Race and Community - On Portland's Northeast 14th Place by Ness Mountain
In February, 1995, when my partner and I bought our house on 14th Place, we thought this was a black neighborhood. That the whites were newcomers, moving in to gentrify. But we were wrong. This neighborhood has been mixed for at least thirty years. It’s interesting, the assumptions you make.
That summer, the street was full of black kids, hanging out, blasting their car stereos, presumably selling crack. At 11 pm, there might be thirty or forty kids out there. We stayed inside a lot, peeking out. When the house shook from the music, I went outside to ask them to turn it down, and they did, but we had no other contact with them. We were afraid of them, because some of them carry guns. At the time, it seemed like that was the neighborhood; as we eventually found out, these kids mostly weren’t even local. They just use our block to hang out.
For several months, we heard gunshots almost every night, often followed by squealing tires. Once or twice, kids ran through our bushes while gunshots rang out from a car down the block. I was shocked to see the kids “laughing” as they ran. It was exciting for them. No one got hurt. I was surprised to learn that many, perhaps most, drive-by shootings in Port-land don’t involve injuries. I almost relaxed.
Then Jody Gordon died on our street. It was December of 1995. This time, after the gunfire, there was a young man lying in the street. A friend crouched over him, screaming at him to stay awake, not to give in to it. After a long minute, I went out to try to administer first aid. I remember grabbing some clean pillow cases from a laundry basket.
They were just across the street, not fifty feet from our house. As I approached, the smell of alcohol was overpowering. A small, dark stain on the red underwear on his left groin was growing slowly. It looked like a bad place to be shot. His face was full of pain. He and his friend were twenty; soon, a boy about thirteen showed up, heavily intoxicated and dangerously hysterical. He was screaming at me to call the police, call an ambulance. He could not hear that they had been called already; by this time, the neighbors were out and shouting at him that the police were called. I wasn’t achieving anything, and it wasn’t safe out there. When I turned around to go inside, he hit me in the back of the head. Jody Gordon died around the time the ambulance showed up.
* * *
When my nine-year-old son heard the story, he was deeply affected. It was very important to him that I had tried to do something when the other neighbors stayed inside. We talked and cried about it.
In spray paint, on the concrete of the apartment building at the spot where he died, someone wrote “Jodie Goron RIP.” We put holly branches in the snow below that, and set candles burning. The young men poured beer on the little altar as they passed, a sign of respect for the dead.
Four more people have been killed on our block in the two years since then. It’s strange: I grew up reading about murder as a mystery, something far away, complex, rare and horrible. In reality, most of Portland’s murders are perpetrated by intoxicated children with guns. I don’t understand the real causes, but I think to myself—life is cheap to a child that no one cares for.
The sense of community in our neigh-borhood has suffered from all of this. There’s a strong feeling of alienation, as if each house were an island in a hostile sea. There is tension between white and black people, and the young and the old. Black families in the neighborhood have connections which go back decades. The older people seem very stable, even the elderly matrons who preside over the local crack house. But the younger people seem less connected to each other, more mobile, less grounded. As an outsider, I can’t understand the pattern, but I can feel something happening.
I have to gather my courage to cross the gap between white and black and interview a neighboring family. The door is answered by a young man, Lamar. He’s twenty-one, with a gentle, innocent face. I learn that the neighborhood is safer for me than for him. He’s not involved with the gangs, but he knows people who are, and that’s enough to make him a target. He’s been attacked on the street, even shot at. “I don’t know why they have Crips and Bloods, to tell the honest truth,” he says. “We all grew up together. We all know each other from school. What’s the point? I don’t understand it.”
“What kinds of hopes or dreams do you have for your life?” I asked him.
“Hard to say, I guess.”
“What do you do?”
“I go to the store, come home again. Not much. I’m out of work right now. I had a job at a warehouse, until they asked me to take a test. I didn’t want them to know I couldn’t read, so I just didn’t come in for it.”
“Why do you think you didn’t learn how to read in school?”
“I don’t know. I worked at it. I guess everyone has their disability, and that’s mine, I just can’t read.”
Of course, Lamar has been luckier than many of his schoolmates, who are scarred by poverty and racism. He’s never been to jail, he has work experience and a good home with his parents. Sitting on their couch, talking and listening, I am struck by the many different moods of this neighborhood, the many ways I feel the racial gap, and I am confronted again by my own racism, and the pervasive racism of the whole neighborhood, the whole country.
