Albina was once the hottest neighborhood for jazz in Portland, where Etta, Louis, and Thelonious jammed late into the night. But then the bulldozers came and took the music away—along with so much more
Photos Andy Abeyta | Video Christina Belasco | Words Reuben Unrau
Commuters on bicycles cruise by a row of yoga studios, cafés, and craft breweries along North Williams Avenue in northeast Portland. Subarus and Toyota Priuses fill the parking lot at New Seasons, the local organic grocery store. Across the street, shoppers pop in and out of high-end boutiques that specialize in faux-leather bags, handcrafted toys, and vegan soap products.
North Williams runs through the Albina district, a modern-day haven for trendy urbanites, reflecting the hip identity that has put Portland in the spotlight in recent years. The city frequently finds itself near the top of national lists for being the most livable, the most bike friendly, and the best city for beer, luring young, college-educated progressives along the way.
But fifty years ago, “hip” in Albina took on a different definition. “Hip” didn’t come in the form of baristas or breweries or bearded bicyclists. “Hip” was the word to describe the music that rang inside the packed jazz clubs that once dotted North Williams Avenue. And for many of the African-American residents who used to make up the majority of Albina, “hip” has long since disappeared.
Businessman Paul Knauls stands in front of the location of the former Cotton Club. Aside from his jazz venue, Knauls has owned three other businesses and served as a community activist in the neighborhood, earning the title as “The Unofficial Mayor of Northeast Portland.”
North Williams Avenue was the hub of all the late-night action in Portland—the epicenter of an integrated, around-the-clock spectacle of swing dancers, be-boppers, and street hustlers. The musicians of the 1950s and ’60s who came to play there affectionately called it “The Stem.” Clubs like Fraternal Hall, Jackie’s, McLendon’s Rhythm Room, and Paul’s Paradise lined the avenue and attracted such talent as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Louis Armstrong. “It was happening,” says drummer Ron Steen, who launched his music career at the tail end of Albina’s jazz heyday during the 1960s. “People from out of town would come up and couldn’t believe the energy. They said they’d never seen anything like this in other cities.”
On a Wednesday night in late winter, Steen, 65, wearing his graying black hair in a ponytail, has just finished performing at Wilf’s, a restaurant and bar in downtown Portland, about ten minutes across the Broadway Bridge from Albina. Sipping on coffee, he transports himself back to his teenage days learning jazz on Albina’s bandstands. He remembers seeing Bill Cosby smoke a cigar while sitting in on drums during late-night jam sessions at the Upstairs Lounge. He remembers the night he learned how to play softer after being scolded on stage by legendary soul diva Etta James. “Stop playing those damn drums and give me a backbeat!” Steen recalls her saying. He remembers frequently ordering a steak and eggs plate for $3.50 before walking home in the early hours of the morning.
As fond as Steen’s memories are as an up-and-comer in Portland’s bustling black entertainment district, he also remembers when those famous clubs and businesses in his neighborhood disappeared. “It’s all gone now,” he says, shaking his head. “They tore it all down.”
Drummer Ron Steen stands outside the Arabella Salon on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Fifty years ago, this was the location of the Upstairs Lounge, a popular jazz club where Steen spent his teenage years learning drums at late-night jam sessions. Today, he lives a few blocks from here and says that he barely recognizes the community he grew up in. “It was an all-black neighborhood, and now I’m the only black dude around. I live smack dab in the middle of Portlandia.”
The rise and fall of the African-American community—and with it the once thriving jazz scene in Albina—is an ongoing story of segregation, urban renewal, and gentrification. It’s a story that began decades before the first notes of jazz were ever played along North Williams Avenue.
During World War II, Portland established itself as one of the nation’s largest shipbuilding industries, attracting thousands of African-Americans to the city from the South to find work at the Kaiser shipyards. According to In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, between 1940 and 1950 the city’s black population skyrocketed from 1,931 to 9,529, but finding housing after the war proved to be difficult. Realtors refused to sell property to blacks in predominately white neighborhoods under the notion that “negroes depress property values,” according to a 1957 report by the City Club of Portland. As a result, roughly half of the entire black population of Portland was squeezed into Lower Albina, a two-mile area centered along North Williams Avenue near the Steel Bridge.
Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, black-owned businesses began sprouting up in Albina, including the famous jazz clubs that became the go-to destination for entertainment. Despite Portland becoming one of the most segregated cities in the northern United States, music acted as a unifying force between races. “The people who went there went there for the music, and that was the common denominator,” says Robert Dietsche, a jazz historian and author of Jumptown: The Golden Age of Portland Jazz, 1942-1957. “They didn’t realize what they were doing, but they were on the cutting edge of integration.”
