Tomorrowow: It’s summahtime, summahtime,
Rose City Blues
by Eamon Brennan-Kos (Rose City Silverbacks)
A response to Stephen Morris’s post in last week’s Silverback Digest about my fair city, Portland OR. EB-K
First of all as a person who has lived in Portland for 30 years— I have to concede. Yes. Yes, she looks damn bad. Dirty. She looks haggard and forlorn. Smeared. So far from some of those wild haydays. When we’re feeling proud we’d call her our urban wilderness. In Portland they do not build a library and plant a tree in front, they build the library as a backdrop to the magnificent silver beach that is already there. In Portland 8,000 cyclists a day cross the Hawthorne bridge (one of 11) ensuring that we can breathe fresh air everyday. Portland is the city where a planned parking lot downtown was reimagined by protesters into what is now an award winning public space known as Portland’s living room. And all the while that glistening 10,000 foot triangle of rock and ice looms above reminding us of the animals we are in our urban wilderness.
We have a lot of trophies on our shelves, but right now we are down. Today, post pandemic, the optimism of the last few decades has for many eroded into loss, dislocation and misery. Visual reminders of the cliff we fell off in the last few years are literally everywhere. It’s sad, and there is a feeling of helplessness that pervades.
So yes, Stephen. It’s all true. But it’s also not so simple. It never is.
And so it is with dear old Portland. Mr. Morris could not have visited Our fair city at a worse time. If we were a boxer we would be entering the 10th round with a cut above the eye, a bloody nose and one hand tied behind our backs. Our urban growth boundary, which constricts urban sprawl, and is one reason why you all love us so much–drives the price of housing up. So what do you want? Do you want the endless stripmalls and faceless low rent apartment buildings of Phoenix or Huston? Or do you want quality of life where you can eat at those farm to table restaurants after a day of swimming in the river that flows through town? Something in the middle? Well, it’s complicated.
So we fight on, one hand tied behind our back in the name of beauty and environmental civility, and then covid steps into the ring and cold-cocks us. It was bad. For a time it literally knocked us out. The most vulnerable were hurt the most as the shelters that we had became instantly too dangerous to walk into because the virus thrived on proximity. Our city leaders actually asked those houseless who were sleeping outside to continue to do so if possible. Facilities like toilets and garbage pickups were made available, but the city was unprepared for the sheer number of people who ended up in the streets. People lost their jobs, could not pay rent and the streets of Portland started to look apocalyptic .
Meanwhile, removing those camps can be dangerous or complicated due to red tape. For example, when possessions are removed they must be catalogued and stored for at least 1 month in a government wearhouse so that a person can retrieve their possessions at any time. I’m talking about a cook stove and a sleeping bag, but also old bike tires or old magazines. It’s very complicated.
Then a second ugly faceless fighter stepped into the ring to gang up on us. As the city, state and country was sinking into a viral abyss, the Black Lives Matter protests started after George Floyd was killed. People were asking for accountability and change. And, at least in Portland and Oregon those protests did exact hopeful change with regard to police reform. Our bureau is seeing a 20 million dollar budget cut in the coming year. But for some small group of white hyper-liberals it wasn’t enough. It was the old saw of anarchy, where the only way to change the system was to destroy it. (The black establishment was generally not supportive). So they waited until the police were busy with the many thousands of mostly peaceful people who met downtown on a nightly basis, and then they set into systematically destroying our city. They bashed out windows (of banks, but also of immigrant store owners—I talked to one Iraqi immigrant who was vandalized 4 times at the cost of $20,000 dollars), started fires, tore down our statues and graffitied our walls. They even broke out all the windows of the Historical Society, which in my view has done more than any local institution to help us understand the wrongs done to black and brown people in the last 150 years. It was the actual resource that proved their point, but they set fire to that too. The financial damage downtown alone is more than $23 million. To say nothing of the cost of souring our reputation as a joyous lively walkable city.
Recently one of the saboteurs was caught. He was a 22 year old white kid who goes to Reed college. A $60,000 a year liberal arts school on the rich side of town.
And so we are in shambles. And I can see an outsider coming into all this, taking a snapshot, and using Portland to say, “Come on America,” get it together.
On the one hand I could not agree more, especially with regard to systemic inequities on a national level. But here is the problem: We ARE trying. Between 2015 and 2017, before COVID, the total number of chronically houseless people in Portland increased by almost 25 percent. Obviously that number has greatly increased this year. We are trying to keep pace, but it’s almost impossible. We have increased spending for the houseless by more than 70 percent, or 84 million in the last three years. This year we are increasing that number by 22%, adding another $150 million of aid. These are staggering numbers. I know because I pay taxes in Multnomah county. All that, and yet there are still 14,000 housless, and close to 100,000 people sitting on the edge of this predicament in the metro area today.
One truth is that we are victims of our own success. The word is out that Portland, one of the most liberal cities in America, has compassion and funds its services. In other words, if a frigid winter were coming and I was running out of money in picture postcard Vermont, I’m not moving to Republican “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” states like Texas or Florida. I’m thinking I might come to Portland where I could get help from their solid safety net. Many have. Many.
And one more thing on those that are here and those that have come. They, like many Americans are a wild and diverse unconventional bunch of individualists. We taxpayers in Portland have been frustrated that our government has been working overtime to provide shelters, rental vouchers and or tiny home alternatives to sleeping on the street, or in our parks or doorways–but many refuse those services! Citing social bonds in street camps, freedom of choice and the desire/need to continue drug habits– many choose to stay on the streets vs shelters.
we will always follow you.
But yes. It’s a mess. Here is a message to those who visit and see our failures in 2021.
We are trying.
We are working hard, failing, trying again and failing again. We’re trying to figure this puzzle out. It ain’t pretty, but we are actively minimizing the crisis of houselessness, metal health and drug addiction and we will see where it goes.
I personally think that the tiny house solution outlined in Stephen’s Rose City II piece is a significant answer to the problem–and our city leaders are moving hard in that direction among others.
* * *
In 1970 the American city was crumbling. White flight had gutted its infrastructure and modern architects filled downtowns with concrete and freeways. Under that backdrop the great landscape architect Lawence Halprin went up into the mountains to study the forms of the Cascade Mountains and then brought them back to the inner city Portland to create a full city block cubist representation of a wilderness waterfall– complete with pine trees and stoney brooks that widend to become gushing free falling celebration of Oregon and it’s celebrated fresh water.
To this day the people adore it. Use it. Are nourished by it. It’s a triumph of design and a masterpiece of a public space on the level with the great public squares of medieval Europe. It is also widely recognized for helping revitalize and re-envision the American city after the suburban exodus of the 70’s. This piece of design played a part in changing the way Americans think and interact with their urban environment.
Once again we are a city groping around in our own brokenness after having been rocked by another cataclysmic change. Well, my friends, I’m not giving up on the Rose City. I believe in our resiliency, our creativity and our compassionate democaratic idealism to once again lead us into the wild unknown that lies before us.
To close I leave you with a chant from our beloved soccer team the Portland Timbers:
Ohhhh Rose City.
Wherever you may go,
We are the Rose city
And forever we’ll be true!
And one more thing to wrap this up.
(Sorry, I’m Irish and we can’t help ourselves.)
If you like storytelling and simple music in the style of John Prine check out the song
from Portland singer Todd Snyder’s album “Todd Snyder live: The Storyteller.”
It’s a rare artist that can make you nostalgic for the present.