A survey conducted by the sociology department at Portland State has found that Alberta Street’s black businesspeople perceive neighborhood racial tension and police apathy to be graver problems than do their colleagues of other races.
Dan Sullivan, a sociology professor who released the survey in October, said he wanted to investigate the nature of Alberta’s racial and socioeconomic diversity in his street-wide business survey. He said he hoped to explore "to what extent [people in the neighborhood] are socially integrated. Do they talk to each other, ignore each other, scream at each other?"
While the majority of Alberta Street’s businesspeople share an affection for the neighborhood and a concern with its rising rents, the survey showed that respondents split along color lines when asked about other neighborhood concerns. Seventy-nine percent of Alberta’s black businesspeople said they see racial tension as a major issue in the neighborhood, as opposed to 49 percent of businesspeople of other races.
Businesses that serve a predominantly black clientele were even more likely to perceive racial tension. Police apathy was cited as a problem by 68 percent of black respondents but by only 28 percent of other races.
The issue of Last Thursday also divides opinion along racial lines.
Black respondents were considerably less likely to give favorable ratings to Last Thursday, Alberta Street’s monthly art event, citing an excessively "freakish" atmosphere.
"Last Thursday is generally X-rated, or R-rated,” said a black nonprofit manager quoted in Sullivan’s study. “It’s not conducive to family. You have people burning themselves, upside down, freak shows.”
Before bringing his research team to Alberta Street, Sullivan had expected the community’s opinions to hinge on several variables, including the respondents’ levels of education, how long a business had been in the neighborhood, and whether or not a business rented, owned, or was involved with the art scene. But Sullivan’s graduate researchers, who canvassed 88 businesses on Alberta Street, only found statistically significant differences along racial lines.
"There’s a very realistic fear of the loss of the black community," said Sullivan.
Professor Darrell Millner, who teaches a class in Oregon’s African-American history, wasn’t surprised by Sullivan’s findings.
"Very few black people live in Oregon today because of the public policy decisions of Pioneer times," he said, explaining that the original Oregon Constitution forbade blacks from living in the state.
One of Oregon’s biggest influxes of black citizens came during World War II, as the Kaiser shipyards searched nationwide for ship-builders. Approximately 5,000 of those workers remained and were made homeless in the Vanport flood of 1948: these were the people who originally moved to the Albina district. At this point many whites were moving to the suburbs and the city consciously directed its new black population to Albina, Millner said.
"This was very much the decision of political power-brokers meeting in smoke-filled back rooms," he said. "Albina became the repository for the new black population because it was undesirable."
But it became very much a black-identified neighborhood, Millner said. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Albina district began to gentrify and sent Portland’s already small black community splintering into the suburbs.
"Albina had only been a historically black neighborhood for about 30 years," said Millner. "But 30 years is a lot of a person’s life."
Sullivan, who has also done studies in the Eliot and Concordia neighborhoods, hopes that the survey can spark dialogue among Alberta Street’s current businesspeople.
"I’m hoping people can get a sense of how other people on the street feel," he said.
"[The survey is] a snapshot of Alberta at a certain time," Sullivan said. "I don’t think people are a bunch of slimeball yuppies, and I’m not a developer either. I’m just trying to ask a lot of questions in a very unbiased way."