American cities seek out historic preservation methods to save neighborhoods from gentrification—but who benefits? And does all history deserve to be preserved?
By Caitlin Dwyer
In the beginning, there was a steamboat captain. A man with large nostrils and bushy eyebrows and hair tucked down around the dome of his forehead. A Scot who had left his homeland as a cabin boy, made his fortune in the Gold Rush, and married a sad-faced young woman with a long mouth and deep-set eyes. He sold his favorite ship for her, because she hated to travel by sea. They bought land on the east side of the Willamette River, a gently sloping property perfect for a farm, a racetrack, apple orchards. In 1849, Captain William Irving bought a slice of Portland, Oregon for $1,200, and like many settlers at the time, he obtained additional land east of the Willamette River under the Donation Land Act, which allowed certain acres to be claimed by white settlers free of charge. We call our neighborhood—those former free acres—Irvington, although its namesake Captain Irving sailed for Canada soon after the purchase and never returned.
In the beginning, there was a bustling suburb—the cobbled streets incised with metal streetcar tracks, trams rattling beneath the elms. Men in brimmed hats clutched their newspapers, the pages trembling with news of Charles Lindbergh’s first solo flight in 1927, as they rode to work in shipyards, in post offices, in banks. Perhaps some planned to head up to Williams Avenue after work to listen to jazz, or admire the Christmas displays in the elegant flagship Meier & Frank department store. They could always go home late to Irvington, home of Oregon’s burgeoning middle class, a place where a hardworking neighbor could duck the pioneer lifestyle and join the 20th century—a place, in short, to be proud of.
In the beginning, there was a big old house, wallpapered in paisley, trimmed forest green, with a claw-foot tub and a scary, spidery basement. The hard nubs of hawthorne berries rolled slippery underfoot in the yard. Down the street were the neighbors with Nintendo; the neighbors with Dobermans; the neighbors who never left their house and whose mail collected in drifts on their porch. At age seven, in the late 1980s, I thought the sidewalks, upturned by the roots of giant elms, were breaking waves and I could surf down the street to play Super Mario. I did not know then the elms were dying of disease and would have to be culled. I did not know the neighbors with Nintendo would move away to a cheaper neighborhood; or that the neighbors who never left their house would be foreclosed on, and the mail cleared, the house repainted, the lawn reseeded, and Adirondack chairs placed out front where the tangle of cat shit and cans used to be.
All of these stories are true, or perhaps none of them are. Telling the story of a neighborhood always involves some degree of nostalgia and invention, but in Irvington, nostalgia is a community pastime. The Portland, Oregon neighborhood became a designated National Historic District in 2010, which means it enjoys protection from the National Parks Service. Demolitions are limited, as are large-scale construction projects. An annual home tour guides visitors through Craftsman and Queen Anne houses, now lovingly preserved. If residents live in a contributing property—a home built between 1891 and 1948 that adds value to the historic neighborhood—they cannot make large-scale changes without a lengthy review process. The homes in Irvington are architecturally safe. The neighborhood, by definition, cannot change without review or consensus; it exists in a slow-moving, continuous dialogue with history, evolving in ways deemed respectful to its past.
Today, sea-captain Irving’s old haunt is one of Portland’s most coveted home markets. Portland’s population has grown almost 10 percent since 2010, with gentrification altering neighborhoods beyond recognition. Run-down convenience stores have become trendy boutiques. The local high school, Grant, has an astroturf field, built with donations from Nike. There is a Tesla parked on my parents’ block. Perhaps in response to the changes, Irvington has become a bit more self-consciously historical. Under the gaze of the outside world, it now projects a carefully constructed display of naturally landscaped bee-friendly lawns, reclaimed wood furniture, and home designs dated to specific years.
Two other Portland neighborhoods, Eastmoreland and Laurelhurst, are now in the process of contentiously, rancorously, fitfully moving toward historic designation. The process has pitted neighbor against neighbor, dividing blocks and even families, and in spring 2017, erupted into a lawsuit against the State Historic Preservation Office. Something deeper than old sepia-toned photographs is at stake, when neighbors are tearing up each other’s law signs and forming factional Facebook groups.
