Natural Grocers, a major tenant at a Northeast Portland retail mall built by African American developers and home to several minority-owned small businesses, has apologized after an employee’s vehicle was spotted with a noose hanging from the rear-view mirror in the store parking lot.
Cole Reed, a Portland artist, and her wife, Dayna, run a gallery in the same complex as the grocery giant. The couple was going grocery shopping with their 4-year-old when Dayna spotted the noose.
Reed walked the aisles of the store asking for the vehicle’s owner until a woman told Reed it was her car and identified herself as a manager. Reed said the woman confirmed it was a noose and said she’d had it for five years.
“You have a noose in your car, and you are a leader in our community whether it’s earned or promoted,” Reed, who is African American, said to the employee. “That’s not what you do.”
Reed took photos of the noose, which a friend shared on Facebook Thursday, prompting a response from the Colorado-based natural food store’s social media account.
Amber Dutra, spokeswoman for the company, said she couldn’t comment on personnel issues and wouldn’t confirm whether the person is a manager at the store at the corner of Northeast Alberta and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Dutra confirmed the vehicle was an employee’s. The company declined to provide the employee’s name, saying it didn’t comment on personnel issues.
Reed said seeing the noose in her community steps away from her business was traumatizing, especially given that she and her wife moved specifically to Portland four years ago to raise their son.
“Now I’m wondering if Portland is that safe place for my family,” she said. “This is insane.”
Reed said conversations with company officials after the fact were not satisfactory.
“You think that having murals painted by black artists is enough,” she said of the store, which features several local murals. “That means you’re going for marketing, not the care of the community that you’re here to feed,” she said in an interview. “Feeding people is more than just about fresh produce. We need to do things differently.”
Reed said she doesn’t want to see the employee’s life destroyed or the store adjacent to her business suffer; she instead wants to see white Portlanders step up and “activate their privilege.” She’d like to see sensitivity training for employees at the store and the company take concrete steps to improve.
“I just want you to have some accountability and show up,” she said.
The incident comes at a property that was in the spotlight five years ago as a flashpoint in community discussions about gentrification, affordable housing and the city’s urban renewal agency and its promises and transparency with the changing neighborhood.
In Natural Grocers’ Facebook message, the company said it was “as shocked and startled to learn of this as you were.”
“When we learned of this problem, our Chairman, Kemper Isely, immediately called to respond and apologize to the person who brought this to our attention,” the company said. “The offending item has been removed and other appropriate action will be taken to address this issue. Please be assured we realize how serious and hurtful such a symbol is. The Isely family does not tolerate racial insensitivity at our company or at home. We sincerely apologize to all of those who were offended.”
The company issued an additional apology after this story, saying it was ”deeply offended” by the employee’s actions and was investigating. “Further appropriate action is being taken to address this issue, including conducting enhanced diversity training company-wide,” the statement said.
Nearly 75% of the surrounding neighborhood was African American in 1990, according to U.S. Census figures. By 2010, 25% of the area’s residents were African American.
The property, once the home of the Walnut Park Theater, sat vacant for 20 years after the movie theater came down. Prosper Portland, the city’s development agency, owned the 2-acre lot and first started planning to bring a Trader Joe’s to the site at least a decade ago.
A grocery store was long-desired by the neighborhood and nearby Vanport Square businesses like Old Town Brewing, which saw the potential to bring more foot traffic to the area. It never happened during a stagnant economy, but the momentum picked up.
The urban renewal agency was set to sell the land to Majestic Realty, a California-based developer, at a steep discount in 2014. But the Portland African American Leadership Forum wrote a scathing letter to the media and the development agency demanding the project stop or be reconstituted to add affordable housing.
Trader Joe’s backed away from the deal, citing “negative reactions from the community,” and Majestic Realty ultimately brought Natural Grocers to the table.
While affordable housing wasn’t included at the property, the African American group that had called attention to the role of gentrification in the area shifted the conversation on that front.
Portland ultimately pledged to spend an additional $20 million on affordable housing in neighborhoods nearby.
— Andrew Theen
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