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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 visitthe refuge operate in a hall of mirrors, an unfenced zoo, observed by humans in the wild.
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.
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?
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.
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.
That fear and discomfort inspired me: thoughts are impermanent things,
like cities and mental prisons.
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.
Choosing to belong is a prerequisite for an engaged democracy.
As hordes of suburbanites flock back into cities; as migrant youth from the reddish Midwest find that the path to enlightenment (or at least social progress) leads toward the blue spots on the map; as the millennials who spent the entire Bush administration learning to hack continue to amass their fortunes, Portland now finds itself a playground for a generation of adults whose relationship to money and responsibility was largely formed to the tune of hip hop culture and trillion-dollar wars.
Portland is experiencing rapid and vulnerable change. No one knows what the external landscape will look like in five or eight years. We have occasion, however, to mold our internal landscapes – which will, in turn, influence how we see what happens in our streets.
Before we go there, let’s back up a minute.
Hi. My name is Sean. I’m a tall, kind of awkward, white sis male. I’ve lived in Portland three years. Although I’m not particularly sorry for moving here, I’m learning that, like many places, Portland has a social history that began long before I arrived. Though I feel respectful of those who came before me, I have no idea if they would have, or do, welcome my presence.
This relatively new idea of honoring those who came before is a burden the colonists didn’t warn us about because they probably didn’t care. It’s heavy, too: as the great-great-etc. grandchildren of Euro-American “pioneers” who showed up in Native territory as cavalry or caravans looking to fill orders or find a safe plot of land, we intrinsically empathize with our ancestors (and often romanticize their quests with video games and school curriculums), but the memory comes with a dichotomous guilt, because we’re also, ideally, able to see the humanity of the colonized (read: expelled, murdered) people.
Let’s consider the name of the new pedestrian bridge that spans the Willamette River, Tilikum Crossing. After requesting the public to submit name ideas, the City refused the overwhelming consensus to name the bridge after Kirk Reeves, a famous, recently deceased Portland street performer, and instead settled on ‘Tilikum’ – a Chinook Wawa word for ‘people.’ So it was: Bridge of the People. Yes. To honor the people who lived in the region since before the last Ice Age, and who stewarded one of the most abundant salmon runs in the world until the early 1800s, when Industry arrived from the East.
It seems that everyone was happy with the name. Two installations of art donated by the The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde sits ceremonially inaccessible at either end of the crossing, flanked by subtle No Trespassing signs. Lest a curious pedestrian meander over to gander at one of the pieces (each a part of a three-piece project called ‘We Have Always Lived Here,’ by Chinook artist Greg A. Robinson), a TriMet rent-a-cop will roll up to warn you that it’s both unsafe and illegal to sit in the grass (my wife and I had a picnic next to one on Christmas day, before we were shooed away).
Regardless of name, the ceaseless machine of progress dictates that the new bridge would have gone up and been named Abigail Scott Duniway, or Kirk Reeves, or Wy’east, and would have been everything that it is now: a pretty coat of arms for Portland’s ironic commitment to sustainability. That the former curators of the lower Willamette Valley (so named for former locals also) were given an honorable mention by the great, etc. grandchildren of their murderers and captors must be a step in the right direction. As would be, for example, a better understood history of the black community’s history in Northeast by the new residents and officers gentrifying and patrolling Killingsworth St., a history all but blotted out as social decline by the city of Portland.
Frankly, I don’t know what the ‘right direction’ is. Capitalism’s penchant for growth is chasing the tail of the American Dream, a fantastical, dragon-like character I’ve read about in Hunter S. Thompson books. I only know that if I focus on the landscape that I don’t like, on the external events I do not want to happen, I will only see that which I do not like, and do not want to happen. It’s an easy downward spiral we’re wired to follow down, down, down.
The predominant culture in the United States (media, government) did not offer an effective model to teach me to take responsibility for my actions, my feelings, or my community. I doubt I’m the only one.
Through this project, Stumptown Lives, I’m trying to make up for lost lessons. I love this town, and am choosing to belong here because I haven’t another place to go. I want to be a part of the change. It’ll be a journey – one for which I hope you’ll join me, or at least hold me accountable for my mistakes along the way.
