Some days, African Americans say, they drive up North Williams Avenue and all they feel is loss.
The smoke stopped curling from Scotty's Bar-B-Q. The jazz clubs went silent when the bulldozers of urban renewal revved up. Office space towered where the last black-owned bar had been.
"We used to have more places," said Loren Green, a 48-year-old food truck chef. "I used to be able to walk down this street. Dawson Park is all we have now."
Inside the two-acre park, black people still dance and deal dominoes, still congregate for parades and the annual jambalaya festival. Green and others can almost forget that theirs is the fastest gentrifying neighborhood in America's whitest big city.
Forced land sales destroyed their houses. Urban renewal ushered in the white middle class. When city officials proposed a massive park remodel three years ago, African Americans worried they'd be run out of Dawson, too.
Instead, the park has emerged as a glimmer of hope in one of the country's most reshaped cities. And as Portland changes, as neighborhoods farther from downtown redevelop, Dawson Park offers lessons on preserving a city's cultural centers even as it grows.
The work spent maintaining this black oasis, city workers say, must be as deliberate as the decisions that led to the inner city's gentrification. City leaders listened to African Americans as they rebuilt the park. They invited them to cater and soundtrack summertime events.
The partnership worked.
"Hanging out, playing music, that's part of our culture. If we do that at the wrong park, somebody will call the police on you. At Dawson, they don't do that." Green said. "They know this is our park. This is our 'hood, where we grew up. People can go here and be accepted."
For half a century, Dawson Park was the black community's hub — even as others saw it as the city's scourge.
In the 1950s and '60s, landlords and banks barred African Americans from renting or owning outside the inner-city, but they made something of the discrimination. Black-owned bars and restaurants lined Williams. Dawson was the anchor to what was known just as "the avenue."
There, bets on a dice game could still get a black man arrested. But an after-church picnic could lead a couple to marriage. The park had its own radio station and farmer's market, yet usually made the news after a stabbing.
Dawson is where African Americans mourned Medgar Evers and the black girls killed in the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing. In 1968, as city workers complained in the newspaper that wine bottles made up half of the park's weekly trash, Robert F. Kennedy chose Dawson for a primetime rally during his presidential campaign.
Two years later, white men began knocking on doors. Neighboring Emanuel Hospital wanted to expand, so city leaders told black residents they had to leave. They paid homeowners a few thousand dollars — less, those still living say, than the land was worth — then razed the neighborhood.
The hospital expansion never happened. Decades of city neglect and banks' refusal to lend to black people led to the neighborhood's eventual decline. By the 2000s, many North Williams lots sat vacant. The storefronts did, too.
Then developers began buying up the cheap property, and the neighborhood started to change.