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Nancy Rommelmann Is Not Black
But, she wrote an insightful piece on moving with her husband and daughter to a black neighborhood in Portland. Beyond her thoughtfulness on the issues, what I always love about Nancy's work is how she's always so great at writing people, like Squeaky at the end (at the link). Actually, I think you can just about smell the people when you read her work. Here's an excerpt from her piece, for Willamette Week:

I knew nothing about Portland. My husband, who grew up here, said the house's location—in Boise-Eliot, an area roughly bordered by Northeast Broadway, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Skidmore Avenue and Overlook Bouvelard/Interstate Avenue—could not be beat. Also, I'd seen him scowl when we looked at properties in Laurelhurst, in Ladd's Addition. It was all too done, he said; he didn't want to move someplace where everybody had their nice little frou-frou lawn. Boise-Eliot wasn't like that; the huge and elaborate Victorian and Craftsman and Foursquare homes were as often as not in disrepair.

We made an offer on the house. A few days later, while in the produce aisle of an L.A. supermarket, my husband's cell phone rang, a semi-frantic call from his aunt who lives in Beaverton. "You can't move there," she said, explaining that it was dangerous: too many gangs, too many drugs. I heard, though she did not say, too black.

We bought the three-bedroom 1905 house for $304,000 and, in the summer of 2004, moved in. I met the kids, who immediately sat on my steps and introduced themselves and their baby dollies. They played outside all day and into the night. Seeing their bikes left on the sidewalk, sometimes for days, made the street feel both old-fashioned and safe, as did my neighbors, sitting in the evenings on their porches.

Before the year was out, the college kids renting the house next door were displaced by the owner, a 50ish white guy who eventually sold to a white couple. The dilapidated Craftsman across the street was sold by a black gentleman to another white couple. Last month, the duplex that was home to three of the little girls I'd seen that first day, went on the market. In less than two years, the racial mix on my end of Cook had gone from 50/50 black/white to 70 percent white.

A few weeks ago, I asked my neighbor across the street about a hunter-green Ford Taurus parked in front of her house that hadn't moved in eight months and was now covered in moss. Catherine said it was her ex's, it wasn't running, she didn't have the key, and if I wanted it off the street, I could call the city to have it towed.

That night at about 9:30, there was a knock on my door. It was Catherine, leaning on the hiking pole she uses as a cane and wanting to know, "Why is it important to you to have that car gone?"

I told Catherine to forget it; the car didn't matter. Later, I wondered whether I was one of those a-holes who call themselves "urban pioneers" but who become self-congratulatory and smug—the sort who suggest you might, for the sake of the street, trim your lawn.

I was amazed at the slew of vitriolic comments below Nancy's piece -- accusing her of everything short of sneaking out in the wee hours to burn crosses in her neighbors' lawns. Here's the one I left in response:

Amy Alkon Jul 16th, 2007 1:08am

"Squeaky is not Nancy's equal in education or achievement. A black person who is would make Nancy nervous."

Oh, please.

I know Nancy from Los Angeles and I've seen her around black people who are her "equal in education and achievement," and she treats them the way she treats everyone (at least, as far as I've experienced in the 10ish years I've known her): With respect, kindness, and warmth.

If you're lucky, you'll get to meet her some day. I'm guessing, face to face with the warmth that is Nancy, all you anonymous commenters spewing your vitriol above will melt into little puddles on the floor.

What's weird here are all the suppositions that she's arrogant, a terrible person, a bad driver, and Jewish (would that make her better or worse as an accused neighborhood ruiner?) FYI, regarding the aggressive driving accusation -- I've driven with her a number of times, and lived to tell the tale. She actually drives pretty boringly -- like a mom with a kid -- which she is.

All in all, Nancy's just a regular girl from Brooklyn, born with a plastic spoon in her mouth, who's worked hard as a writer for everything she has. She bought a beautiful old house, volunteers at the school, and has become part of the neighborhood -- just like she was in her neighborhood in Los Angeles. This is a problem for you up there in Portland...because her skin's the wrong color? If that's not racism, what would you call it?

