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"The Place That I Call Home"

Author: Linda Christensen

March 2015 | Volume 72 | Number 6
Culturally Diverse Classrooms

"The Place That I Call Home"

Linda Christensen

Students need to learn a history of power and race that helps them understand the roots of inequality in our society.

Jefferson High School, my teaching home for most of my 40-year career, was once the heart of the African American community in Portland, Oregon. But things are changing. Many students' families have been pushed out of their homes, first because of urban renewal in the 1960s and recently because of gentrification, poverty, and evictions. As the price of homes and monthly rents rises in what's now called the Alberta Arts Neighborhood, many families who've traditionally been served by Jefferson can no longer afford to live in our community.

Black and Latino families have been shoved to what my students call "the numbers"—the outer reaches of Portland, where house numbers have five or six digits instead of two to four. Citing dwindling enrollment in local catchment areas, with incoming white parents switching their children out of neighborhood schools deemed "failing," district administrators have closed schools in our traditionally black and brown neighborhoods.

This has produced a mash-up of consolidated schools. Both Portland teachers and teachers in "landing zone" schools in outlying districts face a changing landscape. City schools that historically served students of color have seen their student bodies become increasingly white and middle class. Schools outside the city limits have become more diverse as black, Latino, and immigrant families move into formerly white districts.

Why Teach About Gentrification?

These changes have led to problems. Seeing neighborhood schools close and having to move away from their communities (often because of foreclosure or eviction) has traumatized students and parents. The changing landscape has sent shock waves through schools and classrooms. Harmful misunderstandings and misperceptions have arisen, such as the questioning of black teachers' education backgrounds or white parents' proposal to "rebrand" a school because of its reputation as a failing (but also black) institution.

As I watched our school neighborhood turn from black to white, I realized that students needed to understand the systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans in Portland. Every act in the process of dismantling the Jefferson community—from segregation to urban renewal to the current gentrification—appeared inevitable. Yet, when examined closely, each act rested on a platform of racism, privilege, and decisions made by one group of people that affected a different group of people.

Students of color deserve a multicultural curriculum peopled with novelists, scientists, and activists who look like them, but they also need to learn about the historical roots of inequality in our society. White students, too, deserve a curriculum that offers stories counter to the traditional narratives that make up many schools' literature and history curriculums.

So I created a unit on gentrification. Initially, I wanted to help students in my language arts class at Jefferson, which was still predominantly black, understand how the mechanism of racism had dismantled our neighborhood. High school students aren't required to attend their neighborhood school in Portland, and many students in our neighborhood choose to attend other schools. The first class in which I taught this unit was a mixture: About 85 percent of the students identified as black or Latino and had roots in the neighborhood; some of these students came from outlying areas and used family members' addresses to attend Jefferson. The other 15 percent were white students, some of whom came for special programs.1

Later, I realized this unit could help teachers in schools throughout Oregon—and in cities throughout the United States—challenge racist assumptions that often parallel changes like those occurring in Portland. I describe here how this unit deepened various learners' understandings, and I suggest how any educator might attempt to teach a similar unit or lesson focused on a local history of racism or disenfranchisement.

Opening Students' Eyes

A Historical "Tea Party"

When we launched this unit, neither my teaching partner Dianne Leahy nor I were experts on the history of our community, known in past decades as Albina. But as a longtime teacher in the school, I had witnessed the transformation, and I knew there must be sources that related the history behind it. Originally we didn't have a literary text to link to our study, so we used articles from the local black newspaper, the Skanner, and parts of a doctoral thesis called Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment, 1940–2000 by Portland State University professor Karen J. Gibson.

After researching events connected to Albina, Dianne and I initiated a "tea party" to ignite student interest. A tea party introduces students to significant, juicy tidbits about historical or literary characters by having them role-play those characters gathered at a party. I wrote monologues for 18 characters from Portland's history—including details that made students want to know more but didn't spoil their appetite for the readings—and assigned each student to be one of these individuals. I created these roles from newspaper articles, interviews, and other sources; each character was a person who lived and worked in the area. Students, in character, walked around the room and introduced themselves to one another by reading the passage about their experiences in Albina while everyone took notes. We had a few rules: Take the lives of these people who lived through painful times seriously; don't add any information, but stick to what you know; and keep track of questions as they arise.

Through these monologues, students gained understanding about three periods in Albina's history: the Vanport flood and redlining, urban renewal and the bulldozing of Albina homes and businesses, and contemporary gentrification. They learned terms like redlining and eminent domain for practices that greased the wheels of segregation. Edna Pittman's words, for example, helped teach students about the effects of the 1948 Vanport flood. From the testimony of Thelma Glover, students learned how the funding from national urban renewal projects affected the neighborhood:

I owned a house on North Commercial Street. Bought it in 1941. It was the first house I ever owned. I had it fixed up real nice, too—a new garage, a refinished basement. Then some white men showed up at my door in 1972 and told me that I'd have to sell my house and leave the neighborhood. I wasn't the only one. They told all the neighbors that we'd have to move. See they used what's called the law of "eminent domain" to move all of the folks out of the neighborhood. They told us our houses were run down and "blighted." … Then they build something for the "greater good" of the community.

