Slavery led to Jim Crow, Jim Crow led to redlining and redlining led to gentrification. It’s a commonly known history, and we often frame it as a kind of personal grievance. We point out certain historical figures, paint them as villains and more or less blame it all on their moral failings. And through a certain lens, it’s accurate to do that. There have been and continue to be some real monsters in this world. The problem is that it’s not the full story.
These villains operate within systems that give them permission and often encourage them to be as monstrous as they like. Chief among these systems is capitalism. My great-grandfather and everyone in my traceable lineage before him were born into slavery because of capitalism. Certainly, there were villains along the way, but they were only allowed to act in the first place because of the systems surrounding them.
Capitalism creates systemic problems and runs in the opposite direction of solutions. The reason my great-grandfather was able to die a free man was not because of capitalism. There was no market solution for him. The solution was bloody, brother-against-brother, national self-immolation over just one specific outcome of capitalism that ended with the complete destruction of the entire country. And, like I said, capitalism persisted with Jim Crow, redlining and gentrification. That’s how strong it is.
From slavery to countless labor wars to the “debate” about climate change, if there’s institutionalized tragedy to be found in this country, you can bet your last bloody dollar capitalism was the path there. It doesn’t just suddenly appear as a giant red-state eruption, either. The tragedies of capitalism grow and build all over this country, even in friendly coastal safely blue places like Portland, Maine.
In 2017 the trend of gentrification had become too much for many Portlanders and so a rent control initiative made its way onto the ballot. Of course, local moguls, developers and other trend-setters created a campaign against it. Their bad faith arguments were that rent control would actually make rents go up, the rental market as a whole would suffer as would the local economy, etc. and so forth. Their campaign worked and rent control was defeated.
Since then rent has skyrocketed in Portland, becoming the ninth most expensive housing market in the United States. From 2018-2019, the entire state of Maine had the third highest rental increase in the country. Airbnbs have virtually exploded all over the city taking countless long-term rentals off the market and leaving room for developers to keep building at higher prices while defining “affordable” according to their own greed. And over this past summer a homeless city emerged in Deering Oaks Park.
Since the problems are even worse than in 2017, a new referendum is on this year’s ballot. This time, there are five major questions including rent control, $15 minimum wage and Airbnb restrictions, mostly addressing Portland’s ever-growing chasm of wealth inequality. And as you might imagine, incentivized by the untold wealth brought by their 2017 victory, the local moguls are back. And they’ve brought their friends.
Though seemingly more desperate than in 2017, the referendum’s opposition is now part of an escalating nationwide war on the working class that is fully focusing its deep-pocketed efforts on Portland.
Molly and Matt live in Portland’s West End. Molly is a student, artist and former server at Fore Street. Matt is a working musician and guitar-maker. They told me their landlord has decided not to renew the couple’s lease next year, choosing the popular Airbnb option instead.
“Portland for a long time gave me this great opportunity to be a full-time musician and guitar-maker and I could afford to live in Portland,” said Matt. “I think that all of the people like me are what has made Portland so unique and appealing to other people. We’re losing the character of Portland by turning it into restaurant Disney Land.”
Of her own situation Molly said, “I worked at Fore Street for the last five years and had to quit from the pandemic, but my prep chef friends, my dishwasher friends, a lot of them are finding housing issues. They don’t make enough money to afford a vehicle. So, if they have to move off the peninsula, how are they safely going to get to work? They’re going home at two in the morning. We’re open for snow storms when transportation is not running. These are the people who make Portland what the tourist want Portland to be, as well. That goes with the minimum wage issue, too. How is this place going to run in a way that is desirable for tourism without the workers?”
She continued, “It’s really profit over people. And we’ve got a shit-ton of privilege, you know? We’re not going to be on the streets after this. But we’re probably not going to be able to live in Portland. If I can’t live here, what does that mean for other people?”
Personally, I hope Portlanders vote yes on questions A-E Tuesday so we don’t have to find out.
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