Oil vs. Gentrification (or, The New York Times Did a Stupid Racist Thing Again)

Editor’s Note: Originally published at BeaconReader.com. Reprinted here with permission of the author.

The New York Times ran a story that pitted an oil terminal against a real estate project in Vancouver, Washington. The reporter did not mention anything about the people who would be displaced by both.


I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything during the holidays, catching up on the things politicians are doing to secure our bleak, calamitous future. It has made me more tuned in to environmental stories in the news, so this morning I clicked on the New York Times headline “Race to Build on River Could Block Pacific Oil Route.”

The story is that somebody wants to build a giant oil terminal through the town of Vancouver, Washington, to transfer oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale to barges. If built, there would be 360,000 barrels of crude transported through downtown Vancouver everyday, raising the very real danger of spills and derailments in a populated area.

Construction of the oil terminal may be hindered by the development of the The Waterfront real estate project. (New York Times)

But the monkey wrench for the terminal plan is “the Waterfront,” a $1.3 billion real estate project encompassing “office buildings, shops and towers with 3,300 apartments” along the Columbia River. If built quickly enough, the Waterfront would dim the possibility of the oil terminal being approved by the city.

From the NYTimes:

If the Waterfront can get its bricks and mortar in the ground before the terminal is approved —possibly late next year, with litigation likely to follow— more people would be living and working near the oil-train line. Compounding what opponents, led by the city, say are the dangers of spills or derailments, would make the terminal’s path to approval steeper.

Why is the city so eager to dive into the real estate project?

Rising on a former industrial site, the Waterfront, they said, hopes to charge rents far beyond the historic market levels in a city that has long suffered in the shadow of glossier, hipper Portland, Ore., just across the river.

The city’s hope is that people wealthy enough to pay rents “far beyond” what they’ve been will live, shop, and work in the formerly industrial part of the city that will, the story implies, be transformed into a brand that competes with the “glossier, hipper” Portland. From the way the NYTimes writes about this patch of land along the river, you’d think nobody has lived there for a long time.

But people do live there. They’re mostly poor and Latino, and they will be displaced once the Waterfront is completed. Vancouver resides in Clark County, where many if not most of Washington’s Latino population lives.

From The Columbian:

Clark County grew about 23 percent over the past decade to reach a population of 425,363 in 2010, according to U.S. Census figures released last week. The Hispanic population grew even quicker. It nearly doubled to reach 7.4 percent, or 32,166 residents, up from 4.7 percent, or 16,248, in 2000. Statewide, Hispanics account for 11.2 percent of the population.


Here’s a map of Clark County’s Hispanic population above the earlier map of the proposed oil terminal. Notice the area along the river, where Latinos are most concentrated, is exactly where both the Waterfront and the oil terminal are slated to be built.

(US Census Bureau)

(New York Times)

But the NYTimes mentions nothing about the people who will either be economically displaced by the Waterfront or forced out by freight trains dangerously transporting millions of tons of oil a year. Here is the the story’s only reference to any people living in the area:

Vancouver, with 167,000 residents, has prospered, but has often struggled, as a kind of kid-brother city to Portland, with many commuters living on this side of the river because Washington has no state income tax.

The only image we get of Vancouverites are tax-dodging Portland workers, most of whom are probably salaried. That doesn’t sound like the people the Columbian describes as living along the river.

From The Columbian:

“These are [Hispanic] people who are working two or three jobs. They are not destitute. But their standard of living is very different,” Serna said. “They’re living in an apartment, and they might have another family living with them. They pool their money. Their kids are fed, they have health care and pretty good clothes, but it’s not a standard of living most Americans would be satisfied with.”

It’s another example the white media erasure common in any story about urban revitalization. An oil terminal is being built, and the only solution is gentrification, the NYTimes tells us. By the way, the city apparently didn’t have a problem sanctioning the oil terminal when the land was inhabited mostly by Latinos, but I guess that’s not important enough to mention in the story.

To the basic white liberal NYTimes reader, there are two sides: terminal or real estate project. And this basic reader will probably side with the latter, because oil is bad! Development is good! There’s no guarantee they’d nuance their position had NYTimes not glossed over the most desperate human element of this story, but at least they’d actively have to make the choice of not giving a shit about poor dark-skinned people.


Aaron Cantú is a Brooklyn-based journalist @alternet @truthout @thenation. A “revolutionary generalist” who focuses mostly on drug law, criminal justice, and [misc], you can follow Aaron on Twitter@aaronmiguel_ or visit his site: aaronmiguel.com.

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