Bicycles and Race in Portland


The flashpoint for the gentrification conversation along Portland’s North Williams revolves around the bicycle. The cultural appetite for what the creative class likes and enjoys is in stark contrast to that of the African-American community. “North Williams Avenue wasn’t hip back in the late 1970s. There was no Tasty n Sons. No Ristretto Roasters. No 5th Quadrant. Back then, it was the heart of the African American community. It was wonderfully colorful and gritty.” As the black community saw their own businesses close down through economic disinvestment, they weren’t replaced with new businesses that they regarded as desirable. In the several hours I spent today at Ristretto I have seen roughly a hundred patrons come in and go out, plus others sitting outside on the patios of one of several nearby restaurants. Only three were African-American. As I mentioned earlier, the buildings that surround this coffee shop are home to many African-American families. And yet these new businesses do not appeal to their cultural tastes.

This all came to a head over a road project to reconfigure North Williams and Vancouver Avenue. Both are one-way roads a block apart that carry a high volume of bicycle traffic. Vancouver’s southbound traffic flows carry cyclists towards the Lloyd Center and downtown Portland and so sees its heaviest usage in the mornings. Williams on the other hand carries northbound traffic away from the city center which means its highest use is in the afternoons and evenings when bicycle commuters are heading away from the city center. But the focal point of all of this controversy is specifically tied to North Williams Avenue because this is where most of the new businesses are coming in.

A New York Times article featured this stretch of road including one of the business owners who opened up the beloved Hopworks BikeBar. “North Williams Avenue [is] one of the most-used commuter cycling corridors in a city already mad for all things two-wheeled. Some 3,000 riders a day pass by Mr. Ettinger’s new brewpub, which he calls the Hopworks BikeBar. It has racks for 75 bicycles and free locks, to-go entrees that fit in bicycle water bottle cages, and dozens of handmade bicycle frames suspended over the bar areas. Portland is nationally recognized as a leader in the movement to create bicycle-friendly cities.” Other national newspapers and magazines have also picked up on all of the buzz happening along North Williams. In Via Magazine, Liz Crain writes, “With 3,000 commuters pedaling it every day, North Williams Avenue is Portland’s premier bike corridor. Visitors, too, find plenty worth braking for on two blocks of this arterial, including two James Beard Award–nominated chef-owned restaurants and a slew of hip shops and cafés.” Sunset Magazine has several features on North Williams including: “Go green on Portland’s North Williams Avenue: Enjoy a low-key urban vibe thanks to yoga studios, indie shops, and cafes.”

With images of happy (white) hipsters pedaling bicycles, doing yoga, and eating gourmet food, the nation is given a taste of inner N/NE Portland that is not reflective of the reality of the neighborhood nor the tension surrounding gentrification. These magazines showcase things to see, do, and eat along North Williams with helpful hints like, “Scene: A low-key urban vibe, courtesy of yoga studios and green indie shops and cafes … Dress code: waterproof jacket and jeans with right leg rolled up … Native chic: A waterproof Lemolo bike bag … The Waypost: Creative types come to this coffeehouse for locally produced wine and beer, as well as live music, lectures, and classic-movie screenings.”

However, not all of the residents are necessarily in favor of these changes taking place. And there are certainly other national media outlets who have picked up on the “other side” of the North Williams story. “Located in a historic African-American community, the North Williams businesses are almost exclusively white-owned, and many residents see bicycles as a symbol of the gentrification taking place in the neighborhood.”

The tensions of racism and gentrification have culminated in ongoing debates over North Williams’ status as a major bicycle thoroughfare. Sarah Goodyear of The Atlantic Cities (CityLab) writes, “Sharon Maxwell-Hendricks, a black business owner who grew up in the neighborhood, has been one of the most vocal opponents to the city’s plan for a wider, protected bike lane. She can’t help but feel that the city seems only to care about traffic safety now that white people are living in the area. ‘We as human beings deserved to have the same right to safer streets years ago,’ she says. ‘Why wasn’t there any concern about people living here then?’” This picks us on the tension surrounding the North Williams project in general, and in particular the controversy surrounding repainting the traffic lanes to incorporate new designs which cater to the growing number of bicyclists who use this corridor.

Goodyear goes on to lay out both sides of the controversy:

Jonathan Maus, who runs the Bike Portland blog and has reported extensively on the North Williams controversy, thinks the city should have stood its ground and gone forward with the project, but wasn’t willing to do so in part because of the political weakness of scandal-plagued Mayor Sam Adams, who has been a strong biking advocate and is closely identified with the biking community.

