Everyone talks about gentrification in Portland, Ore., but what does it actually look like? Does its distinction as the whitest big city in America risk the erasure of the people of color who continue to reside there, but are being pushed to the margins?
Ricardo Nagaoka, a photographer of Japanese descent who was born and raised in Paraguay, has been photographing Portland’s small, resilient black community in the city’s north end. Out on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, past Rosa Parks Way, the black neighborhood of North Portland has endured systemic racism including redlining and segregation, and now, gentrification and displacement.
“People often write and talk about gentrification in numbers, statistics and economic terms,” he said. “I’m more interested in the subtleties, ambiguities and the psychological effects of it.” In his continuing series “Eden Within Eden,” Mr. Nagaoka explores this idea in powerful medium-format portraits and by focusing on the area’s poetic details — a church window covered by a tarp, or a rose bush with a single flower.
“From the start, I didn’t want to make a project about new condos replacing older houses,” he said. “That part of gentrification is generally understood. I’m more interested in the insidious aspects of gentrification. How it creeps in. How it lurks around the corner.”
The project started as a commission for a local nongovernmental organization, but Mr. Nagaoka continued to make these photographs long after the commission ended. “The people in this community told me they were robbed of their homes both physically and psychologically,” he said. “That really struck me.”
In one photo, a black child rests his head on the handlebars of his bike and looks into the camera. In another, a father and son hold each other, staring straight ahead, forcing the viewer to acknowledge them. Often, when people discuss whiteness in Portland, they say that there are aren’t any black people, which erases the black people that live there. The individuals in these photos, with their steady gazes, seem to be saying,: “I am here. I exist.”
Similarly, Intisar Abioto’s series, “The Black Portlanders,” pushes back against the pervasive idea that there are no black people in Portland. Ms. Abioto, a young black woman, shares her straightforward portraits on her blog, and on social media, creating an online space for Portland’s black community.
Mr. Nagaoka is working toward turning this project into a book. “I’m collaborating with local historians and writers that were born and raised in North Portland,” he said. “I’m taking the photos, but it is, of course, their story to tell.”
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