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Get out of your bubble with walking tour

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'Hidden History' explores black legacy in Albina with visits to historic locations

COURTESY PHOTO: KNOW YOUR CITY  - Cameron Whitten, executive director of the nonprofit Know Your City, will lead four more Hidden History of Albina walking tours this month. The tours stop at the Urban League of Portland and other sites of historical and cultural significance. So you've bought artisan salts and doughnuts on North Mississippi Avenue. You've dined at the oyster bars and craft brewpubs on North Williams. You even may have ridden your bike to the New Seasons there, or spent the day browsing among the hip boutiques.

Most Portlanders have visited the Albina District — but how well do they really know it?

For instance:

• Did you know that Martin Luther King Jr. came to Portland in 1961 to deliver a sermon at Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church? After his assassination in 1968, church leaders organized the civil rights leader's citywide memorial.

• Did you know that the food cart pod on North Mississippi is part of the property belonging to the Sons of Haiti Masonic Lodge, one of the last remaining black-owned buildings in the area?

• Did you know that the Albina District historically was the heart of the black community in the 1960s, more than 50 percent black in the 1980s, and currently less than 20 percent black?

Cameron Whitten is betting that these facts may be surprising.

At a time when civil rights battles are being fought every day — by everyone from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren to groups like Black Lives Matter, Don't Shoot PDX and Portland's Resistance (of which Whitten serves on the organizing committee) — race relations have never been more important, Whitten and others say.

The new executive director of the nonprofit Know Your City is launching another round of "Hidden History of Albina" walking tours this month. They're meant to be eye-opening and thought-provoking, good fodder to understand the current state of race relations here and nationwide.

"This region has changed so much — there are so many people moving here who don't know the story of this region," says Whitten, 25, a former Occupy Portland activist who ran for Portland mayor in 2012 and then fought for housing justice by staging a 55-day hunger strike outside City Hall.

In November, Whitten became the new executive director of Know Your City, which uses civic education to help cross boundaries and open world views.

"In order for us to better understand the current challenges, we have to understand our past, how we got to where we are today," Whitten says. "A lot of people care, but don't know what they can do or how to do more."

Know Your City launched the Albina history tour last year in partnership with the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods. About 500 people joined in last February during Black History Month.

COURTESY PHOTO: KNOW YOUR CITY  - The Sons of Haiti Masonic Lodge is one of the last black-owned properties in the Albina District, due to gentrification. Tour-goers hear stories about local black leaders roots, successes and struggles as part of Black History Month.    Established in 1926 as Negro History Week, the event became a monthlong event in 1976, an opportunity to learn about the history, traditions and contributions of African-Americans. It's celebrated in February because Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln have birthdays during the month.

In all, Know Your City ran 30 to 40 "Hidden Albina" tours last year to keep up with demand. Most who attend are locals of all races, including school groups from Boise-Eliot/Humboldt pre-K-8 School in the neighborhood, Cleveland High School, Lewis & Clark College and others.

The two-hour walking tour takes people to historic buildings, green spaces and public art pieces, sharing stories of their history and cultural significance. Whitten leads the Albina tour while other volunteers and staff lead the organization's other tours.

"Portland has the reputation of being the whitest city in America," says Whitten, citing 2013 data that showed Portland is 72 percent white, 10 percentage points above the national rate of other cities its size.

Nearly 10,000 people of color moved out of the city between 2000 and 2010 for a variety of reasons — namely the rising cost of housing and loss of livelihoods due to gentrification or development, depending on which term you prefer.

"Culturally, we're just so segregated," Whitten says. "When it comes to white people trying to understand race and be allies to people of color ... I feel like I become a subject in a zoo. They're reading about me, concerned about me, but don't know what it's like to be in my cage."

So what's the solution?

Whitten hardly has the answers. But he does believe more knowledge is better, not less. That's his thought behind the business he launched this month called Streams of Resistance, which will live-stream large demonstrations in Portland and offer daily news roundups intended to "push the dialogue" and help the oppressed tell their stories.

Whether it's a walking tour, a demonstration, a lecture, an evening of live jazz or a film during the Cascade Festival of African Films (through March 4), Whitten does have one suggestion for anyone looking to celebrate Black History Month: "Get out of your bubble, and you'll see your life grow in beautiful way."


Find out more

Upcoming "Hidden History of Albina" tours are set for:

• 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17

• noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18

• 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24

• noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25

Tickets are $15; for details: www.knowyourcity.org.

@jenmomanderson