All posts by Sean Talbot

The Humanity of Portland Apartments

In The 5 Myths About Portland Apartments,  Aaron Mesh of Willamette Week would have you believe that your experience of Portland’s housing crisis is utterly invalid. He’s quick to put words in your mouth, and call you ‘wrong’ for repeating the common argument “that apartments don’t raise rents…People do.”

To say that an apartment raises its own rent is as flimsy and avoidant as to say that actually, it’s just guns that kill people. Oh, wait! Actually, guns don’t kill people! The effects of a bullet on the human body kill people. Severed arteries and blood loss kill people. Holes in brains kill people.

Of course this is about people.

If we’re going to talk about the housing crisis, let us evolve our conversation beyond semantics, and talk about what’s really happening.

Let’s start with the WW graphic:

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1. People move to Portland.

2. Rent and real estate prices rise (exponentially faster than local wages).

3. Developers build units.

4. People get angry (see 1-3)

“With so few units available, tenants have no leverage—landlords can charge more.”

Yes, and should they?

For years, local property managers have been systematically if not whimsically raising rents on managed properties with or without the owners’ consent or knowledge, and in some cases, pocketing the difference.

Why would the owners care, anyway? More money is more money. That’s the way of the world.

Portland economist Joe Cortright’s callous, privileged comments in Mesh’s piece illustrate the utter apathy of those charged with dealing with a housing crisis. Mesh cites the law of supply and demand to explain the fact that the people who are getting “squeezed out” at least have the recourse to blame someone else.

“If it makes you feel better, writes Mesh, “you can still blame greedy developers for this shortage.”

Citing Buddhist philosophy to make an earlier point about human desire causing suffering, and shortly thereafter inviting people to blame the greedy developers for our rental woes exhibits a gross misunderstanding of Buddhism. It also completely misses the point.

When humans experience a gap between reality and their ability to explain it, they make up stories to fill it. Doing so was an early law of supply and demand. It was how we formed religion, art, science, and philosophy. To support the strength of our stories, we invented logic and reason, the indomitable forces of Western civilization, which in turn allow Mesh to make an idiotic, but correct, argument: just learn to like the extra apartments, Portland.

This story then becomes about how this process unfolds in people, rather than stating simply that it must unfold in our city, and that we must deal with it.

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“But there’s one problem with the idea that teardowns are a force in making the city more costly,” writes Mesh. “The numbers show it can’t be true.”

Next door to my Sellwood basement, an old woman died in her tiny pink 1906 cottage. The house sat empty for three years before the children sold it to a rampant developer. The developer sold plans to a new construction house whose walls now nearly touch the property lines.

Last February, a Bay Area family bought the property and the plans for ~$800,000, more than $200k higher than any other house in a four block radius. It was a sale that set a precedent in the neighborhood. Home prices in Sellwood have risen 22%, with no signs of plateau.

The numbers Mesh insists “can’t be true” leave out one important factor: property values rise and fall based on the surrounding neighborhood. If a house is demolished and two are built in its place, the number of units changes; their sale prices, and the wider impact of those sales on the local real estate market, determine affordability. Though in a less quantifiable measure, one based more in the law of supply and demand, the numbers indeed can be true.

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Portland is at the forefront of progressive, systemic change in the United States. This city has the will, the budget surplus and models of social impact by urban expansion from cities like San Francisco and Seattle to make foundational changes to how we deal with housing as the city grows.

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With Portland’s rock bottom vacancy rates and still-rising rents, do you really think that X developer is going to not build in Portland because he or she will be required to include 20% of affordable units in a 20+ unit building?

And, what if they don’t?

Are we going to chase them down as they strut to Austin or Little Rock, bribing them with loopholes and tax breaks to give us one more chance to let them develop in Portland?

This is an example of the sycophancy of the working class toward the rich, the incessant thinking that they will provide for us with the finite and destructive materials of capital and greed.

It’s a sad romance, the idolatrous relationship between the poor and the rich: I want you for what you have, the poor say,  for what you do! I want to be you!

And in a predictable, condescending response, the rich heartlessly pat the doting yet downcast heads of the poor, and turn away.

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People coming from other places are not complaining about high rent. The people who live here who are trying to expand into larger space so they can have children and families—they’re the ones complaining.

It’s the people who are painting murals, opening and running food carts, who are in this so called low-income bracket. They are the people who make Portland a beautiful, enjoyable, aesthetically-pleasing place to call home. They are the pillows on which the rich lay their heads.

One of the only conclusions I can come up with is that the author of The 5 Myths About Portland Apartments  must not have personal experience with searching for a home in Portland, nor must he have friends or family seeking homes in Portland and having a hard time doing so.

In fact, he’s chocking up all those searching for housing to wild-eyed anarchist hippies, groaning party-house dwellers, musicians, and artists.

Do you know who helped make Portland so cool in the years pre-those pretty 2010s housing graphs?