The organizers told him that he had only a minute and a half to speak.
Gregory McKelvey had urgent things to say to the thousand or more Bernie Sanders supporters (and protestors), who had endured a dozen speakers already, and time was running short: the presidential candidate was to give a telecast in less than an hour, and the rally had run over time.
As McKelvey approached the stage, the organizer said, just get up there and say something short. Others were waiting to give their own speeches.
“My time is probably already half over,” McKelvey said to the crowd, practically shouting as he introduced himself as a 22-year-old law student at Lewis & Clark—“so I’ll get started…I’m sure that my being black was a factor in why I was asked to speak here today.”
On that rainy afternoon in Portland, the whitest, most liberal, fastest growing city in the union, there was no time for pandering or pretend. McKelvey acknowledged the incredible amount of privilege it took for him just to get to the stage: his amplified voice alone was a life accomplishment in and of itself, one he knew none of his close-knit childhood friends would ever be granted. He said so to the predominately white crowd that had, one speaker before, chanted “Black Lives Matter” again and again, with excessive gusto.
Last summer, McKelvey, along with a group of leaders in the community that believes black lives matter, sat down with Senator Sanders at the Moda Center to talk about why the candidate’s campaign didn’t seem to be reaching certain demographics.
“So many people around the country are not being listened to,” they told Sanders. “Before you speak in cities, sit and talk with groups like ours. Listen to what they’re dealing with, and specifically mention these things on stage,” they suggested.
Don’t tiptoe the political line, they said. These are life and death situations we’re dealing with.
Sanders didn’t speak much during their conversation.
“In every city he’s been to since then,” McKelvey says, “Bernie has done that.”
Despite his support for the Vermont senator, McKelvey isn’t dependent on Sanders’ election for progress on solving local problems. Unreasonable arrests and homeless sweeps are happening now, he says.
“Regardless of whether he’s elected, Bernie Sanders’ platform is so important because he continues these conversations.”
Many of the community matters McKelvey addresses involve privilege (police issues are his main focus), and he doesn’t seem cocky about his own. The things he’s been able to do – meet with Senator Sanders; visit remote villages in the Congo and Mexico; speak at the rally on Saturday – “have nothing to do with my own talents,” he says, “rather the positions I’ve been lucky to be in.”
He says that it’s important for him to use that platform that he has “neither earned, or deserves” to give voice to the people who have earned it or deserve it “as much or more” than him. (He says he felt bad about the length of his speech, especially after seeing the disappointment in the eyes of a man who didn’t get to speak because McKelvey went over his allotted time.)
Walking the Talk
“Portland is very liberal, McKelvey says, “but I don’t want people to become content with the virtue of their values. The values are worthless if you don’t actually progress.”
To really progress, he says, Portland has to come to terms with two things:
1) People are going to continue to come here.
“We have to find a way to deal with that, and build an infrastructure that supports it.”
2) Just because we’re a liberal place, we have to understand that those values may not work for everybody.
What struck me about McKelvey’s speech was not just his proclamation of privilege, his ceaseless energy, or the fact that by the end of his eight-minute speech, his voice was shot – it was that, for a first year law student, he spoke with as much vulnerability and perspective on community and political issues as the entirety of the presidential candidacy, including Bernie Sanders.
“I am terrified of the people who are supposed to serve and protect me,” he said. It’s a common story.
The struggle of the young black man is the most poignant underdog material in America today. It is reason enough to rise against the wall of willful conservative ignorance currently being washed with the worst of American values: racism, bigotry, xenophobia, exploitation — values whose common denominator rests in the division between people: whether the physical differences between you and I are real, the effects are real, which validates the differences. He who draws the line between us bears the power.
But McKelvey doesn’t hold contempt for the other side.
“All I listen to is Fox News and right-wing talk radio,” he says.
When he first started paying attention to conservative politics, he hated them, just wanted to know what “these people” were up to.
It didn’t take long for him to realize, “Conservatives are good people. They’re just wrong.”
The common perception that Portland is home to a disproportionate number of liberals was dismantled by The Economist in 2014. Things may have changed since Bernie Sanders took up touring as a temporary profession; still, nearly 30% of Portland residents are registered Republicans. (The highest percentage of voters are, in fact, independent or unaffiliated.)