For the record, I still live in Los Angeles, hood-adjacent, and my next-door neighbors (who are also my friends) are black. If there were some dumpy-ass vehicle growing moss on our block, they'd probably be the first to call to get it hauled off (that is, if I didn't beat them to it). Wanting to live in a nice, safe neighborhood isn't a black/white issue, it's a human issue.

More of Nancy's writing here, at her blog. And here, at the new site Hillary Johnson just built for her.

Posted by aalkon at July 16, 2007 3:31 PM


I read Nancy all the time. I happen not to see anything wrong with gentrification, but some of the comments at WW were just so nuts.

Posted by: kishke at July 16, 2007 7:27 AM

I don't either (see anything wrong with gentrification). P.S. Those haters over in the comments section should be so lucky to be Nancy's neighbor. Also, her husband started a successful business in Portland, bringing money to a neighborhood that wasn't exactly brimming with chichi businesses. And FYI, if you want some killer coffee (I generally describe it as "like drinking velvet") mail-order some Ristretto. I get Sumatra Mandheling, ground fine for espresso. It comes in a few days via Priority Mail. As I like to tell Nancy, I ordered it the first time because I like to support my friends (buying their books or whatever they're selling). But, after I drank it, I realized I'd order it even if I hated Nancy and her hub's guts!

PS Yes, I know Nancy's hub's name. I tend to think the boyfriends and husbands of us girls who inflame with our words have a right to remain private, vis a vis our...inflammation.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 16, 2007 7:48 AM

I loved this comment:

I told Catherine to forget it; the car didn't matter. Later, I wondered whether I was one of those a-holes who call themselves "urban pioneers" but who become self-congratulatory and smug—the sort who suggest you might, for the sake of the street, trim your lawn.

Keep me out of those neighborhoods, thanks. Until a few years ago, my mother was living in a condominium across from the Belleview Biltmore Hotel in Belleair, Florida. And you will never meet a more petty class of person than those who life in affluent condos. A college-roommate and I shared the place for one summer. One day, while my roommate was sunning himself on the patio, the empty Coke can he was drinking from happened to fall over and roll into the drainage ditch surrounding our patio. He couldn't see it and forgot all about it. Now, we were on the first floor (which is technically the second floor, with a ground floor below us). The patio was surrounded by cement railings. The only vantage from which anyone could have seen the Coke can in the drainage ditch would be from above. Not the ground or the street.

But the complaints came pouring in like you wouldn't believe. You'd think we'd inadvertantly lowered the property values by 75% for every house within 50 miles.

I did once get a complaint myself. I was returning from the swimming pool as was spotted shirtless in the hallway. I'm sure the residents are still talking about it to this day.

Posted by: Patrick at July 16, 2007 8:09 AM

Forgive if this is a double post, it's a bad computer day...

But I couldn't get the sense from ROmmelman's piece whether Katherine was trying to pick a fight or was really looking for help in establishing boundaries. There's zero doubt that the Rommelman houshold was good for property values....

Posted by: Crid at July 16, 2007 8:14 AM

As for this comment:

Nancy isn't exactly a hard-ass about trimmed lawns and stuff, but I like that she wonders about this, and then wonders aloud in her piece.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 16, 2007 8:23 AM

Most of the outlandish posts at WW reminded me why I left Berkeley as soon as I could graduate.

Posted by: snakeman99 at July 16, 2007 9:25 AM

I can understand both sides of the gentrification issue. There's nothing wrong with buying a beautiful old home and fixing it up, and there shouldn't be anything inherently "white" or "black"--or Jewish, jeez, where did that come from?--about it.

On the other hand, Nancy's move from L.A. to Portland reflects a larger trend in the West: Californians moving to the Pacific Northwest and driving up property values, Washingtonians and Oregonians moving to Montana (where I live), and doing the same here. Or rather, not just them--this doesn't happen in a vacuum--but also the market, real estate agents, and the people selling their homes. When housing prices in Bumfuck, Montana rise to $300,000 for a shack on two acres it triggers a lot of hatred towards the newcomers. The locals can't afford to buy these properties, and if they live next door, they can't afford the new higher property taxes on their own homes. This hatred exists independently of race; after all, Montana has a grand total of six black people.

