Kate Washington is a McNair Scholar graduating this spring with a bachelor's in sociology, beginning graduate studies in urban planning in the fall, and residing in one of Portland's newest and most recognizable neighborhoods, the Pearl District.
At this spring's first annual campus-wide student research symposium, Washington presented her paper: "The Pearl District: An Urban Neighborhood." Combining historical and statistical analysis with direct observations of the Pearl, Washington's paper painted a picture of an innovative urban environment, an experimental neighborhood where residents of mixed socio-economic standings live amongst each other with the goal of elevating social capital for all.
Washington's paper doesn't aim at drawing conclusions on whether this experiment in urban planning has succeeded. Rather, it sets forth important statistical data on the neighborhood and poses a series of questions that could lead future researchers, including Washington, down the road to assessing the successes and failures of the Pearl and its design.
"When you talk to Portlanders," Washington said, "many will describe the Pearl as snobbish, pretentious, and full of yuppies. Some will say it's overpriced; it's received a huge amount of investment, yet benefits only a select few. I felt out of place when I moved into the neighborhood as a low-income resident in 2011."
And with high end grocers like Whole Foods, scores of tech startup, designer clothing boutiques and fine dining one does perceive a sense of affluence when in the Pearl.
"We all have intimate and casual experiences with the cities we live in," Washington said, "and those experiences are what makes a project like this and a neighborhood like the Pearl worthwhile to explore."
Washington’s research points out aspects of the Pearl often overlooked: that the it’s a world class urban neighborhood; that the it’s exemplary of contemporary urban design; that urban planners from around the globe come to the Pearl to study its mixed use and population density design; and that resources like public transportation, parks and schools are equally available to all the neighborhood’s residents.
Some of the data Washington presented was not surprising: 88 percent of the neighborhood’s 6000 residents are white, most are between the ages of 25 and 40, half of the population makes less than $50,000 a year.
“When I looked at the demographic data,” Washington said, “I was really surprised by what I found—many of the neighborhood’s residents were low-income wage earners like me.”
And, indeed, Washington’s research did turn up some very surprising data on Pearl residents. The neighborhood’s goal of increasing the social capital of its residents by bringing together people of all income brackets appears lopsided, producing a neighborhood with an astonishing poverty rate of 22 percent; nearly triple that of the overall poverty rate in Portland (8 percent) according to the 2010 Census. Washington also pointed out a disparity in affordable shopping for commodities such as food and clothing for that portion of the population living at or below the poverty line, noting, for instance, that the three neighborhood grocers are among the most expensive places to purchase food, making them impractical for low-income earners.
When considering Washington’s presentation, the data doesn't necessarily bode well for the Pearl’s aim of increasing social capital across the board within its borders. Washington is quick to point out, however, that her research is only the tip of the iceberg. In order to further explore the outcomes of the social experiment being conducted in the neighborhood, she offers questions other researchers and research projects may look into, for example: understanding the adverse perceptions Portlanders have of the Pearl, exploring ways to add jobs and employment, rather than more retail, and finding out if low-income residents actually benefit form living in the same neighborhood as affluent residents. It is possible that further research will show that the successes of the Pearl’s unique design outweigh the shortfalls. As a graduate student in urban planning, Washington may go on to examine these questions herself.