Portland bears classic marks of a liberal city, McKelvey says, but they’re not all good.
He tells the story of the Northeast church in which he grew up, near MLK and Shaver. Once a conservative community of roughly 90% blacks, the pastor held the common Christian belief of anti-gay marriage. As the city changed, the church’s demographics changed. Eventually, the new parishioners, now a 75% white congregation, “ran the pastor out of town” because he held fast to his beliefs.
“The new people came into the church and weren’t tolerant of the church,” McKelvey says. “It was really awkward.”
“Because they felt they were on the right side of things politically,” he says, “they didn’t take the time to listen to the effects of what happens when they move into a city like this.”
In other words, being liberal is not enough. Portland Police Bureau still arrests a disproportionate number of black people. Their gang enforcement unit, according to McKelvey, is known on the street as the “Patrol the Blacks” unit.
“For example,” McKelvey says, “some people say, racism exists, but I’m colorblind.
“Well, it’s so much easier for you to be colorblind if racism doesn’t affect you. Some people have to be afraid of the police all the time, so we don’t get to be colorblind.”
McKelvey is the first to say that he does not have all the answers as to how we’re going to bridge the divide between the police and the black community. He says that it’s vitally important for people on every side to listen to each other.
“I want to facilitate that discussion,” he says. “I want to make people listen.”
In a city with so many resources for the homeless, sweeps are happening more and more frequently, pushing the fringe population away from the city center, into parks and quasi-public/unused private spaces in neighborhoods unaccustomed to seeing them daily.
It’s not like these people often get a voice. Mainstream media tends to put words in the mouths of protesters and the homeless. One might see in a headline, Black Lives Matters/Occupy/whatever protesters filled the streets today, but one does not often see a fairly-conducted interview with a homeless person in a front-page story about the effects of gentrification.
On a local, national, and international scale, we’re dealing with a lot of scary and uncomfortable change right now. McKelvey, like the rest of us, whether we admit it, is afraid that the world we hand to our children and grandchildren will continue to be habitable for theirs.
The simplicity of a conservative vs. liberal system no longer applies in the United States. The solutions to our problems, though easy to put into words, require complex systems of consideration, kindness, and trust in people and ideologies we may not completely understand. Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism would require a shift in consciousness, as we are experiencing with Portland’s population and culture shifts.
Every time Donald Trump opens his mouth, or an Oregonian shows animosity toward a transplant from California, we all experience the effects of regressive hate and division between people along lines that exist only because we have been told to believe in them.
New Portland is a reflection of New America. As humans, we change as we process new information. When we found magic was actually science, we changed. Economy and democracy are systems of change. As a society, we’re at a crossroads. If we go one way, we will grow, and life will become better and easier. If we go the other way, we will be like an engine run ever harder, its governor (the device on a vehicle that keeps the engine from running so hard that it blows up) removed by a business-run government, until we rip ourselves apart.
Gregory McKelvey represents so much more than he thinks. The only black student in his law classes at Lewis & Clark, he endures archaic conversations on the legitimacy of affirmative action and circular debates on the existence of racism.
“I’m the only one in class, so it’s like the faculty and other students are saying, yeah, you shouldn’t actually be here.”
It’s disappointing, he says. He’s able to dismiss Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s racist comments, but knows that many don’t, or can’t.
Just before we parted, McKelvey and I talked excitedly about how the quality of hip hop is found in its temporal, ever-changing landscape.
“Have you heard the new Dre?” he asks with a smile.
My hope is that soon, McKelvey is able to spend less of his energy dismissing systemic racism, and more of it packing punches into every ninety-second spot he’s given to speak for his generation.
In the three years since I arrived, Portland, Oregon has transformed from an awkward adolescent growth spurt to a fit, bearded bovine, free of GMOs and a stable home.
Daily talk amongst my friends right now is about babies and gentrification. My wife and I go for walks in the SE almost nightly: last week we nearly fell into a hole where our favorite art gallery used to be. Yesterday we drove by Stark and 12th as a crew was finishing up the clearcut of St. Francis Park. The adjacent church bought the private tract to build condominiums. To their credit, the development is intended to be affordable housing, presumably for the hordes of homeless who occupied the park daily. But I didn’t know that as I put down my window and thrust my middle finger in the air, angry and ignorant that yet another Portland staple was destroyed to make way for more condos.