The feeling grows in my next inter-view, with a white woman, Jenny. She and her husband bought a house here a few years ago. Now that they’ve fixed it up and the value has increased, they’re selling it to buy the country home they’ve dreamed of. Where Lamar and his family treated me as a special guest, Jenny confides in me. I can’t help but feel a kind of “circling of the wagons”—just us white folks, talking indoors about the dangers outside. I ask her how she feels about the neighborhood.
“I think it bothers my husband more than me,” she answers.
“When I hear the gunshots, I just stay inside, and I’m glad we have bars on the windows. He always wants to know what’s going on, and it keeps him up at night. Like when that guy got shot right out front a few weeks ago, he was up half the night. There was this woman, just wailing, on and on for about half an hour, really loudly. It was terrible to listen to.
“Another thing is the trash. You’ll see kids standing outside here, just talking and dropping their trash on our yard. I’d like to go out there and talk to them, but...”
“It can be scary to confront them.”
“Yes. I mean, they know where I live. Is it worth it?”
While the black community seems to be falling apart in some ways, the sense of community among white people is very slow in growing, and a mixed community remains a fantasy. Although white people have always lived in this neighborhood, few of us who live here now have been here longer than a few years. We’re a little like pioneers, moving into dangerous territory for a chance to realize the American Dream—steeply rising property values. Like pioneers, we are beginning to displace the people who came before us; the racist basis on which this country was built hasn’t changed. Like pioneers, we tend to feel like we’re in dangerous territory, and we’re afraid to talk to our neighbors.
The fear of our own racism keeps white people apart. We spend most of our time ignoring the issue by staying inside our house Talking to each other reminds us of our racism. We need to talk about it, because it’s something we all share, one way or another, but it’s scary to bring it up. The way that we hide from the street; our fear of the gang mem-bers outside; our shock at the killings; our guilt at being privileged, comfortable: we need to talk about them, but we can’t. We would have to talk about racism, and we don’t want to admit to it.
Each of us faces the menacing spectre of racism in our own way—but we face it alone, and it’s too big to fight alone.
It seems so complicated, so confusing, and in the end, it’s so hard to take action. I refuse to be a racist. I want to reach out, to share my struggle, but how can I? Black and white people haven’t yet created a forum where racism can be openly discussed. The opposite of racism is community— how do we build it?
It’s easy to be caught in guilt. I feel like I, as a white person, must be part of the problem. Didn’t white people cause it? What have I done about it? It’s difficult to assert my need to talk with my neigh-bors about racism. Guilt keeps us apart.
We must come together, somehow, to take action.
Some people are in the neighborhood to make a difference. Two young black parents, Bill and Sylva, grew up here. They have moved back to help clean the place up. Avoiding a pack of careening 3-year-olds, I ask them how they feel about the neighborhood.
“I love it,” says Sylva. It wasn’t a response I’d heard before, or expected to hear. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else. This is where I grew up, and I know these kids,” waving at the youths in their black sweat-jackets outside her window. “I used to be in the gang, and I want to do something for them. Living somewhere else wouldn’t help the problem. I want to be right here.”
“That’s right,” adds Bill, “People want to believe this is just a NE problem, but it’s not. It’s a community problem. It’s not even just in Portland. It’s a world community problem. The kids come to the gangs looking for love, for family, because their own families are not giving them what they need. To solve this problem, we have to be a world family.”
“Mentors got me out of the gangs,” says Sylva. “People that respected me for who I was. That showed me another way to live. Like at the Albina Ministerial Alliance. That’s what I want to do. Me and seven other women that used to be involved in the gangs are starting our own agency to help girls get out. We’re going to call it ‘Reconstruct.’ ”
Black people, then, can take action for the black kids, and some are. But what can white people do? As long as we take no action, we are paralyzed by guilt.
The Portland Common Economy was founded by one neighbor determined to act. It’s an idea that has worked elsewhere: a neighborhood system of trade, with its own currency. People get together to trade goods or services for “talents.” Karl, the founder of the system in Portland, has organized parties and get-togethers. He’s visited every house in a ten-by-ten block area, many of them several times, delivering newsletters, signing members.
“There’s a critical mass at which the system takes off. People will realize that this is an important resource, something they can use to meet their needs, and they start to depend on each other for a whole variety of things.” Karl sees it as a way to bring black and white together, to deal with the isolation and conflict which racial barriers create. The project is just getting started, but it gives each of us the opportunity to take a chance and talk to a neighbor.
It’s a spiritual calling to Karl. We talked late one night, and he confided in me that he had been spoken to by a power greater than himself.
“What did it tell you?”
“Build an ark.”
Ness Mountain is a counselor and urban shaman carrying the lineage of Hungarian sound shamanism. He will be opening a healing and community center in April. Reach him in Portland at (503) 335-8761 or .