Category Archives: community

chased from the garden of home

It was a Sunday. Corey and Cherie Nelson were watching TV when they heard a strange rumbling. Cherie jumped up and went out to the deck.

The door opened to a sweeping view of a pristine river canyon. Surrounded by large firs in the Cascade foothills, the braided Washougal river rushed along the far bank to sip on creeks and waterfalls, and a smaller, slower channel meandered along the edge of the ravine just sixty feet below, right under the Nelsons’ deck. For two and a half years, they have spent countless hours taking in their personal theatre of classic Pacific Northwest scenery.

The pungent scent of fresh dirt filled Cherie’s nostrils. Steam rose like woodsmoke from where the yard used to be. The landslide had exposed the tangled roots of their massive Douglas fir, thick wet tentacles unplugged from their earthen life support.

Cherie knew in that instant that her life had changed. But she did not want to admit it.

Corey joined her on the deck. It took half a second for him to realize the same. He wrapped his arms around her.

“It’s going to be okay, baby,” he said. Corey says he’s always trying to make Cherie feel better, trying to fix things, but that he knew deep down, they just lost their dream home.

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After their daughters moved out, Corey and Cherie wanted to move into a smaller home. Not just a smaller home, but the home in which they could happily spend the rest of their days. For years they searched for the perfect spot. They put in offers on places that they’re glad now didn’t pan out, because a little house on a high bank of the Washougal River, just downstream from Naked Falls, where they fell in love more than forty years ago, whispered, welcome

Buying the place was complicated. The property belonged to the bank, and the process of purchasing took months of negotiations and back and forth about how the old septic tanks needed to be replaced before they could move in, then a whole summer of actual work. They sold the farmhouse in which they raised three daughters, and Corey cashed in on his thirty-five years of setting tile in million-dollar houses to make the sale happen.

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Nevertheless, the couple was essentially homeless for four months, luckily supported by aunts and daughters with spare couches, while the old septic system was dug up and new “biogreen”  tanks put in the ground. But their waiting to land full circle back at their teenage stomping grounds was not always patient. Cherie says she was “done” being strung all over the place.

“I wanted the comfort of a home home.”

Before they moved in, Cherie would lie down in the grass of her would-be home, and imagined her roots going deep into the ground. She prayed to the spirit of the Native American people for a blessing to steward the land, to protect and enhance it.

“I just wanted to be worthy of this place,” Cherie says.

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Corey and I work together, remodeling houses in Lake Oswego. When he’s not around, building contractors talk about the mastery and humility with which he works. They vie for his schedule, say that he doesn’t charge enough. He’s quiet, unassuming, kind. Wears a tawny pony tail, gray at the roots. When he lets his beard grow scruffy, it betrays the youth in his face.

A few weeks ago, on a quiet afternoon in someone else’s big empty house, he told me the story of how he was losing his dream home, the place into which he’d invested everything he had worked for, because a landslide dropped half his yard into the river rapids below.

I balked, and as he spoke, I nearly teared up. Naïvely, I didn’t want to believe that could happen because I didn’t want to believe that I could work my entire life to finally feel like I belonged somewhere—my struggle since toddlerhood—only to watch the place I’d worked to find myself collapse like Jenga blocks into a ravine.

“Are you saying the foundation is slipping out from under your dreams,” I asked. I tried to skirt around how deeply I resonated with his story by saying that I thought that a lot of people in this country could relate to what he and his wife were going through right now. Metaphorically, of course.

I asked if I could come out and see it for myself. I wanted to see what home looked like for them, and how they dealt with losing it.

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The weather was supposed to be party sunny. I rode my motorcycle from inner SE Portland and headed for Washougal. The sun didn’t last long. On the 205 bridge, high winds from the gorge threatened to push my bike sideways into the box truck in the next lane, or forcibly remove me backwards from the seat. I tightened my grip and loosened my shoulders, because that’s what you do when the winds of change become gales.

Becoming homeless is no fable to me. It is not something that just happens to bad people, or addicts. It has happened to me, over and over again, in different forms, making my sense of home an ambivalent quest for an unknown grail. Maybe I’ve had many homes, more than all my fingers and toes; maybe I’ve had none, and simply floated between places to lay my sleeping bag, occasionally landing for a few months, maybe a couple of years. Times when I’ve really had it good, really felt like I was home, I’ve tightened my grip, wanting to not lose it. But a place has its way of shrugging us off when the time comes.

Now, I’m tentative to love a place too much. At 30, I’ve lived in Portland for four years, twice longer than anywhere else in my life. I’m trying to loosen my death grip on a good thing, to be open to other options. Maybe soon I’ll take a reprieve from the city and do the Thoreau thing for a while. But what place would I be worthy of?

