. That’s really essential, but they can’t stand up and say, ‘As residents of the… neighborhood, this is what we want.’ The residents of the… neighborhood want this to happen.”
Once the heart of Portland’s African-African community, Northeast Portland is now actually only one-fourth black, down from 75 percent in 1990. According to reports, blacks represent only about 6 percent of the city’s total population, numbering some 41,000 people. Thousands of African-Americans arrived in Portland during World War II to work in shipyards and the railroads. Also, according to PortlandPulse.org, unemployment among the city’s black population has generally run twice as high as rates for whites and Asians.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.