It isn’t just Oregon. Nationwide, American cities are struggling to accommodate rapid urban growth, and some look to historic preservation as one way to address the problem. In 2016 in Durham, North Carolina, a working-class mill district was preserved to protect it from gentrification, but in New Orleans, historic preservation and gentrification are almost exclusive. Activists in East Austin, Texas are worried about the loss of historically African-American neighborhoods to redevelopment, while Tucson, Arizona has gently helped its downtown redevelop without the loss of low-income residents.
America is re-urbanizing. Reversing the suburbanization of previous generations, more educated young people are now choosing to live in cities. This forces cities to grow and change not just physically, but in how they present themselves, and it raises tough questions: Does fixating on history lower rents, or increase them? Who benefits from preservation? Does all history deserve to be preserved?
A NEIGHBORHOOD DIVIDED
Historic preservation seeks to save the character of the place through its built environment. By anchoring the architecture to history, the homes tell a certain story about a place. We choose a particular set of anecdotes and tales and vocabulary. We tell these same stories again and again until they become The Stories, and while other stories might exist, they are not essential to that narrative. When we choose one story over another, we inevitably lose something—that’s part of the process. If we choose wrong, we lose not only properties, but people: our neighbors, who are no longer included in the telling.
My childhood district tells a story about itself that is very particular in Portland’s history. Not all residents agree with that tale, and a few have challenged the legality of the narrative and tried to secede from the story. I wanted to find out what happens when a neighborhood identity becomes fixed to certain points in history—and what, inevitably, changes as a result. So I interviewed my neighbors.
“It’s almost a time warp. The visual character of it, so much is really intact,” says Jim Heuer, an Irvington resident, photographer, and amateur historian for the Irvington Home Tour, an annual guided walk through selected neighborhood homes. “When we have friends visiting from out of town or tours for groups like the American Home Builders Society, they’re agog at what they’re finding. It’s like they’ve suddenly stepped into 1915 or 1925.”
Heuer has a beautiful house. The home was designed by local architect Emil Schacht in the early 1900s and has been featured on the Irvington Home Tour. A deep-voiced, thoughtful man, Heuer spoke to me in his living room amid fir woodwork, colorful pottery, and a gorgeous antique piano (“It’s older than the house!”).
The lack of a single architectural style created an “eclectic” neighborhood, according to author Laura Foster, whose guidebook Portland City Walks includes a history-rich stroll through Irvington. “Because it was developed for wealthy folks—managers, company owners—there are a lot of architect-designed homes,” says Foster. “It’s hard to find a boring street.”
Heuer disagrees with Laura Foster’s assessment that Irvington was “for wealthy folks.” His community narrative is one of middle-class integration—a neighborhood that grew up around streetcar lines, which ferried commuters to and from downtown and the shipyards. A restrictive covenant forbade stabling horses, so everyone in the area, even the wealthy, took public transit. Later, when cars began to open up the suburbs, upper-class residents abandoned the area for the hilly West Side of the Willamette River and left Irvington to the middle and working classes, who appreciated the convenient transport to downtown.
Heuer’s “Streetcar Suburb” narrative is the one that got the neighborhood its historic designation. It is a story I grew up with, the story of neighbors from different social classes who looked out for each other. It’s also a story of racial integration in a city that systemically denied African-American residents the ability to buy homes in many areas and that bulldozed parts of historically black neighborhoods to make room for hospitals and freeways.
Oregon had a Constitutional exclusion clause that prohibited black residents until 1926. During World War II, Portland became a center of ship construction, and more than 20,000 black workers arrived in Oregon to join the war effort and work in the shipyards. When defense housing was destroyed by flood in the late 1940s, African-Americans moved to inner Northeast Portland, including Irvington, one of the only areas open to them due to redlining. Discriminatory lending practices grouped residents together, and Irvington offered a stable, middle-class option for many families. West Irvington’s black population peaked in the 1970s at 43 percent.
