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 Portlandmaps.com, 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