Steven C. Beda
Although the recent proposal for Oregon secession has been withdrawn, talk of an independent Pacific Coast is alive and well. #Calexit remains a popular Twitter tag. British Columbians are inviting Northwesterners to join them in a new West Coast nation on Facebook.
Secession talk has a long history in the Northwest. It’s unclear just how serious any of this talk is. Still, secession proposals, both past and present, speak to a persistent belief in our regional culture: we in the Northwest are different. We value nature, we value diversity, and you other regions don’t. For many, this seems truer today than ever before.
This Northwest exceptionalism is especially strong in Portland, a city so committed to environmentalism that it can look absurd, as every Portlandiaviewer knows.
The same cannot be said about Portland’s commitment to diversity. Many Portlanders acknowledge their city’s history of segregation, but, they say, that’s all in the past, we’re more enlightened now.
Not quite. Many environmental policies that Portlanders are proud of continue to perpetuate racial inequities. Until Portlanders reckon with the city’s recent history of environmental racism, they can hardly claim to be exceptional.
Much Northwest exceptionalism has its roots in 1975, when Ernest Callenbach published a utopian novel, Ecotopia. Callenbach imagined a future in which the West Coast had seceded and created a new ecologically-minded nation, Ecotopia. There, loggers planted two trees for every one they cut down. Cars were replaced by “electric traction units.” Ecotopians created a “stable state economy” and did away with polluting industries.
Few actually read the book, but the idea of the Northwest as Ecotopia became part of popular political discourse. The 1970s, after all, was a dynamic decade for Northwest environmentalism. Oregon governor Tom McCall was enacting path-breaking conservationist policies. The region appeared to be leading the nation into an ecological future.
If the Northwest was becoming Ecotopia, Portland was its capital. Unlike the fictional Ecotopia, city planners couldn’t do away with industry. They could, however, concentrate polluting factories in North Portland. Sure, that corner of the city would become hopelessly polluted, but most of the city would be toxin-free. Most of the city would be Ecotopia.
Here, it’s worth noting that people of color did not live in Callenbach’s imagined world. They’d all left Ecotopia of their own accord. This makes Callenbach’s utopian fantasy a vision of the future in which only whites benefit from environmentalism.
Portland’s real-life Ecotopia isn’t much different. The decision to concentrate pollution in North Portland, far from white communities, was not arbitrary. Rather, North Portland became the city’s industrial dumping ground because that’s where black people lived.
For much of the twentieth century, city covenants dictated where racial minorities could settle. One of the few areas open to non-whites was North Portland’s Albina neighborhood. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, African Americans transformed Albina into a vibrant center of black life and culture.
The neighborhood faced challenges, however, in 1948, when a massive flood wiped out the nearby community of Vanport, home to thousands of African American war industry workers.
The influx of Vanport’s homeless overwhelmed Albina. Apartment complexes became crowded. Garbage piled up in the streets. Albina’s residents did their best to maintain their community. But for many whites, the garbage piling up confirmed racist stereotypes that African Americans didn’t care for their neighborhoods. Whites came to see Albina as an environmental lost cause – in short, an ideal place to locate polluting industries.
For African Americans confined to Albina, first by racial covenants, then by informal patterns of segregation, Portland was hardly Ecotopia. The pollution funneled to their neighborhood created a wide range of health problems, from asthma to cancers…