As for the grotty car, I don't understand how a neighborhood eyesore becomes a black or white issue, let alone class or income level. Lots of people, black, white, or purple, rich or poor, are capable of creating a nice neighborhood in any section of any town. I don't think Nancy was an "a-hole urban pioneer" to ask about the car's owner. As my grandmother, born dirt-poor on a North Dakota farm in 1912, used to say whenever she saw a run-down house, "soap and water don't cost much."

Posted by: Rebecca at July 16, 2007 10:34 AM

Consider that Nancy might've experienced a similar thing in her neighborhood in Los Angeles -- prices going up as people from out of town or across town moved to her neck of the woods. This is reality in a capitalist system. I don't have the right to live in Bel Air unless I can pay the going rate for real estate there -- anymore than anybody has the right to live on Nancy's block unless they, too, can pay.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 16, 2007 11:48 AM

This is reality in a capitalist system. I don't have the right to live in Bel Air unless I can pay the going rate for real estate there

Sure, I can hear that. I do think, though, that rising property values - and the higher taxes it brings - should not be allowed to drive people from their homes. There should be some kind of grandfather clause limiting property-tax increases for previous owners. Come to think of it, doesn't California already have some such law?

Posted by: kishke at July 16, 2007 12:11 PM

I don't know the details of California's setup, but I heard of a proposal that was supposed to be similar. The property taxes on a house would be set at X percent of the house's last sale price. That encourages people to buy cheap and fix up, to stay in their neighborhoods, and it doesn't make the neighbors angry because the taxes on their houses are not affected.

Posted by: Pirate Jo at July 16, 2007 12:40 PM

So...when the neighbors decide to move, and they get to sell their houses for much more than they paid for they give the city the difference in profit as a rebate on the property taxes they didn't pay?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 16, 2007 1:06 PM

Why should they? The city is not responsible for their profit. They simply use rising prices as an excuse to chisel more money from homeowners.

Truth be told, I don't think property taxes should be tied to current prices at all. After all, it's not as though the city offers better services in pricier neighborhoods. Instead, there should be a one-size-fits-all evaluation of the property. So and so much acreage, so and so many square feet, bedrooms, bathrooms etc. pays so and so much in taxes, regardless of what the house cost.

Posted by: kishke at July 16, 2007 1:41 PM

I don't think your Bel Air scenario quite applies, Amy. There's a difference between moving into a wealthy neighborhood without being able to afford the cost of living (and possibly expecting society to subsidize your housing because you think it "owes" you something) and a comparatively wealthier (or at least better off than the current residents) individual moving into an established working class neighborhood and being able to afford one, two or three of the houses. In the first case, if you can't afford to move to Bel Air, you can't move to Bel Air. That's that. No government entity is seriously going to intervene and demand that you or I or anyone else has the "right" to live there.

I'm in no way excusing the bad behavior, the name calling, or the racist remarks written in response to Nancy's article on WW. I support bringing economic development to "blighted" neighborhoods. However, I think anyone would be upset if they opened their annual property tax bill and found that the cost of living in their neighborhood, the neighborhood they and their family had lived and owned property in for decades, was such that they could no longer afford the house they already own. I find it pretty hard to believe they'd look at their budget, at the house they've resided in for years, and then their bills and say, "Oh well, that's capitalism." Yes, things change, real estate markets rise and fall, and life is not fair, yadda yadda yadda... If you yourself would be able to rise above it then you've got a level of equanimity that's to be admired, Amy.

Posted by: Rebecca at July 16, 2007 1:53 PM

Rebecca, I can't afford to buy a house in Mar Vista. Or even Watts. So, I rent. My rent goes up every year. It just went up quite a bit. When it gets too high, I'll have to move. That's the way life in a capitalist country works. I don't want to move, but I can afford what I can afford, and then I have to go elsewhere.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 16, 2007 1:58 PM

When a neighborhood gets pricier the services do get better. Take a look at bed-sty in NY. Higher property taxes mean better schools and more cops, Better support systems and such. This is only valid if the added money is used correctly and not funneled into someones personal caufers. Amy also has a point if you rent then your rent will steadily increase. Also if the property value goes up then the locals can sell the house with a large profit and move to an area with lower taxes. Yes being forced to sell a house isn't the nicest thing like Amy said that's capitalism. The system does not take everyone into account but enough of the majority that it works.