“There’s been too much emphasis on consensus,” said Maus. “I’m all for public process, but I also want the smartest transportation engineers in the country on bicycling to have their ideas prevail.”

Maus, who is white, says the history of North Williams shouldn’t be dictating current policy, and that safety issues for the many people who bike on the street are urgent. “At some point as a city, you have to start planning to serve the existing population,” he said. “The remaining black community is holding traffic justice hostage. It’s allowing injustice in the present because of injustice in the past.”

In light of this, why is North Williams the flashpoint for controversy? The tension and angst is about more than simply repainting a roadway; it embodies the most visual representation of gentrification in inner N/NE Portland. For longtime African-American residents, as expressed above by Maxwell-Hendricks, she and others felt that they had simply been neglected for decades. This negligence took the form of economics, housing, and general concerns of safety. Their frustration is that it wasn’t until middle-class whites began moving into the neighborhood that these issues began to be addressed and rectified. This notion of systemic racism helped created this area and these same forces are at play in gentrifying this once predominantly black neighborhood.

The African-American community feels it has been slighted once again. The initial citizen advisory committee revealed the imbalance: “Despite North Williams running through a historically African American neighborhood, the citizen advisory committee formed for the project included 18 white members and only 4 non-white members.” This is why the push for safety along the North Williams corridor has caused such an uproar. “The current debate about North Williams Avenue––once the heart of Albina’s business district––is only the latest chapter in a long story of development and redevelopment.”

For many in the African-American community the current debate over bike lanes along North Williams is simply one more example in a long line of injustices that have been forced upon their neighborhood. Beginning in 1956, 450 African-American homes and business were torn down to make way for the Memorial Coliseum. “It was also the year federal officials approved highway construction funds that would pave Interstates 5 and 99 right through hundreds of homes and storefronts, destroying more than 1,100 housing units in South Albina.” Then came the clearance of even more houses to make way for Emanuel Hospital. For more than 60 years, racism has been imbedded in the storyline of what has taken place along North Williams.

For many, the North Williams project is more than repainting lines. As Maus reported, “A meeting last night that was meant to discuss a new outreach campaign on N. Williams Avenue turned into a raw and emotional exchange between community members and project staff about racism and gentrification.” In his article, Maus noted the painful history of Albina as the primary catalyst for the tension today.

Lower Albina—the area of Portland just north and across the river from downtown through—was a thriving African-American community in the 1950s. Williams Avenue was at the heart of booming jazz clubs and home to a thriving black middle class. But history has not been kind to this area and through decades of institutional racism (through unfair development and lending practices), combined with the forces of gentrification, have led to a dramatic shift in the demographics of the neighborhood. The history of the neighborhood surrounding Williams now looms large over this project.

It was at this meeting that a comment from one of those in attendance changed the entire trajectory of the evening as the conversation quickly moved away from the proposed agenda. One woman said, “We have an issue of racism and of the history of this neighborhood. I think if we’re trying to skirt around that we’re not going to get very far. We really need to address some of the underlying, systemic issues that have happened over last 60 years. I’ve seen it happen from a front row seat in this neighborhood. It’s going to be very difficult to move forward and do a plan that suits all of these stakeholders until we address the history that has happened. Until we address that history and … the cultural differences we have in terms of respect, we are not going to move very far.”

The crux of the conflict is not about bicycles nor bike lanes nor even new businesses and amenities. It is about racism. The push for creating a more bikeable and bike-friendly commuter corridor has raised the ire of longstanding residents who had felt neglected and voiceless for decades. “The North Williams case study is an example of the City inadequately identifying, engaging and communicating with stakeholders.”

Now that more whites are moving in are changes taking place. “Some question why the city now has $370,000 to pour into a project they say favors the bike community while residents for decades asked for resources to improve safety in those same neighborhoods. To the community, the conversation has polarized the issue: white bicyclists versus the black community.” But is this issue completely race-related? Portland has been and continues to expand its bicycle infrastructure throughout the city, not just in N/NE Portland. There are also several other main bicycle corridors that receive a high volume of bicycle commuters, but since they do not go through any ethnic neighborhoods they have not created this much controversy. This does not minimize the tension and angst over the North Williams project; nor does it downplay the role that racism has played throughout the history of that community.