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I have a friend who works with people with developmental disabilities, and carries her baby on her back every day at work. Her partner spends hundreds of hours facilitating events that keep Portland’s neighborhood communities engaged and connected with each other. Their search for resonant housing is approaching years.

Another couple, both successful artists and students, made dozens of phone calls searching for a place within a price range reasonable even for Portland. They got lucky, way north, found something quirky and

Not to mention people who are self-employed, building their own businesses, working seasonally,  factors which renders income effectively useless toward purchasing a home, or even renting a new space, regardless of price.

That’s my wife and I.

One of the only options to surface in two years for us live in a nicer space than our cramped, kitchenless SE basement (and I am not complaining, especially as summer approaches), is to pay several hundred dollars more than we’re paying now to live in the master bedroom of a house with five other people. Buying a home vacated our realm of possibility years ago.

Hey, that’s just the law of supply and demand, right? Some people get squeezed out. If the poor, wild-eyed miscreants can’t afford their rent, cast them out. Eliminate economic contrast.

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To the reader: have you honestly sat with someone, looked them in the eyes, and asked them what it’s like to feel a sense of hopelessness, and let the humanness of this person’s survival needs permeate you?

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Journalism is not always meant to empathize with the human experience, but the fact that Mesh digs, insults, projects, assumes, and stereotypes a group of people he appears to know nothing about, is indicative of the cultural changes in Portland so many of its residents are resistant to.

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To the Money, Say Aye!

The first item on the Portland City Council’s agenda yesterday afternoon was to pat their own backs on a city budget job well done. Elaborate thank you speeches preluded official approval, monologues that emphasized not just the hard work of city officials, but the council’s proclaimed high value for public commentary.

“We make changes in our budget based on what we hear from the public,” Council President Nick Fish said.

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Fish has been counting the number of people in the last year who have testified before city council on budget issues regarding city utilities.

“A total of one person throughout the entire budget process came and testified publicly about the business of our utilities,” he said (emphasis mine).

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For as much gripe and complaint as I hear about the changes in Portland, whether it be about affordable housing, the newly voter-approved 10 cent gas tax to fix roads, or gentrification, the Council, a relevant and powerful audience for this dialogue works and meets in City Hall, a gorgeous building serving at least as a façade of free speech and democracy.

Then again, with national elections reflecting fascism and oligarchy more clearly than than our glorious purported democracy, the average citizen’s motivation to speak to local government is understandably low. In fact, the city council chambers were pretty empty during the budget approval meeting. My wife and I were amongst the only people there in causal clothing, which told me that 1) everyone but us knew to dress up for city council meetings, or 2) most of the few people present were intimately involved with the proceedings, or paid to be there.

No one publicly testified about any of the three topics City Council discussed.

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Last week, we talked about the Comprehensive Plan, which accounts for many of the biggest changes to Portland’s cityscape over the next 20 years.

City Council approved three minor amendments to the Comp Plan, which focused on communication with Metro about clarifying terms in Title IV and Title VII of the Plan. The council is set to finally approve it on 15 June, which will trigger, amongst other things, construction on the Green Loop, the rezoning of single family homes to multi-family dwelling units near neighborhood centers, and the implementation of inclusionary zoning laws, which require developers to create a percentage of affordable units in new housing developments.

For two years running, Portland has had the luxury of a substantial surplus in its budget. The council admits that the surplus will “not continue forever,” but claims that it has made “significant investment in the most compelling issue of the moment.” In 2015, it was transportation…”this year, it is housing and homelessness.”

The Council also heard a presentation from the Portland Housing Bureau about the Consolidated Plan, a 5-year agenda to increase affordable housing choices, economic opportunity, and reduce homelessness. PHB funnels millions from various federal housing agencies (ESG, HUD) to educate and assist homeowners in house repairs and employment training and empowerment, and also allocates money from HOPWA to assist those suffering from AIDS to find housing.

Citing Portland’s proclaimed primacy on housing and homelessness issues, Commissioner Fish criticized the federal government for its misplacing its housing priorities.

The complete budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is plus or minus 40 billion dollars, Fish said.

“It is wonderful that we get these funds…” he continued, “and it seems to me that allocating a mere 40 billion for all the housing needs of everyone not currently covered by the market is woefully inadequate.

Commissioner Fritz reflected that despite Portland’s surplus of funds, there is still more work to do.fritz

“It is our job to make sure we spend the taxpayers money wisely,” Fritz said, before briefly diverging into unsubtle presidential soapboxing.

“Government needs to pay for the services that only government can pay for,” she continued. “We are still not doing that. There is a lot we have still not done with this budget, but we’ve done as much as we can, and I think we’ve done the best we can with what we have available.”

Whether Fritz was referring to the city’s surplus of funds being insufficient to cover all of the city’s needs, or that the work being done with that surplus was insufficient to use them in the best way possible, was unclear. 

Planning Portland’s Puberty

Portland’s housing crisis is now making bigger national headlines than our food carts, craft breweries, and water combined (well, maybe not water).  Apartment costs have become astronomical. House prices have increased %^&#ing exponentially (if that’s not an accurate figure, ask local would-be homebuyers). For too many, it’s very difficult to live in Portland right now. The reasons are vast, and would boil down, unsurprisingly, to more than just a TV show. The question is, what to do about it?