James Benton, a prominent jazz singer better known by his stage name “Sweet Baby” James, owned a one-of-a-kind venue in Albina where people of all races came together to dance the night away. His house on the corner of Northeast Shaver Street and North Williams was known as “The Backyard”—a renovated, makeshift nightclub with soundproofed walls, two pianos, and thirty-nine chairs taken from an abandoned movie theater. In the back, two barbeque pits cooked up the best in soul food—“pig tails, neck bones, black-eyed peas, and greens,” as Benton puts it. For local jazz luminaries like Mel Brown and Bobby Bradford, “The Backyard” was a launching pad used for pre-show rehearsals and post-show jam sessions that swung till six in the morning. “Everyone wanted to come by there and show their stuff,” Benton, 84, says in his home nestled in the woods of Scappoose, Oregon, about a half an hour north of Portland. “It never mattered what color you were. Music was our thing and it was all the time.” Today, Benton’s house serves as a museum that tells the story of Albina’s musical history. Polaroid photos cover the walls, revealing the faces of the musicians, club owners, and hustlers that roamed the streets during the 1950s.
Singer James Benton, known onstage as “Sweet Baby” James, listens to a record in his home in Scappoose, Oregon. On the walls, hundreds of photos tell the story of Albina’s jazz history.
While Albina fostered a community of prospering black-owned businesses and a bustling nightlife, city planners had different ideas for the area. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, cities across the nation began a wave of urban renewal projects that aimed to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods. For the Portland Development Commission (PDC), Albina was one of those areas. In 1962, the PDC justified its actions for re-development in the Central Albina Study by stating that “urban renewal, largely clearance, appears to be the only solution to not only the blight that presently exists in Albina but also to avoid the spread of that blight to other surrounding areas.”
Businessman Paul Knauls moved to Portland from Spokane, Washington, in 1963 to fulfill his dream of opening a nightclub. He arrived in the city at a time when Albina had already experienced significant renewal. Massive development projects such as the construction of the Minnesota Freeway (now Interstate 5) and the Veterans Memorial Coliseum uprooted more than 500 homes and businesses in Lower Albina. Lil’ Sandy’s, Portland’s largest blues club where B.B. King performed, was just one of the notable locations demolished in the process.
“City Council says, ‘We got to get them out of here, that’s going to be big development,” says Knauls. “They run a freeway through your community, then you got to move out. You have no options when they just move you out.” As residents relocated, so did the music and business hub of Albina. Six blocks northward, on the corner of North Russell and Williams, the new heart of Portland’s African-American community emerged.
Knauls’ first business venture came to fruition in 1963 when he opened the Cotton Club just three blocks away from North Russell and Williams. Named after the iconic venue in Harlem, Knauls’ Portland offshoot soon became the hottest spot in town for live music during the 1960s. Among the famous faces seen inside his club were Etta James, Sammy Davis Jr., and boxer Joe Louis. At the end of many nights, Knauls, sharply dressed in a suit and fedora, would jump on stage and announce: “You’re at 2125 North Vancouver Avenue. It’s the only club on the West Coast with wall-to-wall soul. You don’t have to go home, but you got to get out of here!”
“Music is our basis for life,” he says. “Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights—those were our nights to party. We worked for lower wages than our counterparts, but when you get paid, it’s time to celebrate.”
After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, business at the Cotton Club started to decline as racial tensions rose. The integrated clientele that once filled Knauls’ club most nights stopped showing up, and in 1970 he sold his venue. Today, where the club once stood, sits a dilapidated, vacant warehouse locked behind a chain-link fence.
However, throughout the 1960s, Knauls and his wife, Geneva, had established themselves as the neighborhood’s most prominent black business owners. They operated two other popular businesses, Geneva’s Restaurant and Lounge (“known for the best soul food west of the Mississippi”) and Paul’s Cocktails, a pool hall and bar. Before long, though, Knauls experienced firsthand the impact of a new urban renewal project that would once again take down the heart of the African-American community.
In 1971, the PDC launched the Emanuel Hospital Urban Renewal Project, which required seventy-six acres of land between Russell and Ivy Street for a widespread expansion. By 1975, the PDC had purchased and demolished 188 properties (158 residential and 30 commercial) including Paul’s Cocktails. Affected residents received compensation—$4,000 for renters, $15,000 for homeowners—but were left to find housing on their own.
Today, on North Russell and Williams, at the site of the projected hospital expansion lies an empty patch of grassland. The project lost funding and was never completed.
Since moving to Albina, Knauls has witnessed more than just the disappearance of Albina’s jazz scene. On his fingers, he can count the few black-owned businesses that have remained in the neighborhood. “From repair shops to record stores to dry cleaners—everything you can think of that makes a community go, that’s all gone now,” he says.
