Dispatch from Portland 2022: Frosting the Rotten Cake
I landed in Portland, Oregon this week and immediately started to receive messages, from people wanting to know if I’d seen the homeless encampment under the Morrison Bridge, to tell me about the rats teeming along the bike paths, to discuss the Apple store downtown, molested so many times during the protests it was now surrounded by a stories-high fence that made it look like a penitentiary.
It is true that unhappy people complain, but I would not characterize these people, none of whom I had previously met, as unhappy. I would characterize them as fed up with a city whose policies are, in the words of one, “trying to put new frosting on the same rotten cake.”
All but one of the people told me they are leaving, or thinking of leaving. For some, it’s the mandated COVID restrictions. “My son did not attend one day of ninth grade in school,” one woman told me. For others, it’s the pressure from activists to hang signs about inclusivity and tolerance, or else.
“And I did it,” the coffee shop manager told me, scrolling through screenshots of the threats to businesses near his that had not complied.
He and his husband had been supportive of the early demonstrations, had participated in the marches, had voted the blue-ticket, of course they had. Now, they are looking to move to North Carolina; a former employee had emailed to say the people were friendly there, they said good morning, they liked to laugh.
“In Portland you have to watch everything you say,” the husband said. “I’d hate to go to a comedy club here.”
I spent my first days back in Portland, where I lived from 2004-2019, with the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams. Thomas is an American living in Paris. Before coming to the city, he’d been told — as you will be told by some locals and most of the national media — that the devastation in Portland is consigned to two square blocks, and that anyone who says it’s more than that is either right-wing or has an agenda.
The insistence that you not believe what you see but hew to what others are telling you to see (or else) lost all its tread for me in 2020, and I do not care how many times I am called a fascist (fun fact! The first time someone called me a “fash” I thought they meant I was fashionable), and I do not care how you spin the guy in the doorway of Thomas’s hotel, a dude so bent in half I thought he was tying his shoe (“He’s got the lean,” Thomas said). Portland is on the skids, and if home prices are rising, it’s because it’s still the cheapest major city on the west coast, the median home price $510,000 (compared with LA’s $795,000, Seattle’s $740,000, and San Francisco’s nearly $1.5 million) and also because, somehow, Portland is still singing its siren song, of beauty and possibility, the one that drew youth culture here in the early aughts and let it blossom. Come one! Come all! sang Portland, we will fulfill your dreams! Dreams that for the next generation of youth apparently included a desire to see things die. One can nearly admire the tenacity with which they ripped into the city - 100 days of non-stop protests and rioting! Badgering Mayor Ted Wheeler to move out of his condo and having him move out! But then came the next part, the making things live part, and that, nearly two years since the protests started, is something I have yet to see.
“Oh, no, they’re only good at tearing things down,” the 27 year-old who’s moving to Chicago told me. “The building is for someone else.”
A populace that takes feral delight in shredding the city has not gone unnoticed by elected officials, who set rules that ensure further breakdowns, that slather on more frosting, that count on enough people not noticing a bad understate, or not speaking about it, or deciding that the rise in crime, in homelessness, in human and medical waste left on the streets, are things a tolerant population is okay with; tolerance is paramount, it says so on the sign in the window, and as for the thousands of people living in tents perched along freeway embankments…
“They’re not homeless, they’re street camping,” the Lyft driver tells me, adding a stink-eye in the rearview so my bourgeois ass gets the point.
Okay, street campers are everywhere, in trailers and burned-out cars and open boats used as storage units marooned along NE 33rd; along Marine Drive; writhing under a thin of tarp on a residential street in Beaumont neighborhood; masturbating on a sidewalk in front of a coffee shop in the Pearl. A woman out of her mind on drugs runs at customers sitting at a cafe table and knocks over their coffees. The manager is aghast; he will call the police. No, no, say the customers; it’s fine. A young man shoots up on the patio of a bar as people work on laptops around him. A street-camper stays in the lobby of Thomas’s hotel for 12 hours, scattering candy wrappers. Staff says not a word. Maybe they see it as the cost of compassion. Maybe they’re afraid of appearing intolerant, or of getting hurt, or are awaiting direction from management, who themselves may be waiting for city officials to take responsibility for the policies they’ve enacted, officials who seem disinclined toward such accountability, who know the lulling power of the euphemism, who do not notice Portland’s livability bleeding out, of if they do, show neither the will nor courage to stanch it.
Up next: A self-described “quintessential Portland hipster” on the devastation wrought by Oregon Measure 110, which made it legal to use and possess small amounts of heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs.
Dispatch from Portland: 2022, part 1, can be found here.
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