The tea party also featured Mrs. Leo Warren. I wanted students to know something of this feisty woman who refused to accept the city's terms, partly to show the community's resistance to "renewal." And when students read about the more recent wave of gentrification, they discovered Jefferson graduate Angel Bagley, who had owned Signature Cutz, right near their school. Bagley's barbershop was closed when the building's owner sold it to a developer to build new apartment buildings.

My students and I walked a delicate line in exploring these stories because we lived at the intersection of the gentrified and the gentrifiers. To help students—and, more often, adults whom I've helped teach this unit—work through it sensitively, I usually begin with my story. As a young white teacher, I moved into this neighborhood 40 years ago because it was close to where I taught; it was also the only house I could afford as a new teacher. I was the only white person on the block and in the grocery store. I tell students,

Some people might feel uncomfortable in this unit. We are talking about people's homes and histories here. But this is bigger than individuals; it's about what happens in our society that pits people against each other, and that leads to some people getting homes and businesses, and others losing theirs. Let's be mindful that many people in the room share that history as well as this current struggle over the neighborhood.

Reading and Writing

As they continued to learn the history of the neighborhood around Jefferson, reading newspapers articles, the Oregon Historical Society materials, and the dissertation on Albina, students built academic skills and became familiar with terms like synopsis and primary source. They examined historical patterns of dispossession and began to identify those mechanisms at work—such as how housing patterns established during World War II led to later divisions.

Students learned that a huge influx of African Americans came to Portland to work in the Kaiser Shipyards and encountered difficulty finding housing because of segregation. They were "housed" in a hastily built, temporary housing project called Vanport, which flooded in 1948. Before and after the war, real estate agents redlined areas of the city to prevent African Americans from buying property there. Partly because of redlining, African Americans clustered together in areas like Albina. I showed students a "covenant" written in 1948 that a colleague found in her attic, which read,

Race: No property shall be sold, leased, or subleased to Japanese, Chinese, Negroes, or Orientals, whether born in the United States of America or elsewhere, provided, however, that this shall not prevent their occupancy as domestic servants while employed by an owner or tenant.

Students saw patterns as they discovered how, in the 1950s and '60s, banks refused to give black homeowners loans to fix up their homes. The city came in, called the buildings run down, and plowed under homes and businesses. Where Albina had been, Portland built a hospital, the Memorial Coliseum, and the school district office. Throughout the 1990s, similarly, developers tore down older businesses and homes in the neighborhoods near Jefferson—pushing out remaining residents—and built huge new apartment buildings, condos, and stores.

… and Walking

Once students understood the context, Dianne and I arranged a walking tour of the former Albina neighborhood led by my colleague Tom McKenna, who has spent years studying its history. I wanted them to see what remained of places that had been taken away. We started the day with a quote from Nelson Mandela: "Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made, and it can be removed." I asked students to think about who made poverty in this neighborhood and how, asking questions like, Who benefited from the loss of homes? Who suffered? Students carried a note-taking sheet that urged them to "Capture our guide's words. Capture images. Capture ghosts of our past."

We walked down North Vancouver and Williams Avenues, the heart of historic Albina's business district, where the city had bulldozed 300 homes and businesses. We looked at photos of Citizen's Fountain Lunch and Billy's Cleaners. Tom, a gifted storyteller, brought the past to life as we walked the blocks where jazz greats played on rainy Portland nights. We stopped at the now-closed Harriet Tubman Middle School, and Tom spoke about the Black United Front's successful struggle to get the school district to build a middle school in this community instead of busing students to all-white schools during the early days of desegregation. The school—which had been the only middle school in the area—was closed in 2007, reopened as the Young Women's Academy, then closed again by superintendent Carol Smith in 2012.

From the playground of this historic building, we contemplated the underpasses at the Minnesota Freeway. Tom described how nearby homes on Minnesota Avenue that overlooked the Willamette River were razed to build a section of I-5. We skirted Legacy Emanuel Hospital—which quadrupled in size over a 10-year period even as African Americans picketed, demanding an end to the destruction of their neighborhood.2

I had students write a poem, interior monologue, or response to Mandela's quote, drawing on what they'd seen. They were profoundly affected by the loss they witnessed. Jalean said, "I'm so happy to know there was a place in Portland where black people thrived. I'm so sad that I never had the chance to witness it."

Opening Teachers' Eyes

I recently led this same walking tour with teachers in summer learning institutes with the Oregon Writers Project (OWP). After teaching students this unit, I realized that teachers need this knowledge as much as—or more than—students do. So the project's codirector Katharine Johnson and I used the gentrification curriculum as part of our work with 28 teachers who attended a four-week summer writing institute.

