Nica Aquino BFA Thesis Spring 2013

Portland, Oregon is a great city that is known for many things. It prides itself in its weirdness, affordability, bicycle culture, easy transit, local cuisine, microbreweries, and more. Portland is also proud of its social equity, tolerance and
diversity— But does Portland really reflect all of these qualities?

Throughout my experience living in Portland, I have focused a majority of my photographic career making societal observations on the whiteness that embodies the city. Portland is 81.2% white according to the most recent Multnomah County census in 2011, and remains the whitest major city in the United States. In 2010, nearly 10,000 people of color were forced to relocate as a result of gentrification. This left people of color with little access to grocery stores, banks, sidewalks, and safe, gang-free and drug-free neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this is not the first time in the history of the city that people were forced to relocate due to the color of their skin. Because of
gentrification, a majority of the diversity that exists in the city is situated within the margins of Portland.

What is gentrification? Gentrification is the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents. Although gentrification occurs with good intentions, gentrification usually results in pushing out people of color and those experiencing economic struggles. There is a great neglect of this reality here. Yes,
Portland is the whitest major city in the country and it’s hard to see anything else because of that. It’s easy for residents of Portland to take for granted the diversity that is present, because the city is predominantly white.

What about the other 18.8% of Portland that isn’t white? I am what Portlanders like to call a “transplant,” an outsider. How do outsiders and minorities adapt here? Where do marginalized communities in Portland belong? I have been here for the last five years, dealing with disappointment, frustration and anger with the city, along with other like-minded people of color who also share my frustrations. These frustrations have mainly come from the many white American residents of Portland who continue to dismiss the ongoing historical and economical issues of race within the city, claiming that these problems are “outdated,” or “not their problem.”

Today, ethnic, racial and cultural diversity in Portland is slowly dwindling within the inner city due to the forces of the economy, rising rents, cost of living and
gentrification. For this book, I’ve traveled all over Portland, near and far, in an attempt to capture the cultural richness that we forget exists in Portland. Because Portland is so white in our minds, many of us take for granted the little diversity that does still exist here. It’s difficult to see anything else but white, when the city is primarily white. This is my challenge as an artist and what my work as a photographer focuses around. Even as a person of color, sometimes I forget these hidden gems that are scattered throughout the city.

Honing my skills as a social documentary and street photographer, I have embarked on a spiritual and enlightening journey with my 35mm camera to document, explore and experience as many aspects of the diversity that does exist in Portland. Many of the city’s diverse communities did not exist within Portland Proper, but instead, within the margins of the Greater Portland Metro areas and Portland’s suburbs. “Where do we belong?” is a question many of us in marginalized communities still continue to ask
ourselves. People from all over the country chase silver lined dreams to this city in search of a unique life experience and somewhere affordable to live. Don’t we all deserve equal access to all these qualities that make Portland so great?

This is not a story about a white city. This is a story about my city, about getting lost in preconceptions and finding a new attitude and point of view. This is not a book aimed to sell the city or to make a profit. This is about the rich hidden treasures that can easily be taken for granted by any of us. This is a story about an outsider looking to make a home.

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Spring 2013