Author Renée Watson grew up in Portland and lived through the gentrification of her Northeast neighborhood. In 1990, more than 30 percent of Portland’s black population lived in North and Northeast Portland.
By the time Watson was a senior at Jefferson High School in 1996, change was moving in, and by 2010, that percentage was halved.
This month Watson released a young adult novel, “This Side of Home,” and kicked off the book tour here in her hometown, visiting libraries and schools, including her alma mater, Jefferson High School. This Side of Home deals with the experiences of identical twin sisters growing up in a gentrifying Portland neighborhood, much the experience that Watson herself lived through.
And it couldn’t be at a more fitting time. Some of Portland’s now blackest neighborhoods — St. Johns, Boise, Eliot and King — are poised on the brink of gentrification, says a study by Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. And with it, these neighborhoods risk pushing people of color out.
Renée Watson saw this happen as a youth, and continues to see it in her new home in New York, where she moved for college and never left. In her four published works, she has taken on Hurricane Katrina, the Harlem Renaissance and losing a parent — all with strong black girls at the center of the story.
The NAACP Image Award nominee is a writer in residence at public schools and commu-nity centers across the country, teaching creative writing and theater. She also writes for Rethinking Schools and the Oregon English Journal on arts and education — everything from sci-ence literacy to how to teach kids about police brutality against the black community.
Coming back to Portland recently, she said she “feels so loved” to be back in the place she grew up, sharing her book with the community. She hopes for her next project to be a book of poetry, where she writes about her own experiences as a black girl growing up in Portland.
Sarah Hansell: Although one of your other books is set in Portland, this one really deals with the landscape of the city, and Portland as a city is a huge part of the storyline.
Renee Watson: It’s interesting, I actually started writing the story when I was in high school. I didn’t know it would become a novel one day, it was just a short story for my English class. I wrote it because my Northeast Portland neighborhood was changing. I didn’t know the word gentrification, I had no language for that, but I could see something was changing. On Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. and Killingsworth there used to be a Fred Meyer that is now a police precinct. A Whole Foods opened up on 15th.
I started writing about these twin sisters, and the complications of having new white neighbors that are looking to me for friendships and relationships in school. Then I put that story away. That was a long time ago, and now living in New York, I see the same things happening in Brooklyn and in Harlem.
I just have so many conversations about how gentrification is happening. I’ve seen gentrification happen right before my eyes in my hometown as well as places that later became home. This is something that is happening across the nation and I think it’s important to provide spaces for young people to process how they feel about it. I want teachers to have a resource too in order to have discussions of race and class and all that.
S.H.: What made you decide to write the story about two sisters?
R.W.: You know, it’s a real practical plot. I made it to show both sides of the argument, both sides of the story, kind of.
I don’t think things are simple. It’s complicated, right? I made it to show someone being for it and someone being wary and against it. So identical twin sisters showed being just like someone and also being very different.
For Maya, the main character, there are expectations that she has for herself and people have for her, based on her neighborhood, the school she goes to and her family’s reputation. How do you break way from that, be a part of a group, part of a culture, but also have your own identity? It was just a way for me to play around with that and explore the messy things of identity and loyalty — what it means to be loyal to a community.
S.H.: North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods that have the highest populations of people of color, including St. Johns, Boise, Eliot and King, are poised for gentrification right now, and already are becoming trendier places for people to live. Do you think there are ways to avoid displacing people of color and poor people from these neighborhoods?
R.W.: Yeah, absolutely. I think it has to happen on many levels. People who own property and the real estate folks who are coming in and building condos and apartment complexes, I would hope would be mindful of who’s already there and who can afford these places. And there are a lot of families in Northeast Portland, and I’m noticing that a lot of the new things that are built are for single people, so just the way that the city is deciding what is built in North and Northeast Portland show what they care about. How do we create things that are conducive for families?
In the book there’s a scene where Maya realizes that people are just trying to make a living and people are just trying to live in a nice area, so she takes the first step to go to one of the businesses and say, ‘Hey, we’re a high school in your neighborhood, is there any way we can partner with you?’ So I think there are ways that businesses can help with local schools and com-munity organizations and make decisions that make sense for the neighborhood.
S.H.: As an educator who uses creative writing to help youth cope with trauma, what are ways that we can teach youth about tragedies like the ones in Ferguson and Staten Island?
R.W.: I always say poetry can hold your emotions, it can hold anger and sadness, it can hold your questions, and I think it’s a good outlet for young people to have structure to put to what they’re feeling and thinking. So I encourage educators to have students write about what happened. I’ve also known some visual artists lately who have young people take clippings about Ferguson and create a collage. I hope educators are not shying away from these difficult conversations.
For poets, Aracelis Girmay is one I have used in the classroom before. Her poetry is talking a lot about what is happening now, what happened in the past and what will happen in the future. I think young people need to be part of that conversation and art is a powerful way to do that.
S.H.: Is there anything else you want to share, about the book, your work, or your thoughts on gentrification?
R.W.: People always ask me, which one are you? And I think I’m both of the twins. I very much identify with Maya and Nikki. I love Portland and there are so many good things about my experience growing up here as a child, but there are some things that were painful and difficult along the lines of race and class that I dealt with, and I never got to really talk about those things until I was older. So I’m hoping that conversations are started from this book, that people don’t shy away from letting young people express how they’re feeling, especially young people of color, to have a space where they can talk about this stuff.
S.H.: You said that as a kid you didn’t get the opportunity to talk about your experience of race and class. Why do you think kids aren’t given the space to talk about these issues?
R.W.: I think there are a lot of reasons. There are some very practical reasons, especially when you’re talking about school where there’s not a long time of time to talk about what kids think, what they talk about. There’s also a lot of fear: “What if I make the kid upset, what if a kid cries?” And I don’t think those concerns shouldn’t be had. I don’t want to come across that it doesn’t matter, because it does. So I do think there should be support, I’m not just saying go out there and do it, but I do think we should figure out how to do it.
I also think that as adults, sometimes we feel we don’t want people to have to deal with that yet, that, “Oh, they’re so young, they don’t realize what’s going on, we don’t want to put that on them.” But I really do think that young people are aware, they know what’s going on, they just don’t have the language (to express it). They understand concepts of fairness and sharing and cooperation. They understand on a very basic level what it means to be nice and what it means to listen. So I just think if we learn to talk in kid-friendly language, there’s a way to do it, to be successful at it.