January 11, 2018

Priced Out: A conversation with Portland filmmaker Cornelius Swart

Audiences packed the McMenamins’ Kennedy School theater in Northeast Portland on Dec. 12 and took part in a heated Q&A after the screening. "We had a great discussion," Swart said. "I start the film saying, ‘I’m a gentrifier.’ Even though this is a film a

Members of Meyer’s Housing Opportunities team recently sat down with Portland filmmaker Cornelius Swart, who has directed and narrated two documentaries about the drastic housing changes Portland has undergone over the past two decades. Swart’s latest film, Priced Out, offers context for the cycle of blight, gentrification and revitalization that has especially hit African American neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland.

Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


Lauren Waudé:

What would you want someone who’s new to Portland, moving into North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods, to know about housing here?

 

Cornelius Swart:

I think knowing the history is probably the most important thing. I think if people had a sense of the history, had a sense of the pain, the root shock, the feeling of invisibility that many residents feel, I believe that they would interact with people differently.

What we most consistently hear from folks who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time, is that as these communities changed, that sense of community has evaporated. It’s been replaced by maybe a big city mentality, in which no one interacts with anybody, or just outright hostility to their presence in the neighborhood. There’s a feeling of being invisible, and that feeling of invisibility can be hurtful.

 

Lauren Waudé:

That was one of most heartbreaking elements in that film, hearing Abriana Williams talk about how kids don’t want to play with her son, and how people don’t look at her. That was really a powerful moment to see.

 

Theresa Deibele:

It really was for me, too.

 

Lauren Waudé:

In the beginning of the film you introduce yourself as a gentrifier. Why? Is there power behind acknowledging that space?

 

Cornelius Swart:

Yeah, I think it’s just important to talk real, have real honest, just call a duck a duck, and not be afraid of what that means or how it could implicate you. I think ultimately, what kind of gentrifier I am will be up for the audience to determine at the end of the film.

I’m not a house flipper. I’m not a developer. I’m not an investor. But those distinctions are not clear to the audience at the beginning of the film.

 

Theresa Deibele:

So in your research and your interviews, how have you seen people navigate those distinctions? Where can people buy and feel like they aren’t gentrifying and displacing or is that impossible to do?

 

Cornelius Swart:

Right. Yeah, I mean, I would say that when we talk to people in Albina, black folks especially, we’ve never talked to anybody who said, “People shouldn’t buy houses.” Nor did we ever talk to anybody who said, “People shouldn’t sell their house.”

I think where it comes to is how the individual treats other people once they’re there. How they engage with community organizations, institutions, businesses and other residents. Are you coming into the neighborhood to be a part of the neighborhood, or are you here for some other purpose? Investing, flipping.

Are you here and talking with your neighbors even though they may look, act, or seem different than you? Where are your expectations at? People need to…I mean, do you have suburban expectations, like, “Don’t park in front of my house!” “Turn your music down after seven o’clock at night!” “Your lawn should look like my lawn!” I think that’s really where people are having a problem.

It’s really not about the presence of white people on my block. I haven’t heard that one, as much as, “These particular people are treating me this way.” That’s where the problem comes in. It’s being motivated by the market, but the pain that people talk to us about is really, “You came in and now you’re treating me like this.”

 

Lauren Waudé:

Meyer supports organizations that have implemented housing preference policy that you mentioned in the film. That’s a preference for people who have roots in North and Northeast Portland to return there. How important do you think it is to invest in community as well as housing itself? Can you have one without the other?

 

Cornelius Swart:

So what I’ve heard about the housing preference is, it’s been mixed. Optimism and cynicism alike.

I’ve heard people say, “Well, they haven’t put enough money into it,” or, “It hasn’t really impacted anybody.” There are other people who, like Steven Green, who’s quoted in the film, say, “It’s not about where people live, it’s about how they’re doing wherever they live.” So there’s certainly people who have said goodbye to the neighborhoods, so to speak. Not Steven, but I’ve talked to other people who are like, “It’s never going to be the same.” That’s either a bad thing, or it’s fine.

I do think it’s important to invest in affordable subsidized housing so people have a choice, whether collectively, folks choose to come back, or want to, whatever, it’s up to them. Housing choice is what it’s all about, and that’s about making the mixed income communities a priority. But housing choice is language that was used a lot while doing the first film, NorthEast Passage, and now it’s kind of disappeared from city discourse, during the second filming over the last ten, fifteen years. We just don’t hear it anymore.

 

Theresa Deibele:

So it feels pretty clear that Nikki Williams in the movie, the film, feels differently about gentrification between NorthEast Passage and Priced Out. How did you find audiences react differently in that period?

 

Cornelius Swart:

When the first film came out in 2002, everyone knew Albina was a black community, it was not a surprise. Everyone always gets behind Nikki, right? They can always relate. The first film is about trying to improve a neighborhood that is dangerous and not healthy for anyone. Nikki is fighting for that.

I think the early reactions I’m seeing to Priced Out have been from people who didn’t know anything about the history, didn’t make the connection between the history of displacement in the neighborhood, and their presence in the neighborhood today.

So I think people are more upset, they’re feeling more moved by the history, as opposed to, the first time people were like, “Oh yeah Nikki, she’s just really nails it. She’s just really strong, and I appreciate her struggle.” Now people who are watching the film see themselves in the story. And they’re having, different reactions, you know: guilt, upset, frustration, anger. Now, it’s like, “It’s not over there anymore, it’s implicating me and I don’t know what to do.”

So the biggest thing is people always say, “What can I do?” The first time, with NorthEast Passage, that wasn’t an issue, it was more like, “Oh, yeah. I hope the changes keep happening.”