Ron Steen, who got his first professional drumming gig at Knauls’ Cotton Club when he was 15, says that many significant locations from his upbringing have disappeared, too: The house where he was born on North Williams Avenue; Slaughter’s Pool Hall, a teen hangout popular for its jukebox; and the grocery store where his mother worked for thirty-four years.
“It was devastating,” Steen says of Albina’s changing landscape. “To me, that was like a death in the family.”
Today, Albina is again under development, but this time projects are materializing. On North Williams Avenue, cranes on construction sites tower over the street where new, high-rise condominiums are beginning to take shape. While Albina during the 1960s and ’70s was defined by large-scale land clearance and resident relocation, a new wave of transformation is taking place. Gentrification—the divisive urban process in which affluent, typically white residents and developers move in and repurpose lower-income areas—is the latest chapter in Albina’s makeover. Community leaders in Seattle, Washington D.C., and San Francisco have been dealing with this issue for the last twenty years, but a February 2015 survey by Governing Magazine shows that gentrification is accelerating the fastest in Portland.
Karen Gibson, associate professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University, says cities have an incentive to gentrify. Bringing in more affluent people to a neighborhood stimulates local economy, reduces crime, and revitalizes commercial areas. Property values rise as well. While median home values city wide have increased 36 percent between 2005 and 2015, home values in Albina have risen nearly 60 percent, from $249,000 to $395,000 in that same span, according to data from Zillow. Developers look at neighborhoods like Albina with dollar signs in their eyes, but many tenants can’t afford rising rent costs, and moving out is their only option. In 1970, African-Americans made up 60 percent of the Albina population. In 2010, they comprised just 20 percent. And for the longtime residents who have remained in redeveloped areas like Albina, certain aspects of their community have been lost forever.
“You lose culture and people start to feel a lack of belonging in their own neighborhood,” Gibson says. “Your community changes so much that it’s a sense of loss. Some feel their history is being erased.”
Despite decades marked by bulldozers and accelerating rent, the spirit of old Albina lives on for Paul Knauls and Ron Steen. For the past twenty-four years, Knauls has owned Geneva’s Shear Perfection Barber-Beauty Salon on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Albina. Now 84 and a recent widower, Knauls still wears a gold chain and his signature white captain’s cap; he still answers phone calls and greets customers with a smile spread ear-to-ear. In the back of the barbershop, where his son Paul Jr. cuts hair, a “Wall of Fame” holds dozens of framed photos of iconic musicians, athletes, and celebrities who have visited the various businesses he has owned in Albina throughout his life. A large sign for “House of Sound,” an old record store where he used to shop, hangs on an adjacent wall.
Knauls admits that business at Geneva’s has suffered over the years as Albina’s black residents have relocated to the eastern fringes of the city. “The same person that used to walk by here to make an appointment doesn’t walk by here anymore,” he says. “That person lives in Gresham and Troutdale now.”
In conversation, though, Knauls frequently lets out a burst of raspy laughter and returns to the fact that he is “blessed.” He is blessed to own his building; otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to afford the higher rent. Perhaps more importantly, he is blessed to maintain a strong core of faithful customers who have kept his barbershop alive.
Armetrice Campbell, an Albina resident who moved to Portland from Paris, Texas, in 1990, has been one of those loyal customers. While her son, Jadarian, rests his head on her shoulder, Campbell explains that Knauls’ barbershop is more than just a place to get a haircut. “It’s one big family,” she says, sitting in a barber chair. “If Geneva’s goes away, then pretty much part of our black community is gone.”
Across the river from Knauls’ barbershop, Ron Steen is proving that the “power, beauty, and mystery” of jazz that enraptured him as a boy is still alive within him. At Wilf’s, his trio swings along to a medley of upbeat be-bop and tender ballads. During his drum solos, he plays with the same fervent spirit reminiscent of his Cotton Club days—his eyebrows rise over his glasses and he shouts as his cymbals crash in exclamation. Steen consistently plays at least three shows a week all over the city—Wednesday nights at Wilf’s, and two Sunday shows at the Augustana Church and Clyde’s Prime Rib. Playing in the moment and accepting the spontaneous changes that occur throughout a song are crucial elements of jazz, and for Steen his opinions on the transformation of Albina throughout his life aren’t too different. “For every advance you make, you lose something in the process. That’s just the way it is,” he says reflectively after the show. “But what makes you a human being, what you have in your head—that can never be taken away. You can give it up, but no one can take it from you.”
Steen drums during a performance at Wilf’s Restaurant and Bar in downtown Portland. Despite Albina’s sweeping transformation, Steen still performs in clubs across the city. “Music is bigger than I can ever tell you,” he says. “There might be all this racism and discrimination, but up here on the bandstand everybody’s equal.”