Tuesday, February 11, 2014

It Ain't About Trader Joe's: In Solidarity With the Portland African American Leadership Forum

Recently several FBFs posted an article titled “Black Residents Reject Trader Joes Because It Would Attract Too Many White People.” This headline raised my curiosity and skepticism. In the somewhat flippant context of Facebook, it sounded like an Onion headline. It’s not, but it does reduce the complex and well-argued concerns of the black residents into a sound-bite that distorts and misrepresents the issues at hand, and in the process trivializes the history of struggle for democracy and justice of which this is but one episode. Trader Joes is the tip of the iceberg of the concerns this group of residents, The Portland African American Leadership Forum, voiced in a letter to the City Government. http://www.bizpacreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/paalf-letter-regarding-trader-joes.pdf
As this letter makes clear, PAALF’S opposition is primarily directed toward “the long-standing list of promises made, and yet unfulfilled, by the Portland Development Commission to prevent community displacement.” PAALF investigates the city’s claim that their development plans would “primarily benefit existing residents” and shows why it does not.
 In the first place, this development project would primarily benefit Majestic Realty, giving the Roski family, one of the richest families in the country, a $2.4 Million dollar “subsidy” from taxpayer’s money to build the develop the property. Neither the Roski family, nor Trader Joes would be accountable to the city or the residents of the community with this use of public funds. This form of “taxation without representation” should at the very least include an “affordable housing mandate” and a “legally binding community hiring agreement” in order to benefit existing residents. It must be both because the meaning of the word, “affordable,” can be twisted by developers and financiers, just as it is by the healthcare industry.
This is not a simple rejection of Trader Joes, only a rejection of the city giving a carte blanche to TJs and Majestic Realty; PAALF has clearly shown an ability to negotiate and compromise. This relatively modest demand would actually allow Trader Joes to move if these conditions were granted. While the city of Portland, once again, refused to respond to PAALF’s demands and broker a compromise between its constituents, Trader Joes made the decision on its own to pull out of the neighborhood.
By bowing out, Trader Joes allegedly comes out looking better, looking even like a victim. After all, as some have argued, it’s “kind of a shame given that Trader Joes is one of the few retailers that hires unskilled workers from its own neighborhoods and offers a living wage, health benefits and retirement.” And the story quotes African-Americans in the community who regret this decision. It even goes so far as to question PAALF’s decision to target Trader Joes, as misguided.
The story now becomes about Trader Joes and the culture they attract, the kind of food they sell, etc. In this sense, the Public Relations department of Trader Joes has stepped in to take the heat off the Mayor and the Portland Development Commission, which is PAALF’s real target. The larger, structural, concerns addressed in PAALF’s letter remain unaddressed.
The story is reduced to an issue of “attracting too many white people,” but this is not as “anti-white” as the press makes it seem. PAALF carefully chooses the word “non-oppressed populations,” rather than white. Their emphasis is on the displacement (the “pricing out”) of “low-income and black” populations. This process of displacement dates back to the 1950s (see my essay on the SF Fillmore district for a parallel history), and had been accelerating in recent years (as PAALF shows, over the last 15 years, over 10, 000 residents have been displaced).
Trader Joes may be a national symbol of gentrification, but it is does not exist in a vacuum. Much of the damage to the African-American Community in Portland had been done by the Legacy Emmanuel Hospital. Almost 40 years ago, “the Emmanuel Hospital expansion razed and displaced hundreds of African American homeowners and black owned businesses.” What was once the heart of the Black business district is now a vacant lot. PAALF’s demand for the Hospital to bequeath this unused land back to the black community should be seriously considered. It may seem “radical” to some, but it seems quite rational to me. At the very least it should be a public debate, but the press has buried this (as they bury the much larger issue of reparations for slavery). Is it not a reasonable demand to take a vacant lot, for which a for-profit hospital gets tax write-offs, and bring back the black owned businesses that once thrived there before the large chain stores moved in to price them out?
At the very least, I’d even consider taking that $2.4 Million subsidy and putting it back into the black community so that the incentives given to Trader Joes could be available to start locally black-owned businesses, and create an equal “playing field.” I am sure that PAALF would have no quarrel if these businesses attracted many white people to their neighborhood.
If anything good can come out of this story, it is that now people at least are talking about PAALF, a united front of various residents whose main goal is economic self-sufficiency and self-determination for Portland’s black community. It may even draw people away from the “spin” the white media puts on this story and toward the concerns, and positions that PAALF expresses in their brilliant letter to the city.
The injustices that PAALF recounts in its letter are certainly not unique to Portland, but to any municipality with a significant black community in this country. Nor will Trader Joe’s decorative gesture serve to appease, as long as the deeper issues remain unaddressed. But PAALF is at least on the radar now, and hopefully they will be able to build on this publicity (which can’t really be called a ‘victory’ but neither is it a defeat), to gain more support and influence on the policies of the government which currently ignores the vox populi for the whims of profiteering land-grabbing developers, financiers and speculators.