Theresa Deibele:

Many documentarians, my sense is, they choose subjects outside of their own time, or place, or experience, and yet in this story, North/Northeast gentrification also affected you as a person living in the neighborhood, albeit in different ways than your African American neighbors. So what changes do you experience reporting and documenting the issue and being a part of the community at the same time?


Cornelius Swart:

It has made me more aware. I don’t know if I had forgotten, but I’m more aware of my interactions with folks now. I go out of my way to greet people and just talk with people a little bit more, just shoot the breeze with folks. I’m excited about running into a stranger now.

I do feel a greater sense of joy, interacting with my neighbors, when I’m like, “Let’s just try to put a smile on someone’s face today.” So that’s been a nice part.


Lauren Waudé:

So speaking of neighborhoods, I was really surprised at what a strong role that neighborhood associations had played in the past with like stopping development. So what role do you see them having as we’re moving forward, or what do you think they could do as we look at development in the future?

 

Cornelius Swart:

I think neighborhood associations are a great tool, especially when they’re engaged on community organizing, and community building levels. At the land use level, and the reason why they exist is really for land use, like local home rule, or home influence, on land use stuff. That’s a more complicated thing and I think that’s where reform helps, and I know the city is struggling with that.

I would love to see neighborhood associations having, not a grading system, but you could look at an association and say, “Okay, this is the membership in a neighborhood that’s seventy percent renters, and a hundred percent of the board are homeowners.”

I always thought that when a neighborhood association goes to the city council and says, “This is what we want, this is what the community wants,” the council should be able to say, “Okay, but you’re all homeowners, representing a majority renter community. So I understand where your point of view is coming from, I appreciate it and I’m going to take it into consideration.” Rather than, at times, like in the 90’s, the government would jump up and say : “Oh, the community has spoken.”

As a reporter, when I ran a community newspaper, to reporters, I would always say, “Don’t just go off of what the neighborhood association says. Go to the schools, go to the churches, and canvas those communities, too.” Because often the churches and the schools have a broader representation of who’s actually in the neighborhood.


Lauren Waudé:

At what point do you think development becomes displacement? I mean, it might not become a point, but what could developers do to preserve the communities that they build in?
 

Cornelius Swart:

It depends on the developer, and the scale of development.

You obviously have the inclusionary zoning, a statute now that, according to Joe Cartwright, has killed off all permits for a certain class of buildings entirely. But I think the impulse is correct. Let developers do what they do in the marketplace, but have a systematized carve-out for folks who are not their customers so that the market can function in some way, and some social benefit can be transferred from market activity towards people who are not included in that activity.

In housing, new housing always goes to the wealthiest person it can go to. That’s just the way the market functions. I think you see a lot of conversation about, “Why can’t developers build for working class people? What’s wrong?” Traditionally, new housing was subsidized after WWII, through freeways, 30-year mortgages. It was made possible by industrial suburban tract house building techniques. And of course, it was exclusively for white folks.

The market does not produce housing for working class people unless the market is subsidized, or regulations favor it. So you do need to create a market incentive, in order to reach someone other than whoever’s going to create the biggest profit margin. But I am very hopeful on things like Land Trust. I don’t think there’s enough being done on Land Trust. I’m glad to see there’s conversation around affordable, subsidized, commercial homes.

Just getting rid of Measure 50 alone might adjust the marketplace organically. I don’t know why the libertarians and the progressives can’t get together and be like, “We both don’t like this policy.”

One group doesn’t like it because it distorts the marketplace, the other doesn’t like it because it creates all these social and equity problems. Why can’t they just agree to reset, the way opponents came together against the Columbia River crossing? The transit people didn’t like it because it was too much freeway, and the freeway people didn’t like it because there was too much transit. So they were able to join in their hate.

I don’t see why you couldn’t do the same thing with Measure 50.

 

Lauren Waudé:

One of the most moving moments was seeing all the names on the screen of people who had been displaced. Where did that come from? What’s the source material for those names?

 

Cornelius Swart:

Oh those came from the city department, the housing bureau. They had all the names.

 

Lauren Waudé:

Why was that important?

 

Cornelius Swart:

So that was a dramatic moment that I envisioned off of seeing another film which was called, The Fog of War, in which they show the names of the equivalent cities that would have been destroyed if the American firebombing campaign in Japan had been done on the United States rather than Japan. There’s like fifteen seconds where it goes, “Cleveland, Cincinnati, Saint Louis, New York, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Santa Fe, Albuquerque” — it’s just a frightening, horrifying — you’re like, “Oh, I get it now. The scale.”

I wanted to create that kind of a sense of seeing the scale, rather than just talking about the scale. I was like, “How do you make that connection? Visually.”

 

Theresa Deibele:

For me, it wasn’t just scale, it was people, and the families behind it.

 

Cornelius Swart:

Exactly.

 

Lauren Waudé:

Are there other screening opportunities in the works in Portland at the moment?

 

Cornelius Swart:

At this point, now that we’ve premiered, our part is to recoup cost, because production is expensive, even though everyone’s pretty much a volunteer, or volunteering. So we’re trying to get a theatrical screening, because we don’t receive any of the ticket sales from the festival showings. It’s being shown around the country, in Grand Rapids, Mich., Tulsa, Okla., Pittsburgh, Penn.

 

And in January and February, there are free community level screenings with Q&As planned in North Portland, Southeast Portland and Beaverton.

 

Lauren Waudé:

Thank you, Cornelius.
 

Get your tickets to local screenings of Priced Out, here. And stream Swart’s first film, NorthEast Passage, here.