Taking advantage of a late-February afternoon that, for once, is only partly cloudy, Thelma Diggs and Bennie Hill meet in North Portland for a little constitutional. Starting near the New Seasons grocery store on North Williams Avenue, the two women stroll through a hip district of restaurants, eclectic boutiques, and modern-looking apartment buildings. Cars zip past and trucks rumble across their path at North Fremont Street, the noise competing with the conversation.
“Boy, this area sure has got a lot of traffic,” Hill remarks. “It wasn’t like this when we were all coming up. This is really something.”
Diggs looks left and right up either side of Williams, at all the glass and steel, all the hustle of commerce. “Twenty years ago this was all houses, lot of kids in the street playing,” she recalls. “But now, kids can’t hardly cross the street.”
For these friends, both Black senior citizens, the neighborhood is at once familiar and foreign. An area they knew for decades as the core of Black life in Portland has undergone rapid, radical change, most obviously in its built environment—on each block, the women’s conversation is peppered with another variation on the “And this used to be…” refrain—but also in its demography and culture.
As they pass yet another razed lot, heavy machinery busy prepping it for construction, Hill lets out a laugh, half-rueful, half-admiring, then exclaims, “It’s like a new city came and invaded!”
Diggs and Hill aren’t out to defend the old city against the new, but they are walking with a purpose, and they are trying to preserve something important—their health, their memories, and the collective memory of a once-cohesive community that has become increasingly scattered.
The women are part of a research project called SHARP, which stands for Sharing History through Active Reminiscence and Photo-imagery. A pilot program created by the Oregon Healthy Brain Research Network Collaborative Center at Oregon Health & Science University, SHARP aims to promote cognitive health among African Americans aged fifty-five and over in Portland, using physical activity, social engagement, and the sharing of memories and stories in conversation.
The program is the brainchild, if you will, of Raina Croff, an assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at OHSU. SHARP reflects Croff’s interest in medical anthropology, her orientation toward qualitative rather than quantitative research, and her experience growing up in Portland, leaving for college, then returning to a changed city.
“To be perfectly honest, this came out of my love of history more than my scientific or neurological thinking,” Croff says. “Because I’m not a neurologist; I don’t have a background in public health. As an African American in Portland, I already was aware of what was happening to our neighborhoods. But I’m also a writer, and I love stories, and I’ve always been fascinated by older adults and the stories they tell. You can really call this a sort of urban archaeology that’s entwined with oral history.”
As engaging as the community history aspect is, however, Croff is well aware that, as she puts it, “the health piece is what gets us the grant money.” She’s trying to get a stronger sense of how effective what she calls “the triad for healthy aging” can be when it’s promoted in a cohesive—and culturally relevant—way. “We have lots of data on [the value of] physical activity, especially walking—walking is good for brain health. Reminiscence is good for brain health. We have lots of stuff that says social engagement is good for brain health. But we don’t have anything that puts all three together. That’s what makes this program unique.
“And when you add on the layer of gentrification, you ask, how do neighborhood changes affect older adult health? Those who still live here, are they motivated to get out and walk when they no longer are walking to a business where they know the owner, where they will see people that they know? Is the motivation to be healthy diminished when you no longer feel at home in your neighborhood?”
On this February afternoon, Diggs and Hill (whose third walking partner, Karen Wells, was unavailable) are taking the Fashion Walk, with photos and questions to get them reminiscing about such things as the fashion shows Ebony magazine used to stage at Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church. They don’t spend a lot of time examining the photos, but then, they don’t need much of a nudge to get their recollections flowing.
Hill and Diggs read a prompt from the SHARP guide.
“OK, here we go, we’re getting ready to walk,” Diggs says, partly to Hill and partly to the little digital audio recorder she’s holding. “We’re at NE Fargo and Williams, we’re going north on Williams Ave. and our first prompt is about fashion. ‘What was your favorite style in the ’70s?’”
Hill doesn’t miss a beat. “The Afro! I liked that Afro look—poofy hair, bell-bottoms.”
“Especially bell-bottoms,” Diggs agrees. “I loved that bell-bottom look, ’cause I was tall.” When did she stop wearing them? “I think I still have some! Never throw anything away, I say—that’s why my house is the way it is.”
You might locate the origins of this novel research project in Croff’s days hanging out in Northeast Portland as a student at Grant High School. But a more important starting point is the island of Gorée, which, though it sits just off Senegal’s Atlantic coast, is a district of the capital city, Dakar. That’s where Croff led an archaeological excavation more than a decade ago as part of her doctoral research into African, female slave owners and their African, female servants. Her mother had dreamed of being an archaeologist, and Croff absorbed that same passion early on. “I was directing that dig, thinking that was my life’s path, to do African diaspora archaeology,” she says.
