Good News for Black Homes and Heritage

By Midge Pierce

Amidst three-plus months of outcries for racial justice and reforms, one City department quietly achieved an equitable path toward national recognition and preservation of homes and structures meaningful to the Black community.

Through a project called Portland’s African American Historic Resources Multiple Property Document (MPD), sites significant to Black Portlanders are now eligible for listings in the National Register of Historic Places.

The document, prepared by the City’s historic resources staff in collaboration with Black community leaders and preservation groups, has been approved by the National Parks Service which oversees the Register.

In addition to protections and prestige, listing on the National Register can offer financial advantages that may include special tax assessment programs, grants and potential restoration incentives.

For commercial buildings, up to one-fifth of renovations (including some seismic upgrades) are eligible for federal funds. Homes can receive tax abatements.

The MPD streamlines the application and designation process of properties with African American provenance that could mitigate displacement of Black Portland residents by providing a framework to save hundreds of homes and buildings.

The project serves as an umbrella to cover many properties that might otherwise experience demolition and the gentrification of historically Black neighborhoods happening recently in N and NE Portland neighborhoods such as Albina.

Within the MPD are a smattering of eligible sites in SE Portland. Despite charges of exclusionary practices, SE neighborhoods have historically included Black-owned businesses, churches and housing enclaves, notably in Montavilla, inner Buckman and Hosford-Abernethy.

According to Portland’s Historic Resources Planning Manager Brandon Spencer-Hartle, the Register’s acceptance of MPD’s umbrella rights some of the wrongs of Portland’s history.

“It’s a way to save some of the best of the past that has not yet been raised to historical significance,” he says.

In a summer of upheaval with nightly aircraft overhead, this under-the-radar, book length, 191-page document honors the heritage and lived experience of African Americans that many in Portland seek.

It details how Blacks were historically excluded from white-dominant systems of real estate, finance and employment and is a step toward equity of resources that can enhance Black lives by removing “barriers of access to opportunities,” according to Historic Landmarks Commissioner Derek Spears.

During October public hearings on the soon-to-be released Historic Resources Code Project, the project’s low profile will likely rise with citations that it is an encouraging racial pivot toward social parity.

Contributors to the MPD document hope it discourages the destruction of homes that might otherwise be in the way of development as a result of the recent passage of Residential Infill Project rezoning and ongoing densification along commercial corridors in traditionally Black neighborhoods.

The MPD provides a comprehensive overview of African American properties here residents can draw on to expedite their applications.

Local historian Kimberly Moreland is a board member of the Architectural Heritage Center (AHC) and member of the Oregon Heritage Commission. She provided foundational history described in the MPD.

“The national designation provides an additional layer of protection for historic properties that are threatened by aggressive redevelopment pressures.

“While national landmark designation cannot prevent displacement, it is a valuable tool to elevate the cultural heritage of African American places,” she said.

Executive Director of the AHC and MPD contributor Stephanie Whitlock stressed the urgency of the MPD.

“Many African American properties that could have been candidates for National Register listing have already been demolished. Buildings and other resources risk disappearance from the landscape and from our memory, unless we take steps right away to identify, designate and protect them.”

The MPD covers the African American experience in Portland from 1865 to 1973, a period encompassing the Civil Rights Movement. Allowing potential recognition of structures less than 50 years old is a departure from Register requirements that opens the door for a wider array of historically-Black-owned sites, including those involved in Civil Rights events.

The crux of the document is that it recognizes cultural significance of structures even if they do not meet traditional criteria of architectural merit.

By allowing special consideration for Black historical sites, Spencer-Hartle says the document is an alternative guide to designation even for properties that have been altered.

For instance, it allows homes with exteriors that were converted to accommodate businesses or churches or vice versa. Without the MPD, altered homes and businesses would be ineligible for National Register listing.   

Along with the MPD, the Parks Service listed NE’s Billy Webb Elks Lodge as the first building to receive a National Historic Register designation under the new cultural criteria. The building was a former YWCA with a storied history as a USO Center for African American soldiers as well as a refuge after the 1948 Vanport flood.

Spencer-Hartle says the National Register MPD and Billy Webb listing encouraged staff to expand criteria for future listings in the local Historic Resources Inventory (HRI).

Information will be in the draft of the three-years-in-the-making Historic Resources Code Project to be released mid-month and followed by a public hearing slated for October 27.

Historic preservation is not an easy sell in a city bent on growth and change. Given the challenge of balancing competing interests, Spencer-Hartle predicts the Code Project will please some and displease others.

Changes to review processes for buildings with historic designations will be of particular interest to residents in SE’s three National Register Historic Districts: Laurelhurst, Ladd’s Addition and Peacock Lane.

Also anticipated are plans for updating the 33-year-old citywide HRI and revising procedures for both adding and removing properties from the inventory.

Enhanced historic protections through conservation landmarks and districts are expected, as are controversial issues involving owner consent.

Since the African American Multiple Property Document’s release, the City has received renewed interest from the Black community to preserve long-standing businesses, churches, homes and fraternal organizations that were cultural touchstones.

Spencer-Hartle says that as building’s origins are researched, Portlanders reconnect to their roots and restore forgotten histories.

Property owners and local groups are encouraged to identify potential sites deserving commemoration. The significance of National Historic Resource listing for Portland’s Black population, which “endured displacement several times over” cannot be underestimated, according to a project press release.

While Portland’s MPD is a ground breaking approach to preserve Black history, other themed multiple listing projects have been developed for Asian-American and Pacific Island communities in California.

“The MPD framework is like a Christmas tree on which we can hang ornaments of cultural history for recognition,” Spencer-Hartle said.

Good News for Black Homes and Heritage

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