The Irvington Community Association (ICA) says on their website that in the 1960s, “the ICA began a campaign to improve their neighborhood by leading fights to end red lining” and increase “public awareness of the neighborhood’s historical importance.” The association noted with a kind of surly pride: “Most of the wealthy are gone now, having succumbed either to the grim reaper, the suburbs, or the plush hills across the river (not necessarily in that order).” There was a sense of identity forming in Irvington—an idea that residents had been abandoned and would have to fight for justice and resources, but that the historic nature of their homes gave them a power to create a better community despite real estate discrimination and white flight.
Discrimination and disinvestment still took their toll. In 1967, racial protests turned into a riot in Irving Park, and people of color have exited the neighborhood in large numbers in the last two decades. Nevertheless, Irvington’s story is a good one. It’s a narrative that could make a neighborhood proud. A story of justice and a community that valued neighborliness over skin color or income, that used its own history to lift its neighbors up. But not everyone, it turns out, believes the story.
“Arrogance and ignorance,” says Jim Brown. That’s almost the first thing he says to me when I step inside his beautiful 1909 farmhouse, only a few blocks from where I grew up. Brown is the leader of a secession movement. He believes that the original designation of the Irvington Historic District was flawed—it included a piece of land that should never have been considered Irvington. The “Alameda Overlap” is an area that technically is part of both Irvington and the adjoining Alameda neighborhood, and Brown believes that residents there identify more with the latter. A few years ago, he and his group sought a boundary decrease—that is, they didn’t want the burden of being preserved. They wanted the historic district adjusted. They wanted out.
His dining room table is covered with piles of paper, records of original plats sold, surveys of neighbors who oppose the historic district, letters of protest written to the state historic committee. An old wrought-iron chandelier—“We think it’s original,” Brown tells me—dangles above the carefully stacked piles. Every so often, a thunderous grandfather clock clangs and interrupts our interview.
The document Brown’s group submitted to the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office asserted professional error—basically, that the original application for historic district status was based on faulty research. That’s the “ignorance” part of his initial statement. But more importantly, it seems, is the manner in which the historic designation came about: “We were lied to,” he says at one point, eyebrows up as if waiting for me to react to this revelation. Although there were notices in local newspapers and newsletters, Brown says that residents didn’t receive enough information before the application was pushed through. “It needs to be made very clear and direct,” he says. “It’s a material effect on people’s lives.”
The material effect he means is the restrictions on home changes. In a historic district, everything from whether a window should be vinyl to adding a back porch needs to go through a careful review process, with inspection fees ranging from 60 to several thousand dollars. Although the city lowered the fees in response to neighborhood protest, Brown says many still feel confined by the restrictions. “It’s about a home,” he says. “It’s your refuge. People should have control of their own domains.” Later he asks, anger taut in his voice: “Is that even constitutional, to take people’s property rights without permission?”
That’s the “arrogance” he asserts—the idea that a passionate committee of conservationists could speak for an entire neighborhood. Brown says he’s not opposed to the idea of architectural restrictions: “I’m glad you can’t just do whatever. None of us wants to see houses getting demolished and replaced with monsters.” But he just hates that Irvington claimed to represent him, his neighbors: presuming to speak for their interests, presuming to include them in an identity they don’t associate with. His narrative of Irvington is very different from the mixed-income, working-class, public-transit narrative of the ICA.
“Irvington was highly advertised and touted as being a really fancy place,” he says. “Lots were expensive in Irvington by comparison, so you could buy lots next door for less.”
Brown’s interest in fighting the historical district came from his own home, built by a family of dairy farmers named Pearson. “They raised steers and milked cows. That dairy farm was what is now Alameda School and down toward Siskiyou—twenty acres.” He says that “the Irvings were given a square mile and then left town.” The emphasis in his voice is unmistakable when he says “given,” referring to the land Captain Irving claimed under the Donation Land Act. (Irving and his wife, Elizabeth, did leave Oregon for Canada, where they ran a shipping business. Elizabeth returned to Portland as a widow and sold off the Irvington property for residential development.) “They could make more money in British Columbia apparently, running a steamboat up there; they had two or three, I think. They were quite well-off.” Unlike the Irvings, he says, “the Pearsons eked out a living here. It was not easy.”
