Cornerstones African American History Project Continues—Combatting Demolition


This story originally appeared in an abridged form in ‘Hey Neighbor’ Issue 3

By Alex Freedman 

On​ ​May​ ​18th,​ ​in​ ​the​ ​basement​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Vancouver​ ​Avenue​ ​Baptist​ ​Church,​ ​city representatives​ ​met​ ​with​ ​neighborhood​ ​homeowners,​ ​community​ ​leaders,​ ​city​ ​planners,​ ​and​ ​local historians​ ​to​  discuss​ ​the​ ​precarious​ ​future​ ​of​ ​the​ ​neighborhood’s​ ​homes.​ ​​ ​Finding​ ​the​ ​city’s properties​ ​with​ ​historic​ ​significance​ ​and​ ​protecting​ ​them​ ​from​ ​development​ ​is​ ​the​ ​goal​ ​of​ ​a​ ​new grant-funded​ ​partnership​ ​between​ ​the​ ​city’s​ ​Historic​ ​Preservation​ ​Program​ ​and​ ​the​ ​Architectural Heritage​ ​Center. 

The​ ​Vancouver​ ​Avenue​ ​Baptist​ ​Church​ ​is​ ​representative​ ​of​ ​the​ ​imminent​ ​threat​ ​of demolition​ ​facing​ ​many​ ​buildings​ ​in​ ​Eliot​ ​and​ ​the​ ​other​ ​historically​ ​African​ ​American​ Northeast  neighborhoods​ ​like​ ​Humboldt,​ ​Irvington,​ ​and​ ​Boise. 

The​ ​Church​ ​played​ ​a​ ​key​ ​role​ ​in​ ​organizing​ ​the​ ​dislocated​ ​African​ ​American​ ​community after​ ​the​ ​Vanport​ ​flood​ ​in​ ​1948.​ ​​ ​During​ ​the​ ​civil​ ​rights​ ​movement,​ ​Martin​ ​Luther​ ​King,​ ​Jr.​ ​spoke​ ​here.​ ​​ ​“Built​ ​in​ ​the​ ​heart​ ​of​ ​this​ ​thriving​ ​community,”​ ​described​ ​local​ ​resident​ ​and​ ​historian Raymond​ ​Burrell,​ ​“it​ ​became​ ​a​ ​second​ ​home​ ​to​ ​so​ ​many​ ​of​ ​us.”  

But​ ​it​ ​was​ ​impossible​ ​to​ ​ignore​ ​the​ ​new​ ​development​ ​encasing​ ​the​ ​church:​ ​a​ ​condominium unit​ ​is​ ​being​ ​built​ ​nearly​ ​touching​ ​the​ ​east​ ​wall.​ ​​ ​“That​ ​fueled​ ​me​ ​to​ ​get​ ​it​ ​listed,”​ ​says​ ​Burrell. 

Thanks​ ​to​ ​his​ ​diligent​ ​efforts,​ ​it​ ​is​ ​now​ ​protected​ ​from​ ​demolition​ ​in​ ​perpetuity,​ ​because​ ​it​ ​is listed​ ​in​ ​the​ ​National​ ​Register​ ​of​ ​Historic​ ​Places.

According​ ​to​ ​Cathy​ ​Galbraith’s​ ​research​ ​as​ ​the​ ​retired founding ​director​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Architectural Heritage​ ​Center,​ ​nearly​ ​1400​ ​homes​ ​and​ ​business​ ​have​ ​been​ ​destroyed​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Central​ ​Albina area​ ​from​ ​development​ ​projects​ ​such​ ​as​ ​Emmanuel​ ​hospital​ ​and​ ​the​ ​Memorial​ ​Coliseum. 

Because​ ​of​ ​their​ ​work​ ​documenting​ ​historic​ ​homes​ ​in​ ​Portland,​ ​including​ ​the​ ​Cornerstones​ ​index listing​ ​1284​ ​historic​ ​properties​ ​(968​ ​of​ ​which​ ​were​ ​in​ ​NE),​ ​the​ ​HPP​ ​contracted​ ​them​ ​to​ ​complete the​ ​grant’s​ ​mission. 

There’s​ ​only​ ​one​ ​way​ ​the​ ​city​ ​of​ ​Portland​ ​can​ ​deny​ ​demolition​ ​permits:​ ​if​ ​the​ ​home​ ​is​ ​listed on​ ​the​ ​National​ ​Register ​of​ ​Historic​ ​Places.​ ​​ ​However,​ ​since​ ​1995,​ ​law​ ​prevents​ ​properties​ ​from  being​ ​registered​ ​without​ ​the​ ​consent​ ​of​ ​the​ ​property​ ​owner.  

The​ ​project’s​ ​goal​ ​is​ ​to​ ​get​ ​as​ ​many​ ​properties​ ​listed​ ​as​ ​possible.​ ​​ ​But​ ​their​ ​challenge​ ​is​ ​to attract,​ ​convince,​ ​and​ ​assist​ ​homeowners​ ​in​ ​the​ ​process. 