To answer the question, we’ll talk about the housing crisis, the plans the city is implementing to fix it, and what you and I can do to contribute to Portland’s continued transformation. 

Last Wednesday evening, multiple speakers offered opinions and action plans at an event called Let’s Do More Than Talk: Housing, Land Use, and Affordability in Portland, including Portland Tenants United’s Margot Black, Anita Yap, historian Nick Sauvie, urban designer Nolan Lienhart, and Jes Larson, director of the Welcome Home coalition, which is comprised of more than 130 organizations working toward “housing justice,” an umbrella term for the idea that every person has a right to four walls and a roof of their own. Among their goals was to rectify Portland’s housing predicament with ideas for the Comprehensive Plan, a 20-year plan that “sets the framework for the physical development of the city.”

The “Comp Plan,” addresses, amongst many other things, the glaring issue that residential development is limited by strict zoning laws, which limit the types of structures one can build on a lot. The overwhelming majority of the city is zoned for single-family houses, which means that if someone buys a patch of dirt, there’s really only one choice as to what to build.

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Density and infill are incredibly important to Portland.

Given the current zoning laws, Portland is designed for anything but infill. In a way, the city design keeps as many people out as possible, which drives up housing costs, plummets vacancy rates, and forces those who can’t keep up with rising rents, essentially, to fuck off. This doesn’t bode well for a city famous for its kindness.

In February 2016, Oregon passed its first inclusionary zoning laws, versions of which have been enacted in hundreds of communities across the country for years. Before that, not only did the state not require developers to allocate a certain percentage of new developments to affordable housing, but they were banned from doing so. 

How does this apply to you and I? 

If one hundred eighty condos are built on a block, and they’re all priced at inflated market value, people who inhabit those condos must earn 60-70% more than the rent. Do this over and over and over, and suddenly Portland becomes San Francisco, where it’s not uncommon to pay more than $4000 a month for a one bedroom apartment.

What about those who can’t afford that–where do we go? Gresham? The streets?

A woman in my breakout group, which discussed the future of Portland’s Mixed Use zones, warned against placing “too many regulations” on developers, lest the developer, given the choice to develop a condo building in Portland or Dallas, choose Dallas because they might make an extra few dozen grand.

On the other hand, development should be held to some standard of beauty, or at least an aesthetic complementary to life in the area. Simply put, people take better care of their neighborhoods when they are built with people in mind.

A man demanded that developers  just build housing fast and cheap. He was quick to say that it doesn’t matter what else inhabits the neighborhood, as long as people get indoors.

“We don’t need more organic grocers,” he said. “We need affordable housing.”

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Part of what makes Portland cool is that people do things here that they couldn’t or wouldn’t do elsewhere. You can’t open up a mediocre restaurant on the East Side inside Tabor, and expect it to succeed. Portland endeavors require intention, quality, perhaps even, if quirk still exists, quirk.

To be clear, inclusivity of the poor in gentrified areas and the preservation of culture are not mutually exclusive: indeed, they are the same. It was low-income-earning people and artists that created cultural conditions conducive to Portland, San Francisco, Austin, Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and countless other places becoming gentrified.

I believe that it is incumbent upon the developers, as with urban planners, to focus above and beyond the paycheck to the greater contribution they could make toward what Portland is becoming.

Organizations like Portland Forward and Portland For Everyone, which co-sponsored the Let’s Do More Than Talk mini-conference, are working to craft an inclusive urban design that achieves this.

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Notably, many speakers agreed on one thing: the voices of the people matter to the people making decisions about Portland’s future: the City Council

The Council may hold terribly inconvenient meetings, but word has it that they actually listen to those who show up and testify.

I’m going to attend their next meeting on 9 June, when the Council will review the reasons they’re going to accept and approve the new Comp Plan.

City Council to Accept Findings and Revised Ordinances

Council Chambers 1221 SW 4th Ave

Thursday, June 9 2016, 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM

I’d like to understand the reasons behind many of the changes that Portland will undergo in the next two decades, especially with regards to housing. If you find yourself in the midst of complaining or even conversing about the plight of Portland’s rapidly shifting landscape and housing situation, please come with me. Maybe there we can figure out a way to stay here through the madness. 

The Collared Blues

Stumptown Lives started with a BANG!

Yet another helpless debate about rising housing costs in Portland set me off on a mission: to write about the city from other people’s perspectives, especially from those who had lived here before Portland became Portlandia.

By the end of the weekend, I’d interviewed Greg McKelvey, whose impassioned speech at a Bernie Sanders rally shook me to the core, and spent the better part of that weekend holed up on coffeeshops and bars refining the piece. The piece received more than 500 views on the first day.

Like many, I was sad to see things that I loved about Portland being demolished, swept away, and built over. Angry that my wife and I would not qualify to buy a house within city limits for the next thousand years, Stumptown Lives was meant to express my frustration and malcontent with the changes around me. 