In living rooms and conference rooms across the city, the gentrification conversation often spirals into nostalgia pits, echoes into contempt for rich developers, the 1%, or whoever is up there making decisions and money. It doesn’t matter who, really. The middle class is disappearing like a line of sailors walking the plank into a sea of kind-of-blurry, SNAP-financed poverty, and so far the only person with clout who seems to be paying attention is Bernie Sanders.
Last night, that conversation landed itself, once again, in our Southeast basement, where my wife and I have lived relatively cheaply for three years. Our visitor, a great friend, has been renting the same Southwest house since the late 90’s. Her family’s backyard is open to the three yards beyond it, and with the neighbors, they’ve created a beautiful shared space that features gardens, a clubhouse (with a community refrigerator!), fire pits, and slacklining. In summer, way up in a cedar, my best friend, her husband, sets up a port-a-ledge that overlooks the Tryon woods toward the river, and you can see all the way to Mount Hood. And, it’s a rental. Theirs just went up. Again.
Should we leave? she asked. Portland’s home.
If they go find a new home, a new town, where their family can thrive, she argued, they would leave behind one of the most important aspects of home: community.
The relationships I’ve developed in Portland (including and certainly not limited to my marriage) keep me here – or at least, keep me coming back every autumn after commercial fishing in Alaska. I love this place immensely, and I know too well how to leave. These three years in Portland compose the longest stint I’ve lived anywhere in my life – even if I’ve spent almost as much time traveling and working elsewhere as I have actually being present. My behavior and thought patterns whisper old nothings in my ear: if it’s too expensive or stressful, go somewhere else. If Trump gets elected, definitely go somewhere else.
But I don’t want to. I’m happy here. Now and then, I even call Portland home, a rare word in my vocabulary. My wife is happy here. She’s developing a career in relationship coaching, and it’s quickly become obvious that she’s needed here. We might have kids soon. We’ll figure it out.
In the meantime, I’m sick of the gentrification conversation. I’m tired of complaining that such-and-such establishment is gone, or that I wish I experienced more cultural diversity in my daily path. I’m on a quest for inner peace; for the sense that I belong in body, mind, spirit, and place. That last one’s the hardest – more than a few times in my nomadism, I’ve been assured in no uncertain terms that my complexion, nationality, or privilege was not welcome where I had brought them.
In Portland, for the first time in my life, I feel welcome to be me. When I ride my furry Burning Man bike down the Springwater Corridor, the hardcore cyclists give me thumbs-ups and speed off, muscles pumping.
We all know what it is to feel unsafe, whether judged by lifestyle choices, DNA, or some other whimsical provocation for hate. Maybe it’s a tall order: I want everyone to be safe in the place I live, and that shouldn’t require paying astronomical prices for rent.
Ever short of enlightenment, my goals now are multiple and interconnected: To own and accept the space that I take up in the world; to love where I’m at, mentally and physically; to respect those around me, regardless of class, especially. If I blindly believe that a man who possesses millions of dollars is therefore somehow better, smarter, more powerful, or indeed richer than I, I’m doing us both a disservice.
Inspired by the rapid influx of power and privilege into this city, this project – Stumptown Lives – will explore what Portland has been, and is now, through the eyes of its denizens – old, new, rich, poor, whatever. We’ll talk about real things: the grief of watching a bulldozer take down a childhood home; the rise and fall of small businesses; the city’s complicated, racist history. We’ll also look at the overplayed elements that make Portland the most unique city in the United States: food carts, tiny homes, rivers of craft beer – and how they’ve helped turn artsy Portland into PDX, the Promised Land. Why is this new renaissance happening here? Why now? Is it all the fault of Fred Armisen? What are the power dynamics in our new economy? What are the rules? Are there any rules?
Through interviews, profiles, photographs, and more, together, we’ll catch a glimpse of Portland as home, even if it’s just a moment of a lightning bug buzzing in a jar.
There is no end to this story, but here is one beginning.