Teachers—many of them young professionals who lived or had bought homes in the former Albina area—were taken aback to learn about its history. As history teacher Alex Stegner wrote,

I've lived in close proximity to this neighborhood for over three years. I've driven past this vacant lot so many times on my way to get a beer at a new bar for young white people like me. I've parked next to it on the way to a restaurant around the street. And I've pedaled past this barren patch of grass and dirt and trash and never stopped to ask what it used to be. But I've realized [that] living and teaching in an historically Black community comes with the responsibility of knowing what was lost and how it was taken.

Writing, Thinking, and Talking About It

Both students and teachers in the learning institutes wrote historical fiction and essays in response to the unit. Writing about what they'd discovered and their own emotions was an essential component. My duty as a language arts teacher and writing project director is to teach students and teachers to read and write effectively—and one cannot write without learning how to think about the world, to step back from our individual pain, ask questions, and find patterns.

Understanding that the loss of their homes and neighborhoods wasn't because some families weren't good enough or smart enough, but because we live in a system that puts profit over people motivated my student writers. Poetry, especially, exploded in our classroom. Some poems sang elegies for Albina, some honored Unthank Park, and one by a student named Uriah (see "The Place That I Call Home") imagined details of a home razed for the "greater good." Sinnamon's poem reflected most students' reactions: joy at discovering the history of their past, sadness that it was taken away, and an unwillingness to let it go. Her final line is defiant, "Our history remains in that soil/What they forgot was our rich history/will never be gone/because We are not gone."

Uriah wrote in her final essay,

I like to think that there still exist times and places where the color of one's skin is completely irrelevant to the way a person is treated. There are places where nobody needs saving, nobody feels mistreated, and everyone is equidistant from perfection. Ideally, everyone would live in this type of place. Ignorance would be replaced with understanding. Fear with curiosity, timidity with unashamed interest.

Educators need to talk about our own cities and neighborhoods in our classrooms. The design of this unit, adapted to local circumstances, could be used in schools in any urban or suburban area (see "Try It at Your School" for suggestions). I've taught this content in schools affected by gentrification and in schools serving white, affluent youth.

When we fail to examine the events that uproot students from their neighborhoods, we allow them to create their own explanations—such as that African Americans were less skilled businesspeople, didn't take care of their homes, or passively watched their homes taken away. We leave unchallenged the subliminal racism that says "improvements" in a neighborhood are brought by whites, who make schools better and revive neighborhoods through their presence and entrepreneurial skills. We need to give students—and teachers—information to challenge conversations about how "bad" these neighborhoods or schools were before the whites came. Let's arm them with an understanding of the patterns of dispossession—so they can work to stop it.

The Place That I Call Home

The place that I call home is humble

and its creaky floorboards have seen us all

in our most vulnerable state.

Gramma and Grampa dancing barefoot in the living room,

the "shuffle shuffle" of their feet

becoming the musical selection of the evening.

These doorframes have held up dreams

hoisted them upon their broad shoulders

and offered them up to the skies.

That front door has warmly greeted kind souls,

and the back has banished offenders.

I once mopped the floor with Mama's tears,

and the scent of Gramma's sweet potato pie will forever haunt this kitchen …

In the confines of these walls,

three of my cousins were born.

And now you tell me that you want to take this place away

for the "greater good."

Whose good?

—Uriah Boyd

Source: Published with permission of the student and parents.

Try It At Your School

Keep these suggestions in mind if you design or teach a unit on local racial policies, patterns, and the history of marginalized communities:

  • Tie the unit into studying a relevant literary work, such as Lorraine Hansberry's play Raisin in the Sun (in which a black family from the South Side of Chicago struggles to buy a house in an all-white area) or August Wilson's plays Jitney and Radio Golf. I've used a novel about the gentrification of Albina, This Side of Home, by Jefferson High School graduate, Renée Watson.
  • To find out more about the history of a city, visit the local library, historical society, newspaper archives, or your city's housing authority.
  • Gentrification is part of a long history of removal of people of color in the United States—moving American Indians to reservations, clearing out African Americans through violent uprisings (such as in Tulsa, Oklahoma), and so on. Teaching the history of relocation through law and violence helps students recognize historical patterns.
  • Dealing with issues of race is never easy or comfortable, but it is necessary. A straightforward approach, using history and literature, takes the issue out of the abstract and into concrete facts of what happened and why.


1 Many of the white students came to Jefferson for its outstanding dance program or its Middle College Program, through which students earn college credits by also enrolling in the community college across the street.

2 The hospital eventually offered an apology to the neighborhood, put up a photo gallery about Albina in its cafeteria, and helped build a park commemorating the historic community.

Linda Christensen is director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

DMU Timestamp: July 13, 2015 12:10

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