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For two years, I’ve worked occasional gigs for a quality, small-time general contractor, and endlessly compared the residences we’ve worked in to our tiny Southeast basement. I’ve swung hammers at the tiled walls of perfectly good bathrooms in the fancy Dunthorpe neighborhood; begrudgingly dismantled condo kitchens (at least they have a kitchen!), worked in houses whose doorways I didn’t have to duck under to walk through.

Before long, I was a living contradiction. Angered and stressed by Portland’s growing pains, I unequivocally contributed to them. Indeed, Portland’s rampant growth was contributing to my bills. Nevertheless, my savings was running low; rent was due. Something had to give.

A late night motorcycle ride through Northwest revealed to me a massive New Seasons and condominium complex on land that last time I’d checked was a wasteland parking lot. I tried to conjure the resentment behind graffiti tags now commonplace around town: Stop Moving to PDX.

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But I had no more energy for contempt. Have no more energy for contempt.

If the Portland natives from my Stumptown Lives stories could adapt to the mad changes happening to their birthplace, I wondered, could I, too, just change with it? 

Moreover, were the benefits of living in Portland—its conscious communities; delicious food; proximity to mountains, desert, sea, etc.—worth the trouble of changing of my lifestyle, even a bit?

I embarked on an experiment to answer whether could I support myself in Portland at the economic level that the city is rising to.

Just as the cherry and pear trees exploded, remodeling work with the contractor picked up. A second job was easy to come by: valeting at a swank hotel downtown.

Neglecting my creative pursuits, and shortsightedly attempting to achieve the bozo American dream that was bashed into my head since day one—if you work harder, you’ll be more successful—I swung hammers, parked BMWs, barely slept. Weeks passed.

I worked 12-, 15-, 17-hour days. Finished one job to drive across town for the other. I managed one truncated conversation with my wife per day, in the two or three blurry hours of off-the-clock awake time in which I also had to to eat, shit, brush my teeth, and commute in my clunky old van.

A week in to the second job, the van broke down, so I started riding my motorcycle. One fine day, leaving a job site in Dunthorpe, the motorcycle died—half an hour before I was due at the hotel. My wife began chauffeuring me to and from work in her car. It quickly became the only time we saw each other; I savored it.

Somewhere in the haze of spring, she was accepted to grad school in Seattle, a debt-laden event I celebrated in my stressed state with dread: would we ever do better than ‘just getting by’? 

I grew up poor, and learned early that the proverbial “blue collar” comes attached to leashes, and that slack (money, time off) was awarded only in trade for a man’s primary stores of energy—energy which my best friend, an 88-year-old
ex-superworkaholic, wishes he would have spent more with his wife,
who passed a few years ago.

My frustration and malcontent left me drained as I got home. I would snap at my wife, and complain about aches, pains, quibbles at work: the quintessential makings of an absent father, a workaholic, a muggle in search of the Great White Picket Fence.

When social media pages reminded me that no one had heard from Stumptown Lives in a while, I realized that I’d been caught up in my own Stanford Prison Experiment, in which student subjects adopted the very real roles of violent guards and subservient prisoners within mere days of converting the Psychology department basement into a quasi-prison.

Within two weeks, I was no longer the experimenting writer on a mission;
I was a glob of stress, with arms and legs.

The numbers on the checks were pathetic recompense for the only thing of value that I have: time. For a few hard days, the money represented my choice to not do what fulfills me.

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My trusty ol’ flight reaction kicked in: Why not just escape society, move to the woods, where I could build a cabin, write, chop wood and carry water? Wouldn’t life be easier? 

My inner critic went wild. A few weeks of work, it yelled, and you’re complaining about not being able to do what fulfills you? Are you aware of the epic amount of privilege it takes to be able to say that?

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As far as I can tell, I operate in a narcissistic culture that simultaneously demands one assert his or her individuality to overcome all obstacles including but not limited to sexism, racism, and expectation of physical perfection, and (barring politically-correct disabilities) shames or punishes (often quietly and slowly) those unwilling or unable to climb the pyramidal socio-economic ladder, at least to the rung of unambiguous self-reliance.

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I hang by that ladder rung by my fingertips. Thank God I climb rocks to condition my tired tendons. My feet dangle above the heads of billions across the world.

I fight to not fall into the stories of a poor childhood with the same shame that keeps me from pulling myself up to the next rung, of achieving the state of wealth for which I’ve developed so much envy and contempt: the state of being without worry where next month’s rent will come from.

The pursuit of money in America is a thinly-veiled analogy for gambling: I start with what I start at birth, my odds of “winning”  determined by a roll of genetic and economic dice. My investments of time and money itself contributes not so much to a promised return as to my psychological attachment to More (which often takes the form of entitlement:
“I’ve worked hard, so I deserve…”)

I have a choice: what am I willing and able to do, given the oppression and privilege provided by my birth-dice, to get More?