From town, Washougal River Road follows the idyllic river upstream through the foothills of the Cascades north of the Columbia. The farther out I ride, the more familiar the landscape becomes. Dilapidated houses sink into the earth farther and farther apart from each other on scraggly forested land. Shoddy fences surround dead playground equipment and doghouses whose shingles have been torn off. Washing machines sit in driveways; some operable, others bound for the trip to the dump that will never happen. Antique, tireless tractors decorate the field edges of thumbprint-sized farms.

I was raised in rural communities so much like the outskirts of Washougal that on my ride out River Road, I silently name the year, make and model of most broken down trucks I see that littered the Trump/Pence-postered yards as they pass through my periphery. On many levels, I feel like I know this place intimately, which is one reason I live in the city.

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When I park in the Nelsons’ driveway, I notice the driveway is flanked by a half dozen brown and silver tarps covering what is left of a small yard. Anchored by tent stakes and sandbags, the tarps should delay the erosion of the driveway long enough for the couple to move out, walk away, hand back the house to the other bank.

From their deck, which is barely large enough for five or six chairs, I take in the gorgeous panorama. The land across from us gushes water from three creeks within a hundred yards upstream from a waterfall tall and wide as the Nelsons’ house. Chimney smoke billows from a neighbor’s blue house, near the waterfall. The trees sway. An eagle glides by.

This place, to me, is fantastically beautiful. I feel like I’m in a postcard slice of the PNW relegated to Instagram and the dreams of Bay Area refugees, the wilder tracts of our bioregion cityfolks feel they must prepare to visit with expensive trips to REI.

Corey welcomes me in. I take off my wet gear and realize that after two years, I’ve never seen the man outside work. We hug each other for the first time. Cherie offers me hot tea. They describe how they stand out on the deck together and watch eagles soar beneath wildly morphing clouds; how the full moon rises every month over the hill on the far side of the river;  how the trees in autumn change color and drop leaves into a river effusive with winter’s first rains.

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They tell me about the landslide, how they went from ‘set for life’ to homeless and soon-to-be bankrupt in three seconds. For days after the slide, Cherie says she could hardly breathe. She didn’t sleep for two weeks.

Don’t you have any recourse, or any way to repair the bank, I ask.

“That first day, I called a builder I’ve known for twenty years,” Corey says. He gave them options. They called an excavator, who said he couldn’t get the proper machinery where he needed it, and didn’t want to put his employees at risk trying. A geotech engineer came up with a hundred-thousand-dollar solution that, if that kind of money was just lying around, they would do. But it’s not. Besides, Cherie says, fixing the bank isn’t even important at this point.

“I don’t feel safe here anymore,” she says.

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What is home, if you don’t feel safe there? My own answer is that it is no longer home, a truth I’ve come to more than once about a particular house, town, and recently, a nation post-election. In the latter case, however, I’m not tempted to leave this time so much as I am to dig in and create a home for myself. But the thought of doing so after being here gives me pause.

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The house is impressively compact and spacious at the same time. Inside and out, it screams Tiny House, built 50 years before Tiny Houses became cool. Their loft bedroom sets above the bathroom and kitchen. Crystal-studded altars, buddha statues and small goddesses live throughout the space. The couches are super comfortable. It’s as large a house as I could ever want. During our conversation, I find myself distracted by the natural beauty outside the huge square windows. On the sill, I notice an ancient stone tool, or three of them.

“We found that thing when we started digging in the garden,” Corey says. “I know it’s not natural.”

I pick up a rough stone pestle about 8” long, and turn it this way and that. At first glance I think it could have come right out of a riverbed, but the phallic tool is too refined for that. Three potato chip-shaped indents serve as comfortable grips for a thumb and two fingers. I’ve seen things like it only in museums.

I’m reminded of Cherie’s comment about stewarding the land. It impresses me how we humans play games of ownership and development with different intentions: to one person, a tract of land represents only money; to someone else, a hillside is the history and spirit of generations of people, just one in a community of subjects: plants, animals, microbes, stones, all in relation to one another.

Before I leave, I help Corey load a futon into the back of his truck. I sense the peace around leaving is not yet pervasive. For saying that they’re leaving this week, I see little evidence of packing.

They’re debating whether they need to bury the stone tools back in the garden.

“I think we should leave them here,” Corey says.

For two and a half years, Cherie and Corey stewarded this piece of land, called it home, enjoyed every mile of the long commute to and from the Portland area. Home meant, for them, a permanent vacation, a source of constant gratitude.

That’s part of her confusion.

“I wonder, did I do something wrong?” Cherie says, tears welling in her eyes. “Was I taking it for granted? I don’t think I was. I was very present, all the time. Always thinking of ways to beautify it and make it better. Did I not show enough gratitude?”

Corey reaches over to comfort her. He takes her into his arms.

“I think I did,” she says.

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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. 

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.”

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?

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?