Posted by: vlad at July 16, 2007 2:38 PM

I live in a one-bedroom Craftsman shack that would probably sell for a million-five. In Los Angeles, that is. In Georgia, the same house on the same plot of land, would probably sell for about 85K...just a wild guess. My landlord bought up properties in and around the hood when nobody wanted them. He's an ordinary guy from some ordinary place in England, and now he's probably a gazillionaire...and good for him. I spent the days when he was buying up property honing my writing...which is why he's a wealthy landowner, and he isn't complaining that he doesn't have a syndicated newspaper column...any more than I have the right to whine that he owns the house I live in and I do not.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 16, 2007 3:30 PM

Depends on where in Georgia. If your Craftsman was in Savannah, you'd probably be looking at even higher prices than L.A. Up here, in some towns, it would be upwards of half a million. No kidding.

My original point was that the vitriol Nancy faced is endemic across this part of the country, whether you live in a poor area of Portland or a poor state like Montana, and it goes beyond racial lines. That, and I think it's sad that keeping a neighborhood downtrodden and dirty is somehow more "black" and/or "keeping it real".

And, to borrow a phrase of Vlad's, it isn't the nicest thing, but people are incredibly threatened by gentrification. They don't care about capitalism or rights. The Letters to the Editor column of any local paper provides daily examples of this. They roll out the Unwelcome Wagon at a moment's notice because they see that the newcomers, whether it's Nancy in Oregon or Joe Seattle here, will impact their property values. They don't see that as values rise, tax revenues will rise, and services will improve and increase. They only see the short term effects. And what they see can be summed up by a locally popular bumper sticker: "Welcome to Montana. Now go home." Or, better yet, "Californians: gut shoot 'em at the border."

Posted by: Rebecca at July 16, 2007 4:02 PM

I agree with Amy's comments about capitalism and only buying what you can afford, but I also agree that it's wrong for the government to tax you out of something you already own. There is no contradiction here, because what the government is doing has nothing to do with capitalism.

Property taxes make sense when you are paying for shared amenities like roads and infrastructure, and they will go up a small amount as long as the guys who clean the streets keep getting raises every year.

But the schools are killing us. Schools cost the taxpayers anywhere from $5K-$15K per year per kid, depending on where you live, and some of the most costly schools in this country are the worst. Since I trust the intelligent posters on this board not to start with the, "How dare you suggest I pay for my own children, since they will be changing your bedpans someday," argument, how about addressing the biggest chunk of our property tax bill?

What in blazes do you GET for (let's say) $10K a year? I am sure the capitalistic free market could come up with better education solutions than the bureaucratic nightmare we have now. How much does it really cost to teach your kid how to read and write, do math, learn basic life skills? How much of that do you really need to pay someone else to do? Is it right for the taxpayers to subsidize your kids' hobbies?

The best way to lower taxes is to reduce government spending. Straighten out the current education mess, and the property tax mess will no longer be such a mess itself.

Posted by: Pirate Jo at July 16, 2007 4:04 PM

They don't see that as values rise, tax revenues will rise, and services will improve and increase.

I don't see it. I live a NJ town which has seen huge price and tax increases. The services haven't changed a bit. Same police, same garbage pickup, same schools, same everything. Where's the extra money going? Who knows?

Posted by: kishke at July 16, 2007 4:25 PM

Pirate Jo -

You're thinking of CA Prop 13, which caps property taxes at a percentage of purchase price until a change of ownership, or new construction, occurs. Probably the best example of a citizen-based state initative in the last few decades. Any CA candidate that breathes even a hint of threat towards Prop 13 heads toward inevitable defeat (or at least enthusiastic back-peddling).