In the end, money is simply a tool that facilitates our needs and desires: yes, it’s required to live in the system in which I live; no, I don’t need as much as they say I do to be happy, healthy, accepted by peers, etc.

Part of my privilege is that I have a choice as to what role in the game I want to play. I want to live in Portland, to eat good food, and to do my work—the right work.

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I quit the valet job, which allowed me to breathe in the evenings, write more, and connect with my loved ones. The day schedule of the remodeling work lets me pay my bills and appreciate the time I have to write, to balance my investments with my desired return, and to finally look up, enjoy the spring weather, and have dinner with a friend for the first time in months.

Most people in the world don’t have these options. Most stories do not end with neat bows. Portland is changing; that is the nature of cities, of humans. We ask questions, we learn, we advance.
This onward march causes much harm, which gives us the opportunity to refine our gait, swagger, and route. 

This experiment taught me that my energy goes where I put it, that I become adept at activities I do often. If I live in a state of stress and anxiety, I will emanate stress and anxiety. I choose otherwise. If that means I’ll never qualify to buy a house in Portland, I won’t take it personally. As least I’ll have the tools and skills to build one.

My name is Sean Talbot (pronounced Tal-bow), and mine is the voice and work behind Stumptown Lives.

Thanks for reading.

The Art of Totem Lives

Aunt Bell used to pay visits to her extended family’s homes in Kelso, WA, would gather up all their Indian artifacts she could find—objects that had been handed down for generations—and threw them away.

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Portland Artist and Totem Carver Ray Losey, the grand-nephew of “Mean” Aunt Bell,  tells the story of how the family began hiding their cultural treasures, that Aunt Bell wouldn’t find them. They buried old rounded-head stone hammers and fishing net weights (flat river stones the breadth of a large outstretched hand with a center-bored hole about the width of a fresh chestnut) in the cement foundations of homes, porches, stairs, whatever needed to be built.

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Indians unrecognized as Indians by the U.S. Government hid them. Aunt Bell kept the family members from registering for their Indian “numbers”—a kind of census registration that earned individuals money from the U.S. Government—because Aunt Bell wanted the family to be White.

Aunt Bell wanted her family to survive. And like her strong women ancestors—the chief negotiators, for example, who for generations boarded the European longships to administer trade between Indians and Whites—Aunt Bell usually got what she wanted.

But not always.

When Ray Losey’s father, Rex, was 11, his mother died. Aunt Bell demanded he attend the Indian Boarding School, one of the educational institutions infamous for eradicating everything remotely Indian from Indian children. The boy’s grandmother had been a ‘half-breed’, as they called those born half-Indian, half-White. She was murdered by a group of Whites tramping through Eastern Oregon, in a cave where the family lived. The killers needn’t have concerned themselves with repercussion: these were the days before the US courts officially recognized Indians, Blacks, and Chinese as people.

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Lucky for the future boy, his grandfather soon married a White woman, which superficially relieved future Rex, insofar as his new grandmother would facilitate the boy’s assimilation into the dominant culture. Nevertheless, Rex kept his 1/4 Indian blood sacred, along with the culture, the stories, and the art of his grandmother’s people. His people. He soon began to share these treasures, through storytelling and totem-carving.

In 1971, when his son Ray was grown, Rex passed on the family arts to the young man. The first pole they carved together now stands tall outside Ray Losey’s home on in Portland’s Southwest Hills.

Topped with wing-spread Eagle, the pole is painted in bold, bright colors with the distinct “formline” style for which Northwest native art is well-known, the totem art is a treat for hikers on meandering trails nearby.

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Ray Losey has been making totem poles, telling stories, and performing dances with masks for decades. Now 67, he verges retirement. He has passed on the art to the swaths who snap photos of the totem pole near the house, but has yet to encounter some young version of himself on whom to impart the knowledge, and technique.

Years ago, he says, he held workshops in search of a young apprentice to pass on the art—ideally, a teenager eager to learn the stories and cultures that birthed it—to no avail.

Storytellers know better than most that stories live longer than people. When Losey talks about retiring, his voice slows and lowers.

“My contribution,” he says, “is carrying the art into the 21st century. I’ve done that.”

Most of his sharing is the sheer volume of people who walk by his house. Where did you get this totem pole, they ask.

Target, he says, deadpan.

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Ray Losey’s artistic legacy has spread across the country. The totem pole he’s currently working on lays prone across two sawhorses under the house, will soon find home at a YMCA camp in Iowa, far from its native Northwest.

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If Aunt Bell’s confiscations led to the long-term preservation of artifacts in concrete foundations, then Losey’s open-air, dirt-ground, totem-carving workshop under the house reveals a great irony: his work unveils that which was necessarily hidden for so long. He keeps it close to the ground, like the “low man on the totem pole,” who, in Indian belief—contrary to common assumption—is actually the most valuable and highly regarded, for one’s connection to the earth is precisely what allows the ravens to fly.

Pulse of Old Portland: Kevin Ketchum

“Four years ago,” he says, cupping a soft, meaty hand near his sternum, “I had a beard down to here.”