Note: Footnotes in the original text have been removed. Some hyperlinks have been added.

This is a condensed chapter excerpt from The Bohemian Guide to Urban Cycling.

Coffee and bicycles define Sean's urban existence who believes the best way for exploring cities is on the seat of a bicycle as well as hanging out in third wave coffee shops. Sean is an urban missiologist who works in a creative partnership between TEAM as the Developer of Urban Strategy and Training and the Upstream Collective leading the PDX Loft.

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There are a few things

There are a few things wrapped up here. First, there is general tension in Portland about any bike improvements which hamper the auto traffic. This project on Williams was a doozy because it is one of the limited number of north/south routes and this project reduced two car lanes to one through the middle of the district.

The 3,000 cyclists coming through here are dwarfed by the number of cars every day, but somehow Portland seems to think that the cyclists needs trump the needs of the many more motorists. Which is why the bike advocate's quote is so ironic: “At some point as a city, you have to start planning to serve the existing population." The existing population drives, dimwit.

But in this case, the old residents are also correct. Their wasn't a lot of interest in investing in this area basically ever. In fact, super-sized blocks remained vacant for decades. The urban renewal of the 1950's was about clearing the "slums" with big civic projects, not investment for the good of the neighborhood. When the city comes in and says "we need to upgrade Williams into a bike corridor for cyclists" it is pretty easy to see which residents they are catering to.


Sounds like all those white Portland hipsters could give the fine citizens of Birmingham lessons in structural racism, doesn't it? It always amazes me how racial justice claims suddenly get put "in perspective" when its your ox being gored. Even in this article, we have the bike blog hipster dismissing racial justice claims with whines about "traffic justice" for the city his individual life is lived in and which he therefore cares about, while offhandedly describing betterment projects long before his time as "unfair development." I'll bet it wouldn't take me 5 minutes to find some blog entries or other scribblings from any number of Portland traffic justice hipsters decrying "structural racism" in this country (by which they mean Everywhere Except Where I Live), and photos of them at die-ins wearing I Can't Breathe t-shirts yelling at other white people to check their privilege. And yet we wonder why the world no longer takes America seriously.

Yes and no

Some people love cars and see bike infrastructure as a fad, a hindrance to traffic flow, a waste of tax money that could be spent on roads for hard working regular folks instead, or whatever. Other people think bike infrastructure is infinitely less expensive than highway improvements and better for small mom and pop shops rather than big box stores out on the side of the freeway, blah, blah, blah. That battle will play out differently in different places based on local culture. The bikers won't win in North Dallas. The cars probably won't win near downtown Portland. I will say that it's disingenuous for the anti-bike crowd to suddenly turn to a racial inequality argument this late in the game. It just rings hollow.

The idea that Albina was a thriving middle class black neighborhood before hipsters destroyed it with gentrification isn't accurate. Until about the year 2000 Albina was an economically devastated area where 30% of the housing stock was abandoned and there were a grand total of six surviving businesses limping along. See here:

The old black neighborhoods in Portland were intentionally bulldozed wholesale after WWII as part of race-based "slum clearance" to make way for Emanuel Hospital, Interstate 5, and the Memorial Coliseum. Those displaced black people were then pushed out to Albina which was rapidly being abandoned by middle class whites who were moving to newly built subdivisions out on the edge of town. The streetcar in Albina was removed in 1948 in favor of highway projects oriented toward the suburbs. Public investment of every kind was directed away from these newly black areas. Albina was then redlined by banks and insurance companies so mortgages were hard to come by for the new black residents. It was all downhill from there. So much for cars and roads helping the black middle class.

If you know Albina (now called the Alberta Arts District) you'll know that many of the people who benefited most from gentrification were in fact black and latino folks who had a good head for business, bought up cheap property in the 1990's when no one else wanted it, and worked very hard to revive the neighborhood side-by-side with artists and others. Many of those people have made a lot of money renting and selling to newly arrived white hipsters in recent years. Roslyn Hill first among them. Nice lady - and a real good capitalist.

Albina is the name for a

Albina is the name for a large swathe of NE Portland. It was a distinct city until the late 1800's. While it includes the Alberta Arts area and others, the area around N Williams and where the urban renewal clearances took place in the 1950's and 60's was considered the heart of the Albina. Around what are now the Boise and Eliot neighborhoods.

The backstory?

Why don't black people ride bicycles?
I have noticed the same thing in Denver.