In Parts of U.S. Northwest, a Changing Face

Charles Ford, a longtime resident of Portland, Ore., talks with new neighbor Tara Heiggelke. Gentrification is altering neighborhood demographics.
Charles Ford, a longtime resident of Portland, Ore., talks with new neighbor Tara Heiggelke. Gentrification is altering neighborhood demographics. (Photos By Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 19, 2006

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Already the whitest major city in America, Portland is rapidly becoming even whiter at its core.

"The heart of the black community is gone," said Charles Ford, 76, a black activist whose neighborhood in Portland has flipped in recent years from majority black to majority white. "There ain't no center anymore."

About 150 miles north in Seattle, the nation's second-whitest major city, the same process of downtown demographic bleaching is accelerating for the same reasons.

An invasion of young, well-educated and mostly white newcomers is buying up and remaking Seattle's Central District, the birthplace of Jimi Hendrix and the once-bluesy home of the young Ray Charles. What had been the largest black-majority community in the Pacific Northwest has become majority white.

"I am concerned and I am frustrated because I don't know what the alternatives are," said Norman Rice, who in the 1990s was Seattle's first and only black mayor. "It clearly isn't racist; it's economics. The real question you have to ask yourself is: Is this good or bad?"

White gentrification is hardly unique to Portland and Seattle. It is changing Harlem, the District of Columbia and many other cities. Demographers say it is especially noticeable in major California cities -- a function of population density, the desire to escape long commutes and the relative housing bargains in black neighborhoods.

But as white gentrification accelerates in Portland and Seattle, where the percentage of black residents was already the lowest among the nation's largest cities, it is erasing the only historically black neighborhoods these cities have ever had.

In many cities with large black populations, gentrification has caused only marginal racial change. In the District, for example, the percentage of white non-Hispanic residents increased 2.7 percent between 1990 and 2004, according to William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

Still, Washington remains less than one-third white and about 60 percent black.

In Seattle's Central District, though, racial change is anything but marginal. The non-Hispanic white population in the area jumped from 31 percent in 1990 to 50 percent in 2000, according to the census.

Local demographers say white growth since 2000 has gained momentum, while the percentage of black residents appears to have fallen to less than 40 percent. With real estate prices rollicking upward at about 25 percent a year, the Central District appears to be getting whiter and richer by the month.

As black residents leave the central areas of Portland and Seattle for the suburbs -- either because they have sold their homes or been forced out by higher rents -- their community is being splintered by geographic dispersal and racial integration.

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