With a more-pepper-than-salt ponytail, Kevin Ketchum is clean-shaven, wearing a blue and green plaid button-up over a blue t-shirt. I tell myself he has dressed up for our interview.

Immediately I want to ask about those razorless years, during which he must have watched Portland change immensely from the outside in, as the buildings rose around his slapdash sidewalk nest. Did he stand on street corners with a cardboard sign, training for the vaguely elevated caste he’s attained of Street Roots Vendor? And if so, what did the cardboard read? Who stopped for him? What kept him from taking advantage of Portland’s inexhaustible resources for the homeless and depraved? What finally inspired him to shave?

Ketchum’s chaliced hand, held under his heart, slowly drops. His uncertain smile twists, and falls. Perspiration forms across his kind, round face.

I do not know if the sensitivity I feel right now is his, or mine. It may be both.

I am not a veteran interviewer, nor a seasoned, scales-for-skin journalist. In fact, since we met here for coffee in the Westmoreland neighborhood, I have mostly projected my stories upon him, as passerby are wont to do, when I asked him specifically to share his:

Ketchum was born and raised in Portland, and never really left. In the early Eighties, just out of high school, he worked at the Hilton downtown, paid $155—half a paycheck—for a studio on SE 12th and Belmont. The building is still there. Rent has risen since then, just slightly.

Back then, Huey Lewis and the News rattled the radio, and Ronald Reagan occupied the oval office.

“That was when you first started seeing people sleeping in their cars,” he says, looking out the window. Eye contact between us is rare.

Were there no homeless people?

Ketchum remembers “bums, winos and transients” living under the Burnside bridge, but seeing families sleep in cars in the Reagan years was his first evidence that the economics had changed.

“When families are sleeping in cars,” he says, “you have a more serious condition. People aren’t choosing that.”

Rents were not skyrocketing then; jobs just seemed to vanish. Evictions arrived, people moved outside.

When did you lose your job?

“I did alright in the Eighties. I did restaurant work, and when I lost a job, I was always able to get back in.”

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Eventually, Ketchum found himself working in a plastic molding plant, Molded Container, in Southeast Portland, where now lives an Orwellian cluster of mysteriously quiet townhomes.

Ketchum had one week off a year until the plastic factory shut.

“I worked mindlessly, he says. “It was nothing spiritually fulfilling.”

He shifts his focus from the window to me, finally, and beams at me like a grown boy elated that someone is still listening.

He says the corporation moved to a more “business-friendly community” somewhere in the Midwest. (Online records show the corporation—founded here in 1957—is still located in Sellwood.)

“I think the problem is that Portland discourages business from coming in,” Ketchum says. “There’s a lot of environmental concern, you might say.”

Or, he suggests, it’s got to be the “right kind” of business.

“It puts people out of work,” he says, “but on the other side, whatever they put in, puts other people to work.”

Though he identifies as a “deeply-rooted Christian,” I wonder if Ketchum’s quasi-Buddhist perspective has kept him afloat all these years, still able to smile despite living in only a ‘sleeping room’—a situation he resists describing in detail but I sense is not particularly safe or comfortable for him.

In ages-old tradition, the young man Ketchum ventured north to work on a pollock processor vessel out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, called the Ocean Rover.

I tell him that every summer, I commercial fish in Bristol Bay, northeast of Dutch.

Kevin’s face brightens. We reach out for a high-five, and instead our hands clasp. For a long, quiet moment, we exchange waves of empathy, even brotherhood.

I’m don’t think I’m projecting this time: we’ve both been soaked by the mad ocean, pushed to our physiological and mental edges by interminable days and nights of grueling work through high seas and big storms.

Some people spend the rest of their lives trying to get back to that edge. Some never leave; others never escape.

I feel oddly connected to this man, to his story. Suddenly, it is our story.

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I tell him how, at the beginning of the recession, I lived in my car, near penniless, with my girlfriend and dog, for months on end; that the sunroof broke and the rain poured in while we slept; that the police tapped too often on our windows as we reclined in sleeping bags, reading ourselves to sleep by headlamp.

“Yeah,” he says, “you have to find three or four places to alternate, so you don’t raise any eyebrows.”

For me, I wondered, where was this kind of support back then?

The community of people who just get it, whatever it is—whether commercial fishing, homelessness, or drug addiction—supports the survival of the individual. I never had that—in fact, out of judgment, I had refused even to communicate with other homeless people.

For me, the vast hopelessness set in quick—the kind that, fermented and concrete, leads to chronic homelessness. Young and arrogant, I refused to apply for social assistance and unemployment, figuring I had to pull myself—and girlfriend and dog—up by my bootstraps. That’s what the free market said I was supposed to do, right?

What’s your relationship to drugs?

Ketchum’s reply rolls off his tongue, an unpoetic recitation: “I haven’t smoked marijuana in twenty years. Alcohol in twenty-five. Wish I could say that about tobacco.”

This time, I choose compassion and understanding over judgment and criticism.

