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More talking. Less violence.

“In any real city, you walk, you brush past people, and people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.”
Crash, 2004

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Recently, on Portland’s MAX train, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, Rick Best, and Micah Fletcher stood up to interrupt hate speech spewing from the mouth of a white supremacist. Each put themselves unknowingly in harm’s way in service to two young women none of them knew. Namkai-Meche and Best paid with their lives. All are now called heroes.

After that, the Portland Tribune ran a story about whether it was “safe” to ride Trimet, Portland’s public transportation provider. It noted that despite Trimet’s efforts over the years: bolstering security, eliminating free fare zones, and announcing that these programs “solved” safety issues, hundreds of crimes are reported each year on the bus and rail lines, “many of them serious.”

“Trimet is safe,” Neil MacFarlane, Trimet’s General Manager, said. “but we want our customers to perceive it as safe.”

Translation: We want riders to treat each other better.

The question of whether a bus or train is safe is, in this case, irrelevant. An empty train is perfectly safe. People are the wildcards, the variables, the unknown factors for which we feel we must account. That statement should go without saying, but the conversation around how to stop violence continues to invite more oppression and suppression in the form of increased police enforcement, which is only a political bandaid to cover the oceanic wound between how we hope and expect people will act and how we actually relate with one another in real time.

Safety will not result from force.

We must understand that “safe spaces” exist only in the fleeting perceptions of individuals,, and that these constantly shifting notions cannot be controlled by increasing security. In some cases, the presence of a cop raises the tension in a space, not least because police officers are trained to profile, a tactic which has killed more Americans in the last thirty years than a small war.

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The most present question for me right now is, how do we create a culture where disagreement is welcome, invited, and explored? Or, on a more practical level, how do we create equitable public spaces? That is, free, physical public spaces whose purpose is for people from different backgrounds to talk, connect, debate, dialogue, and *gasp* disagree?

That’s a tall order, given our capitalist culture that is driven by real estate prices and corporate profits, but let’s put that aside for a moment and imagine: if we redesigned the physical aspects of how we convene in public spaces, how might we interact differently? If the seats on a bus were formed in a circle instead of in rows, where people faced one another out of circumstance, would they remain glued to their smartphones? Maybe. But maybe they’d make eye contact, and maybe, a conversation would emerge.

Barring the internet’s digital plane, and next to city parks, the most equitable public spaces we have are the transit and road systems. Public transport equates people in some ways—most everyone pays fare, occupies the same physical space. But buses and rail lines are built for efficiency and transportation, and lack the intention of gathering people for a greater purpose than (at best!) a peaceful commute.

And for drivers, the road system requires that we follow the same rules, regardless of whether we drive a clunker Ford or a Maserati, but the walls of glass, metal, and wind barricade us from accessing each others’ personal worlds.

If the only spaces where people of different backgrounds and viewpoints interact with one another are those in which we’re traveling from one destination to another, one calendar event to the next, from one insulated and exclusionary space to the next, our conversations and interactions will follow that pattern.

What might happen in a space where a white supremacist and those he fears can gather, at least in theory, and both be heard, seen, and understood for who they are, as opposed to the current dynamic of fear and anxiety creating conflict and avoidance?

My guess: More talking. Less violence.

When I saw Christian’s mugshot in the paper, I did not see a Murderer. I saw a man with great internal pain, one who carries unfathomable trauma, a man whose models for how to be a good person probably did not exist.

These are my judgments and projections; I know nothing of the man but that which the media has portrayed of him. Which is a colossal problem, because he has been portrayed an a detestable and unforgivable monster, and maybe he is, but if we as a society do not effectively address that which made him and others like him, we cannot create spaces where people even have the opportunity to feel safe, let alone connect.

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One last thing: it’s time that we get to know our neighbors. You never know when they might save your life. Here are a few ways that people in Portland are working toward healthy community:

Multnomah County, in the vein of Seattle’s Facing Homelessness tiny house project, seek to integrate houseless individuals into tiny houses built in the community’s backyards. We need each other to treat each other better in these turbulent times. Not just on TriMet, but everywhere. We must relearn how to convene, converse, and how to be in disagreement. We need to create more equitable public spaces, and more intentional opportunities to interact with each other. One great example of this is Oregon Humanities’ Conversation Project, where local leaders facilitate topic-specific discussions with local communities around the state.

The City Repair Project and the Village Building Convergence, which is happening this week, seek to reclaim and repurpose neighborhood intersections into equitable public spaces by facilitating neighbors’ collaboration and connection in painting street murals, building self-serve tea stations, playgrounds, and creating a sense of community around a space where previously people might have needed to crashed into one another in order to meet their neighbors.

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new portland

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.

franklin stumps

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.

Fair enough.

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.

Stay tuned for the adventure.