So absent a non-Prop 13 universe (which I've never experienced, having only purchased property in L.A.), I'll never understand the animosity towards gentrification. The only people hurt by such sentiment are the middle-class trying to build a neighborhood with amenities comparable to those they can't currently afford. This is a bad thing? We should actively DEflate property prices? That hardly makes sense in an America where home ownership is not only prized, but actively encouraged through low interest rates and favorable tax deductions. Yes, let's encourage someone to make the biggest investment in their life and then actively lobby to limit their returns.

Yes, let's do race to the bottom. I'm sure we'll all be better off for it.

Posted by: snakeman99 at July 16, 2007 4:30 PM

Well, that's the way it's supposed to work. Color me naive. But it sounds like you need to hold your city's government accountable for the tax revenue they've collected from you.

Posted by: Rebecca at July 16, 2007 4:31 PM

Rebecca, you should see the sparks flying in my neck of the woods! Local voters turned down - by 85%! - a proposed sales tax hike. A third of the takins were supposed to go toward property tax relief, but no one fell for it. As soon as that happened, they would just re-assess all the properties, collect back the "relief," and we'd all be stuck with a higher sales tax. People in my area have been screwed by the government before, and resentment has brewed to an all-time high. I'm so glad. People are finally starting to realize that government isn't the solution to fixing problems.

Posted by: Pirate Jo at July 16, 2007 4:38 PM

Woo, don't I know it. The notion of a sales tax (Montana doesn't have one) comes up every few years, thanks to a few key Republicans pushing a state-wide sales tax. They make the same promise: "We'll lower your property taxes if you vote yes!" Ha! It goes down to defeat by the most incredibly lopsided margin every damn time. The rest of us know what will happen: we'll get a sales tax, our property taxes will be lowered for all of five seconds until someone figures out there isn't enough revenue to cover all of the desired government programs, and then both will go up again...and again...and again...

Posted by: Rebecca at July 16, 2007 4:54 PM

Letters to the Editor column of any local paper provides daily examples of this. They roll out the Unwelcome Wagon at a moment's notice because they see that the newcomers, whether it's Nancy in Oregon or Joe Seattle here, will impact their property values.

Maybe I just know a saner class of gentrifier, but I don't believe when real estate prices started skyrocketing in Los Angeles that Nancy wrote even one tantrummy letter to the editor. I think she and her husband just tried to find a better solution vis a vis the amount they had to spend.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 16, 2007 5:54 PM

Oh, and P.S. In another move that's always guaranteed to increase my popularity with a lot of people, I'm okay with paying for school for poor kids (essential for an educated populace, which we need to maintain a democracy), but if you are middle class and have kids, I think you should pay for your own damn kids to go to school -- same as you pay for their socks at Target, and same as you'll pay for their stint in rehab from Crystal Meth. Or whatever.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 16, 2007 5:56 PM

but I don't believe when real estate prices started skyrocketing in Los Angeles that Nancy wrote even one tantrummy letter to the editor

It's not the Nancys of this world who write these letters, it's the Squeakys. The Letters to the Editor I'm referring to are written by people who refer to themselves as fifth-generation Montanans (and in their own eyes are therefore somehow more valuable human beings) or people who moved here from Tacoma just last week. Regardless, they start out, "I'm sick and tired of Californians telling us what to do..."

Posted by: Rebecca at July 16, 2007 8:45 PM

Or rather, I should say not just the Squeakys (Ms. Johnson), but those who see a grand conspiracy behind it all. Ms. Johnson, in Nancy's piece, states that she believes her new white neighbors patronize white-owned businesses at the expense of black ones. Likewise, there are many folks in this part of the country (meaning anywhere inland from the coast) who think rising real estate prices are somehow part of a larger conspiracy of California/Portland/Seattle residents to control the custom and culture of the Rocky Mountain states. Whereas this migration is really just regular people trying to find a decent place to live and raise their families, the same sort of migration that created and expanded America.

As you can see from the time stamp, it took me awhile to coalesce my final thoughts on this matter.

Posted by: Rebecca at July 16, 2007 9:03 PM

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