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Where do you see yourself, and Portland, five years from now?

I’m really discouraged about all this housing they’re building. A lot of people need housing. But that’s not happening. People are moving here, and people on the streets are going to keep living on the streets.”

This paradoxical reply seems to me to make perfect sense: developers will continue building housing, but those who really need it aren’t going to get in, except perhaps in the future affordable condos of what was once St. Francis Park.

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As much as I now operate in a world of “paradigm shifts,” “elevated consciousness,” and hopes of Bernie Sanders taking office, it’s humbling to note that there are still millions whose base needs are not being met.

As for Ketchum, he says, he’ll be glad to be “puttin’ around,” doing what he’s doing.

“I discovered that I enjoy sales,” he says. “So maybe if the right sales position comes along…right now, the newspaper works for me. I get to meet people, and maybe something will come from that.”

“I keep saying that I want to leave Portland,” he says, “but I grew up here. I’ve had my good times here and my bad times here. I just know where everything’s at.”

Moving for the Right 2 Dream Too

Today, the Portland Tribune announced that Portland City Council recently approved the move of the staple homeless camp Right 2 Dream Too from its location off Burnside in Chinatown, to SE 3rd and Harrison, in the industrial district across the river, out of sight. Perhaps more peaceful.

At Burnside and Fourth, R2DToo’s conspicuous current site, in the middle of the “homeless district” was already purchased by the PDX Development Commission, and shall be “redeveloped.”

Of course it will.

The upshot is that the new camp, presented by City Repair visionary Mark Lakeman and the Communitecture team, will be bigger, more beautiful, and feature more facilities.

Lakeman says the new camp was designed “to be duplicated” in cities around the world.

The move has been three years in the making, a star leg of Mayor Charlie Hales’ ongoing plan to deal with the homeless crisis in Portland.

The Streets: A Sellwood Walkabout

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This is my street.

Children and elders stroll past with alarming frequency. Visiting parked vehicles over-occupy the local dearth of curbs. Test-riding bicyclists from the local shop take this street invariably; the chck-chcks of derailleurs changing gears ubiquitous as a cuckoo clock.

Time passes slowly here. I haven’t seen anyone enter the convenience store in months, yet they seem to pay the rent.

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When we landed here, we were told Sellwood was one of the safest neighborhoods in Portland. In a span of five months last year, I had a truck stolen and the window of the vehicle I bought to replace it shattered—during the peak of the rain! Auto theft and burglary are relatively common: our neighbors moved into a house, and that night, the daughter woke up to someone climbing through her bedroom window.

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Socks, board games, toys,, tea, coffee, spices, shoes, antiques—for which Sellwood/Moreland has long been known—all get their own stores. On wheels, Sellwood would be a quaint caravansary. The local bank is a five-minute walk from my house; for the first time in my life, the keepers of my money know my name. I hail from the out-of-town, from the commuter clan, the familiar but foreign zip code.

Living in the center of things offers me unlimited access to distraction.

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This building is a mystery. No advertisements, no signs, no clues to its business but a handful of old microphones sitting in a glass case inside the door. The owner of Jade Bistro, across the street, said that the actor Sam Elliot lunched there one day, and when he left, he walked into the mysterious orange building.

At least five Southeast Asian cuisine spots live within three blocks of one another. Another could have emerged in the last hour. Coffee shops and roasters, art supplies, a poorly-designed food cart pod, and one of Portland’s famous rubberstamp libraries occupy space within pajama distance of my bedroom. An apothecary peddles tinctures and crystals; the mortuary is the largest single building for what seems like miles; in fact, its west-facing wall, formerly a concrete pad facing Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, was muraled to mirror the birds and mammals once hoped to occupy the man-made wetland.

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The Refuge, which lays low between a high bluff of neighborhood and railroad tracks, plays a significant factor in my wanting to live in this area. Apparently, the view is important to others who also live here, and possess chainsaws.

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At night, despite the static din of the almost-visible interstate across the Willamette, I walk the trails through the trees ’til I can almost pretend I’m not in the city anymore; threats of cars speeding down 17th abate, the operating room glare of the new LED street lights fades into the traditional spectrum of urban light pollution; frogs croak at such a volume that I can’t hear my voice, and all goes relatively silent in my city brain.

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Oaks Bottom Refuge lends its name to a small amusement park across the railroad tracks. Bright white, the mathematically designed, cage-like beams of a roller coaster face eastward, toward the wild zone. In effect, the creatures that live in and visit the refuge operate in a hall of mirrors, an unfenced zoo, observed by humans in the wild.

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Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge is an experiment growing from the dumping grounds of the displaced dirt when the interstate was built, a noble attempt to re-invent a wilderness where one had been destroyed. As Oaks succeeds or fails-however that line is drawn-humans learn that it’s okay to destroy wilderness, because we can just build it back.

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Today I found at least three things that were new to me along corridors I’ve walked, ridden, and driven hundreds of times. Not to mention, the cherry trees are popping!