This comparison between two early Portland families, a steamboat captain and a dairy farmer, seems to me the crux of the secession movement. In his mind, Irvington is rich, entitled, out of touch. The Irvings were wealthy and distracted by money-grubbing in Canada while the hardworking farmers toiled. So, he wants no part of it. The historic district saved his home, but Jim Brown does not want to be saved.
When I tell friends now that I grew up in Irvington, I get certain looks: oohs and wows. The homes there currently sell for hundreds of thousands, even over a million dollars. It’s a wealthy neighborhood—at least large parts of it. As soon as I see that look, I start to launch into my personal narrative of Irvington.
It includes the following anecdotes: I went to a mixed-income elementary school in which diversity had a primary emphasis in the education. I attended a little community school off Williams Avenue before it became a trendy hangout for hipsters. We couldn’t afford a track, so we ran laps in the park; I remember finding a needle in the grass during a field trip. I remember walking home from school and laughing hysterically as we chucked chestnuts at the cute boys we liked. I remember that I got in a schoolyard fight in sixth grade, and got my first bloody nose from a classmate’s fist, then wore it proudly to the school production of Macbeth, where I sleepwalked onstage with my hands covered in ketchup. I tell how some of my high school friends, raised on Portland’s wealthier west side, were wary of coming over to my house because of gang violence. I tell these stories to people with an insistence they probably find odd, lecturing them about how much Portland has changed, how they can’t rely on ten years of gentrification to judge my city.
But it’s really so that they won’t give me that look. I don’t want to be the girl with the million-dollar-home neighbors. I don’t want to be associated with a neighborhood that feels rich and safe. I insist on my narrative because history has shifted away from my memories, and I keep trying to reclaim them—sifting back and back through a sense of place that no longer matches the built environment. The history that has been saved is not the Irvington of my 1980s and 1990s childhood, but the Irvington of other decades. And maybe that’s for the best; the stories I tell are only aimed at ruining one story and replacing it with another, anyway.
Irvington’s secession saga has become a lesson learned for the rest of the city. In Eastmoreland, a wealthy suburb a few miles south, residents have spent much of 2016 and 2017 fighting over whether to become a historic district (as of July the issue is in court, pending a review of the application process). Both sides hold up Irvington as their model: either success story or travesty, depending on who you ask.
“A rather large number of neighbors are worried about the demolitions, lot splitting, loss of architectural character, loss of the urban canopy, and similar issues,” according to a statement on Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association (ENA) website. They say historic designation will deal with a widespread and pernicious problem: development. In a city rapidly growing, infill housing means tearing down the beautiful old houses in favor of crammed-in McMansions, district advocates say. Today’s Eastmoreland homes are huge, spacious, with sloping lawns; the streets curve beneath towering trees; prestigious Reed College is just down the block. The ENA wants to keep it that way. Their application is less about history, and more about preventing rampant demolitions. Historic designation is a bulwark against the changes of the future.
So far, no American city has found a solution to gentrification’s malaise and consequences. Rents rise and push out lower-income neighbors, or young people can’t afford to live in coveted areas. In response, some cities try to compensate by allowing developers to build for density: dividing single lots into two or three; creating duplexes; adding Additional Dwelling Units (ADUs). The newer, cookie-cutter houses and modern apartment blocks draw disdain, but urban planners hope more housing stock will reduce the pressure on rents. That’s when old neighborhoods like Eastmoreland and Irvington throw up their historic paperwork and say, Not here.
“At its core, a historic district is exclusionary. It makes it hard for people to live here,” says Liz Dexter, an Eastmoreland resident and active member of the Keep Eastmoreland Free group. Her group envisions a different future, that is, an alternate storyline of how cities should develop. They say that creating a historic district is its own form of secession—and that in a changing city, no one should be allowed to secede from a communal story. Her point is mostly economic, and not limited to Portland. A 2016 study in the Journal of the American Planning Association looked at historic districts in New York City, and found that property values tend to increase after designation, making the neighborhoods “too expensive for low-income buyers.”