Among the dig’s discoveries were three child skeletons. Croff began examining the bones for indentation and other signs, trying to trace the effects of nutrition, social status, and maternal health. Using a medical and anthropological framework to understand how culture affects health was a through line that brought her home. OHSU was conducting substance-abuse research through a department that focuses on public health and preventive medicine. “That totally wasn’t my area—except that they were doing studies with American Indian and Alaskan Native treatment centers about how evidence-based medicine was being integrated with traditional healing practices,” she says. “So I did qualitative research, conducting interviews. And that came naturally to me, talking the language of culture.”
“I was in the world of medical anthropology, but it hadn’t quite clicked with what I’m passionate about,” she says.
Then she met up with a group of academics, community members, retired health-care workers, and older African Americans called the Preserve Coalition. The group works with the Alzheimer’s Association, the Urban League, and others to hold events exploring brain health from an Afrocentric perspective. “We look at things that can help us to age healthfully but that celebrate our heritage and culture,” she says. “We learn about cooking healthy soul food, we do tai chi with an African American instructor, we’ve had a demonstration of African dance for older people.”
Croff calls this group the “key to the story.” Through the group, Croff learned that African Americans have higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias than the national average. Yet research also has shown that African Americans mistakenly believe they’re at lower risk of such diseases. Furthermore, Croff says, many African Americans see memory loss and other cognitive decline as simply part and parcel of growing older. It isn’t, she insists. It’s a pathology, and a preventable one.
Preserve Coalition also led Croff to valuable mentors—Jeffrey Kaye and Linda Boise of OHSU’s Layton Aging & Alzheimer’s Disease Center, who got her interested in neurology and helped her shape the concept for what came to be the SHARP program.
In groups of three, SHARP participants walk three times a week along one of seventy-two routes in North and inner Northeast Portland that Croff has devised. Each route is roughly a mile long, and has a theme linked to landmarks and supplemental historical photos that Croff acquired from the archives at the City of Portland, OHSU, the Bonneville Power Administration, and especially the Verdell A. Burdine & Otto G. Rutherford Family Collection at Portland State University. Walkers carry a computer tablet, and at three predetermined spots on each route, GPS technology triggers a photo and related questions to pop up. \
“This was a fun place to go,” Hill says, excited at the sight of what was once Cleo’s, a storied Black nightclub near Williams Avenue and Monroe Street. “They’d give you a real good drink! They used to have gambling upstairs—craps.”
“It was a private club—if the owner didn’t know you, he would not let you in,” Diggs adds. “He ran it pretty well. They say he kept his protection in his pocket.”
Now the building is occupied by a “relocation service,” with signs in the windows advertising half-million-dollar houses.
The pilot program that Diggs and Hill are part of is a feasibility study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which began in February 2016. The idea was for the program to take six months, but late recruitment of participants and then an inhospitable winter dragged out the process for some, such as Diggs, Hill, and Wells. All the same, the first go-round was successful enough that Croff landed a grant from the Alzheimer’s Association in February 2017 to conduct a second phase, which she hopes to start up in May. The initial group consisted of folks over fifty-five who were all in good cognitive health. For the next phase, Croff plans to have seven of the twenty-one participants be individuals whose assessments show some mild cognitive impairment. She hopes the program can demonstrate tangible improvements for such individuals and is looking at ways to make the program scalable and replicable for other communities.
Participants took health surveys upon starting the program and again at completion, and the computer app provides data on who’s walking, when, and how fast. The by-product of reminiscence—the “memory work”—is an archive of the recorded conversations. Croff hopes these recordings can be used by other researchers or turned into the basis of community workshops on the links between cognitive health and the health of the community. They could also potentially be edited into an oral history that could serve as part of a school curriculum.
“The numbers don’t explain everything,” Croff says. “It’s the stories that drive someone to be passionate about something. Stories give purpose and hope. It’s stories that get someone to want to join a research project. They’ll ask, ‘What does this help?’ Not, ‘What numbers will this generate?’ but ‘How will this improve the quality of someone’s life?’ And even better, tell me a story about what that quality looks like. And when we think about how environment shapes our lives, our health, our selves, what happens when our neighborhoods change shape? How does that change us?”
Bennie Hill and Thelma Diggs (in hat) walk through North Portland on a tour set up by the SHARP program.