Homes​ ​are​ ​added​ ​to​ ​the​ ​register​ ​in​ ​a​ ​multi-stage​ ​process.​ The​ ​first​ ​step​ ​is​ ​determining​ ​the property’s​ ​eligibility.​ ​​ ​The​ ​home​ ​has​ ​to​ ​have​ ​a​ ​certain​ ​extent​ ​of​ ​historic​ ​significance,​ ​which​ ​could include​ ​who​ ​lived​ ​there,​ ​who​ ​owned​ ​it,​ ​who​ ​built​ ​it,​ ​or​ ​what​ ​happened​ ​in​ ​it. 

External​ ​changes​ ​to​ ​the​ ​building​ ​can​ ​render​ ​it​ ​ineligible​ ​for​ ​admission​ ​to​ ​the​ ​register.​ ​​ ​“It’s​ ​a  question​ ​of​ ​integrity,”​ ​says​ ​Brandon​ ​Spencer-Hartle,​ ​manager​ ​of​ ​the​ ​city’s​ ​Historic​ ​Preservation Program.​ ​“Would​ ​the​ ​original​ ​owner​ ​recognize​ ​it​ ​or​ ​not?”  

There​ ​is​ ​no​ ​cost​ ​for​ ​application​ ​to​ ​the​ ​register,​ ​but​ ​the​ ​process​ ​of​ ​“telling​ ​the​ ​story”​ ​of​ ​a home​ ​can​ ​be​ ​time​ ​and​ ​labor​ ​intensive.​ ​​ ​Some​ ​homeowners​ ​hire​ ​a​ ​consultant,​ ​historian,​ ​or​ ​student  to​ ​assist​ ​in​ ​the​ ​process.​ ​​ ​The​ ​grant,​ ​funded​ ​through​ ​September,​ ​pays​ ​the​ ​AHC​ ​staff​ ​to​ ​determine which​ ​options​ ​of​ ​support​ ​and​ ​services​ ​will​ ​make​ ​registration​ ​most​ ​accessible​ ​to​ ​the​ ​community. 

Options​ ​include​ ​hiring​ ​staff​ ​to​ ​help​ ​people​ ​directly,​ ​creating​ ​a​ ​pot​ ​of​ ​money​ ​to​ ​fund​ ​the​ ​first​ ​five applicants,​ ​or​ ​making​ ​a​ ​top​ ​ten​ ​list​ ​of​ ​critical​ ​properties​ ​to​ ​preserve.  

“This​ ​is​ ​the​ ​only​ ​option​ ​the​ ​community​ ​has​ ​to​ ​preserve​ ​these​ ​buildings​ ​in​ ​perpetuity,” explains​ ​Spencer-Hartle.​ ​​ ​Once​ ​a​ ​building​ ​is​ ​registered,​ ​any​ ​owner​ ​seeking​ ​demolition​ ​will​ ​have​ ​to go​ ​to​ ​the​ ​city​ ​council​ ​for​ ​approval,​ ​which​ ​is​ ​tasked​ ​with​ ​weighing​ ​the​ ​community’s​ ​goals​ ​in​ ​making its​ ​decision;​ ​the​ ​​ ​proposed​ ​replacement​ ​must​ ​be​ ​for​ ​community​ ​benefit,​ ​a​ ​bar​ ​high​ ​enough​ ​to​ ​deter most​ ​developers.  

Though​ ​Portland​ ​has​ ​16​ ​“Historic​ ​Districts”​ ​on​ ​the​ ​national​ ​register,​ ​ethnic​ ​and​ ​cultural sites​ ​are​ ​significantly​ ​underrepresented​ ​in​ ​the​ ​register.​ ​​ ​“Most​ ​are​ ​landmarks​ ​from​ ​the​ ​traditional view,”​ ​said​ ​Spencer-Hartle.​ ​​ ​“Not​ ​through​ ​their​ ​association​ ​with​ ​ethnic/cultural​ ​groups.”  

Some citizens in the open forum expressed their skepticism.  “We’ve been used as statistics to get grants, but the money never makes it back to the community,” said Earline Penson, a real estate broker that has sold houses in the neighborhood for decades.  

Joe Nunn, a local teacher, brought up the point that “37% of African Americans in this community are not hooked up online.”  He believes a purely online approach won’t reach as many community members as a personal, relationship-oriented process.  

Other complications may affect homeowners. Once a house has been listed on the register, structural changes could be more expensive, and take longer, as they are subject to approval from the city. Spencer-Hartle says this review process would not apply to routine maintenance and repair, or minor changes like small additions and porches.

Other buildings are being targeted by Raymond Burrell for application to the register, including the old YWCA on Tillamook and Williams and the old Mt. Olivet Baptist Church.  

But many homes in the area may be eligible.  Galbraith suggests looking up your own address in the digital archives of the Oregonian.  “Just type in your address – you might find something.”  Spencer-Hartle recommended, which has a “Zoning” tab that can show if your house has “historic designation”, a likely sign of eligibility. But you might also have to do some research at the County Library downtown – Portland has had 3 major address changes since 1891 when East Portland and Albina became one city.  

Another resource is Roy Roos’ History of Albina, an inventory of all older homes in this area before 1917.

For those who don’t have homes eligible for the national historic register, the Stop Demolishing Portland Facebook group organizes efforts to resist and disrupt demolition and development.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Vancouver Ave Baptist Church in 1961, meeting with the clergy from the church and its neighbors. Photo courtesy of The Portland Observer

Williams Ave Branch YWCA—now the Billy Webb Elks Lodge Photo courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society






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