“I used to be a total snob when it came to residential additions and remodels,” says Dexter, who is an architect by trade. When she realized how rents and home prices were pushing people out of the central city, her views changed. “I would hope that we could put small apartments on the backs of these homes, or subdivide the large homes, and allow places for young people or people who are trying to downsize to live in our neighborhood.”
The ENA would dispute this vision. On their website, they note, “If anything the existing and proposed zoning and market pressures are likely to result in replacement housing that is significantly larger and less affordable than protected existing housing.” In other words, a wealthy neighborhood like Eastmoreland isn’t going to suddenly become affordable just because developers split a few lots. And brand-new split-lot homes aren’t where young people can afford to live, anyway.
And what about those big, beautiful houses? Opponents like Dexter agree that they are gorgeous, but they also point out that Eastmoreland’s history is problematic: the suburb was established as an upper-class haven, they say, aimed toward white, wealthy buyers. Early neighbors created a community trust to guide the development of the neighborhood and ensure it remained a “high class residential district,” according to clippings from a 1927 issue of Northwest Golfer. “It’s an ugly thing, if you look at the history and the patterns and what we’re preserving, which is an exclusionary enclave,” says Dexter. “Is that really the history we want to preserve?”
Irvington’s gentrification wasn’t a result of historic preservation—that process was already well underway throughout Northeast Portland by the time the neighborhood received its designation in 2010. After all, Portland was the most gentrified city of the last decade, according to Governing magazine. Like in Eastmoreland, Irvington’s historic district was more about preventing against a rash of demolition in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Settling on a canonical view of the past is one way to stop the future from intruding too unreasonably. Historic districts don’t want to stop change, just “slow it down,” says Jim Heuer.
Hugh and Marcia Ellis lived at the center of Irvington for 20 years. Hugh has wide, pink jowels and owlish eyes full of sharp intelligence. I asked him if he remembered it being a little rougher back then, trying to justify my own memories, and he told me a story of how one Sunday morning while he and Marcia were at church, someone brought a moving van and took all the outdoor furniture off their front porch. To them, it was more amusing than dangerous.
Over time the neighborhood became safer—or general impressions of its safety shifted—and it also became wealthier. Hugh and Marcia Ellis bought their home, a three-story farmhouse, for $60,000 in 1982. When they sold in 2002, the buyer flipped the house and sold it for $700,000 within a year. “Just a little farmhouse! How could it sell for so much? I read later it had resold for $980,000. Almost a million dollars for that house! It’s just a banged-up old three story house with inadequate wiring and inadequate plumbing!” Hugh shakes his head. The couple saw the consequences of this demographic shift during their final years before moving.
“There was a little bit less communication between people…a little less neighborliness,” Hugh says. “The people who had money generally worked long hours and had professional jobs. They didn’t sit around inviting neighbors in so much. It was very subtle and gradual.”
Ellis’ impression reflects my own—that of my childhood world of weird neighborhood characters, explorable backyards, permeable fences, and knowing everyone’s name in a ten-block radius was mere memory. Irvington may be safer now, but it also has stronger boundaries, firmer rules, fences that kids can’t climb over quite as easily.
“Neighborhoods are not static,” says Peggy Moretti, executive director of Restore Oregon, a non-profit devoted to preserving and restoring historic structures. “They wax and wane, and different waves of folks come through, and what’s kind of cool is the physical embodiment of it is reflected in the buildings.” Moretti talked to me a lot about storytelling in physical spaces. She believes historic buildings can maintain their livability and remain vibrant, community-centered places. History shouldn’t transform a neighborhood into a museum; it should elevate it and give it voice.
“Buildings embody a community,” said Moretti. “They embody the values and stories that went on in a place. They’re kind of like structural hieroglyphs… They show what people valued, what their aspirations were, what the economy was. They really tell the story of a place.”