“Now, this is the street I used to live on when I first came to Portland, a house just down the street,” Diggs says when she and Hill cross North Failing Street. “And all of this was businesses. No restaurants like you see now, but a hardware store, a lumber store … and I think this used to be a service station on the corner. And a lot of these businesses were owned by Blacks, but a lot of times they’d try to get loans to fix up the property and they couldn’t get a loan, or you couldn’t get enough to do what you needed to do. My ex-husband, he got a loan, but he asked for twenty-five thousand and they would only give him ten.”
Croff is trying to balance the scientific and the social, to address measurable, diagnosable issues of cognitive health within a vulnerable population while also making room for the complicated, at times amorphous day-to-day context of the lives in question. Part of her point is that there shouldn’t be any disconnect between the two.
And maybe there’s a way for the project to also promote a different understanding among newcomers—and between new neighbors and old—about their role in the creation of experience and memory for the people who’ve been in the neighborhood historically over the past several decades.
“People [new to the neighborhood] don’t see themselves, individually, as the problem,” she says. “It’s a place close to their work, or a friend recommended it or whatever. But the people who raised families, who had multigenerational roots here, they really just want acknowledgment, they want to be recognized for the positive, active, alive culture that was here and is here. We don’t want the ’90s gang violence to be the tombstone to the Black neighborhood and culture in Portland, and or to have people just thinking, ‘Thank god these new restaurants saved the area.’ What I’ve heard from participants is that they understand that change happens, but they’d like to be a part of that change a little bit more. And they’d like the new people to recognize the history that was here. So many people talk about how they’ve revitalized this neighborhood—well, there was already vitality in it.
Raina Croff, an assistant professor at Oregon Health & Science University, giving a presentation about the program in March at Portland State University.
“One thing some participants have said is that this project makes them feel visible, whereas gentrification has made them feel invisible. Can you imagine being an older adult, walking around the place that you’re from and people are looking at you like, ‘What are you doing here?’ We’ve seen people talk about this as an emotional healing process. Something about the pace, walking with friends, talking about changes while you’re in the landscape that has been changed—it can be maddening, but it’s a slow healing process as well. We don’t want this to be the Angry Study; but we are not blocking those feelings or putting any sort of filter on it.”
In early March, Croff gave a presentation about the SHARP program at PSU’s Urban Center and included a quote from one of the voice recordings she’s collected:
One of the things that I think [this walking program] is helping me do is adjust to the changes. And it’s helping me be face-to-face with the fact that things are changing so much. They’re changing so fast, and not just our neighborhoods, but people. You know, people’s thoughts and ideas are changing. We’ve grown older. And so, how are we going to deal with this change in a healthy manner and not be angry all the time? Because anger brings stress. Stress causes illness. And we’re trying to feel better. You know, we don’t want to walk and then come back home and just be so full of anger and so upset: Did you see what they tore down now?
It’s helping me. It’s helping me to find a healthy way to respond. It’s like, OK, now what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it? Who are you going to share these stories with? Who are you going to encourage to not let everything go away? What kind of volunteering are you going to do that’s healthy, rather than protest everything? What are we going to do that is beneficial and healthy?
Hill and Diggs with writer Marty Hughley
“Most of these houses, I’m sure the folks have been asked several times to sell their property,” Diggs says, looking around at some of the remaining weathered, pre–World War II bungalows along North Vancouver Avenue. “A lot of out-of-town people—from California, and I’ve seen license plates from as far away as Delaware and Massachusetts—a lot of people come out for vacation and like the area, and their parents have the money and buy the homes for their kids and as an investment. About once a month I get a request to sell my home. They put it in the mail; I just mark it as ‘return to sender.’ If I sell it to you, where I’m gonna live?”
Finding something healthful and helpful to do seems to be part of how Diggs and Hill cope with the changes. Hill had to move farther east a few years ago when she found she couldn’t keep up with the property taxes on her home. She now shares an apartment with a friend and volunteers part-time at a senior center. Diggs still lives nearby and is active in the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. The two were friends before joining Croff’s program, but made a new friend in Wells, their usual third walker.
They’re not inured to the mixed emotions all the change around them can create. “I kind of feel envious,” Hill says about how spiffed up things are. “It’s like, ‘Wow. All this possibility and we didn’t have it.’ It kinda makes me feel cheated.”
And yet they keep walking. And they keep reveling in that and the pleasure of being where they feel they should be, carrying a precious, vital past forward with them.
“It’s really good to walk and feel relaxed and energized and be yourself around women who’ve had a culture similar to yours,” Hill says. “All of us need encouragement, to be trained for and be steered toward staying healthy. So if you can do whatever you can to prevent a decline in your ability to communicate or be a part of things, that is worth whatever effort you put in. Hold on to whatever you can. It’s better than sitting in a rocking chair like they used to do, y’know?”
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