What’s under your nose, in your backyard, down your street?

portland “isn’t it.”

This place just doesn’t do it for me, a friend recently said about living in Portland.

I need more diversity, she continued: more interaction with people who aren’t like me.

And it’s sad that most of the people of color I see are homeless, or something like it.

Someone else piped up: this city is more diverse than you think. We have a tendency to invisibilize groups of people just because they’re minorities.

What’s the difference between invisibilizing, I asked, and just not seeing them?

The answer caught up with me pretty quick.

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My choices dictate how I show up in and for the world: where I go, who I share space with, what conversations I have, the activities I pursue. If I participate mostly in white culture, that’s where my energy goes. It follows that if I want to experience cultural diversity, I might attend different events, meet people I have less in common with, and hear what they have to say.

The difference between wanting to experience diversity and actually interacting with people of different color/culture/language/nativity/belief/sexuality/class/etc is the desire, the need, the absence of said dynamics in the daily walkabout, and one’s acknowledgement of that absence.

Last autumn, I lived and worked in New York City for three months. Lived in Brooklyn, worked in Manhattan. The wild diversity of those I worked with and around in the event production and service industries sated me to a state of normalcy. Coming home to Portland, I’ve had a subtle sensation that something’s wrong, but can’t quite put my finger on it.

I relate to my friend whose feels more alive when she visits the Bay Area; the crossover of humanity and expression is such that there is simply a smaller proportion of white people, which makes, in my opinion, a more interesting mix of human expression. I don’t necessarily feel guilty for being born white (though I bear a vague responsibility for the actions of my ancestors), but I do notice my thoughts when I’m doing the daily thing in Portland – thoughts like, that guy sweeping the pay-per-hour parking lot is the first black person I’ve seen today; thoughts like, of course that woman doesn’t like to drive stick; thoughts like, why does this Mexican heroin addict keep talking about living the good Christian life? 

I notice these thoughts, and I don’t sweep them off the table. Thoughts are vital, material things that lead to verbal expression, then to action. I wonder, from what story deep inside me this or that thought might have come; what belief validates it; what has this person done to inspire my anger, or hatred?

One thought pattern I noticed while walking, taking the subway, and meandering New York City: I didn’t have such thoughts. True, I walked past Prospect Park down Flatbush in Brooklyn for a visceral taste of what I was told was a neighborhood I should “avoid at night” (I went there during the day). True, I zipped up my coat, pocketed my hands, straightened my posture and looked straight ahead when men of color approached me on the sidewalk late at night, and I ignored all but the most entertaining of panhandlers.

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That fear and discomfort inspired me: thoughts are impermanent things,
like cities and mental prisons.

filter culture: reasons to love Portland

Last week, Willamette Week front-paged Martin Cizmar’s 28 Reasons to Love Portland Right Now, a contradictive list of privilege and pride for the quirky logic young people use to flock here from geographic armpits nationwide. Included in the list is a catalog of Portland’s pole positions in a slew of publications:

NO. 1 IN NATION’S LARGEST HOME PRICE HIKE

NO. 1 CHEAPEST CITY IN AMERICA

NO. 1 BEST PLACE TO LIVE IN THE COUNTRY

NO. 1 MOST RACIST

Just as a newly-wedded couple bears the Sisyphean weight of hope and expectation from families and friends, Portland’s bicoastal skyline is already playing the all-important role of projection screen for the newest wave of believers in the undead American Dream. The economy thrives. Jobs seem aplenty. PDX and our neighbor, Vancouver, WA, have the lowest residential vacancy rates in the nation.

It’s as if gas prices have dropped significantly — people start to buy gas-guzzling trucks again, because who cares how much [insert resource here] one uses, long as it’s cheap.

Oh, right. They have.

While I appreciate wholeheartedly Willamette Week’s optimistic gush of “enjoy this place now” attitude, there’s a chosen ignorance in Martin Cizmar’s offering that I can get pissed off about a developer “cutting down some pine trees,” or I could just forget about that, and check out all the pine trees around Mount Hood.

Hey, you can get pissed off about the displacement of black people, but you can go see them in Gresham, don’t worry about it!

I choose the role of devil’s advocate because the cost of Loving Portland is akin to the cost of Loving the New World. I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying that love takes many, many forms.

Imagine the weekly colonial newspaper in Plymouth, Massachusetts, circa 1640: Six Reasones to Love Plymouthe Dearlye:

NO. 1 IN NATION’S LARGEST HOME PRICE HIKE

No. 1 RICHEST IMMIGRANTS

NO. 1 CHEAPEST CITY IN AMERICA

No. 1 MOST WHITE PEOPLE

NO. 1 BEST PLACE TO LIVE IN THE COUNTRY

No. 1 LEAST DARK PEOPLE

 

Portland, Oregon circa 2016 is a gleaming beacon of hope for the modern world, so much of which is suffering right now. Let us not become so entranced by our own image on the convex surface of our urban bubble that we forget Portland’s uniqueness and depth for its sheer popularity.

For what reasons do YOU love Portland?