THE LIMITATIONS OF OUR STORIES
The boundary reduction proposal submitted by Jim Brown’s committee was unanimously denied by the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation in 2015. Residents appealed to the National Parks Service to keep their secession dream alive, but weren’t approved. Meanwhile, Irvington preservationists were upset by the accusation that they didn’t do their homework. “The notion that people who are into historic preservation and want to preserve their homes are exclusively rich is a shibboleth. I’m appalled by it,” Jim Heuer leans forward, his voice rising. “I’m from the Midwest, where a lot of historic districts are really poor. Historic designation has been a way to help people get resources to fix up their properties. Here, there’s a notion that everybody in historic districts is rich. It couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
In the rebuttal to the secessionists, the ICA Historic Preservation Committee turned the tables on Alameda. In a statement to the State Advisory Committee, they wrote that in the years after the first redlining practices emerged, “the economic fortunes of Alameda Park with its curving streets up on the ridge overlooking the city, and Irvington with its regular gridiron of blocks on the flats continued to diverge economically and racially.” Again, the narratives split. Alameda is posited as having a rich neighborhood’s curving streets and nice views; Irvington is a mere “regular gridiron of blocks on the flats.” There’s a class distinction in those architectural descriptors. Is Irvington the entitled enclave of architectural purity or the progressive, hardworking streetcar suburb? Can it be both?
Despite the historic designation and the pride in community that the neighborhood maintains to this day, it has lost the diversity residents were so proud of. African-American residency in west Irvington declined from 43 percent to 23 percent by 2000, according to research from Portland State University. During the decade before the designation of the historic district, black residency declined a further 50 percent.
The original restrictive covenant that governed home ownership in Irvington also does not tell a narrative of equity. It prohibited building within 25 feet of the street; the manufacture and sale of liquor; the stabling of horses; the establishment of businesses, and also that no residence could be “in any manner used or occupied by Chinese other than as the said Chinese may be employed by residents thereon as house servants.” In my interviews, a lot of people mentioned the horses.
Advocates hope that historical preservation keeps the character of a place intact. The buildings tell a story through windows and porches and heritage trees. But not all the residents stay safe within the boundaries of that story. Some move, unable to afford the property taxes. Others are forced out to suburbs. History can be preserved, but livability is harder. Irvington is “like a gem that has been polished and polished and polished,” says Laura Foster, Portland guidebook writer. “I kind of lament the time when Portland’s old beautiful neighborhoods were for everybody, and now they aren’t.” In a burgeoning inner city, we are not all of us safe.
So what is Irvington’s story? I can pick out three or four or seven different identities from this one neighborhood—narratives of progressive values, narratives of self-sufficiency, narratives of safety, narratives of art. All of them seem valid. None of them seem complete.
The questions I come back to are these: do individual neighborhoods have a right to secede from the larger story of 21st century cities, the story of low housing stock and high prices, of rising rents, of density and affordability? Aren’t beautiful places worth saving? But also, who gets to decide to have their story saved? It seems to me that when those neighborhoods opt out of the future, in favor of a particular, preserved past, it places an additional burden on surrounding neighborhoods. They may have a right to push away the difficult tasks of creating livable cities because something in their blocks has a strong historic or aesthetic value. But when neighborhoods aren’t historic enough, they don’t get to opt out; they must absorb the dense condos and developing of single-family homes into duplexes, and they become regions of change, the next frontier of urban evolution. As cities grow, those stories evolve; we pick out different pieces of history to support new narratives, rewriting, over and over, the first line of a new story about us.
Caitlin Dwyer is a writer from Portland, Oregon. Her nonfiction, which often focuses on issues of belonging, identity, and education, has been published recently in Narratively, Oregon Humanities, Quartz, The Big Roundtable, and The Seventh Wave. She has an essay out in the collection Becoming a Teacher, published by In Fact Books, and is a monthly columnist at Buddhistdoor Global. She has studied writing at University of Hong Kong, Pacific Lutheran University, and Pomona College. Find her online at caitlindwyer.com or @dwyercait.