A day after 9/11, a thought came to me: Now we need the poets. There were enough and forever would be the pundits, the partisans, the do-gooders and the cranks telling us what to think and what to feel. None could be counted on to handle what happened with the care required to get us to the other side. Which is maybe why I had the image of the poets emerging from their underground offices, blinking into the light. They would take possession of our anguish and transform it into a set of celestial crutches. They would not ask for recognition and we would not give it; we would use the supports until they mended our bones and became our bones. This, I thought, was rebirth. This was grace.
I recalled this image several times as I reported on events in Portland in 2020, as I watched the fires and destruction during what I've come to think of as the summer of rage, though it lasted more than a summer and its downstream effects do damage still, up to and including murder. I thought, as residents tore down their own city, how we were seeing nihilism in action, the opposite of grace.
I don’t think this was the intent. In May 2020, Portland’s young (and some not so young) were ready for a cause and for release. They’d been marching against Trump since before he was the 2016 nominee, and cooped up in the house since March. The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police proved a catalyst; people would show they were decent and brave and, by their ardency, maybe transcend Portland’s reputation as the whitest major city in America.
“Thou dost protest too loudly,” my dad would tell me when I was a kid and trying to talk my way out of something. If night after night Portlanders shouted about how tolerant they were, their actions spoke of carelessness. They ransacked black businesses; the Thai restaurant near the federal courthouse had its window broken dozens of times. Those who complained about the continuing violence were shouted down, followed home, made confused. I will not forget the father holding his toddler under the porch light and applauding as hundreds of black-helmeted, stomp-booted young people marched past his house.
“BLACK PEOPLE USED TO LIVE HERE!” a young woman shouted at him through her megaphone, and the father, he didn’t know what to do: keep applauding?
I moved to Portland in 2004 thinking it was a live-and-let-live kind of place. I was disabused of this by my mother-in-law, who my first week there cautioned that, in Portland, if you did not have something nice to say, better to not say anything at all.
My second clue that Portland was not the laid-back city of lore came a month later, when I was registering my daughter in a local public school and accidentally parked in someone's driveway. I returned to find a note on my windshield telling me I was an entitled moron, and why didn't I turn my car around and head back to California? The anger was so fresh, and was still fresh in 2011, when the culture editor of the city's alt-weekly wrote, "One thing I do like is the idea that Portlanders are furiously angry underneath their calm demeanors."
She was writing in response to local fury at the TV series Portlandia, whose catchphrase was, "Portland is the city where young people go to retire." The country was getting a kick out of the show. Portlanders? Not so much.
"Fuck you, Portlandia!" read an anonymous letter printed in the alt-weekly. "I've been here for 20 years. I have watched it change. Portland is now a soulless amusement park for the entitled and wealthy. I hate what this city is becoming, and I blame YOU!"
This was around the time an editor of another paper told me he feared for the young people of Portland, the ones who'd believed the city uniquely fertile, a place to make a life doing only what you loved.
"They pour all their energy into drawing comics or the local bike scene instead of doing something constructive with it, something that might be relevant on a national or international scale. Then they lose confidence,” he said. “The waste of potential is tragic. I hate to think of ten years from now, all those twenty-somethings depressed because their lives are stuck."
Ten years on and the weather systems that were Donald Trump, COVID, and the killing of George Floyd collided. Here was the opportunity to relieve some pressure; to aim one's frustration and see it land. There was more than one way to plant a seed. Bonus points if it bequeathed identity and felt like industry.
Cue the burning buildings, the metric tons of broken glass, the people hounded from their homes, the mayor hounded from his condo, a celebration of destruction that resulted in at least one murder, a murder celebrated by people in the street. As I said, a death-cult.
I imagine they did not see it this way. It was August 2020. People were still in the grip of exaltation, a little drunk on power, a little over-enamored by their own press. Fuck the dream of the 90s, they were the builders of the new dream. And if that dream was hazy; if its actuation required more than breaking the windows at the Apple Store while filming it on their iPhones, they were as yet unconcerned as to what any action items might be. Asking “What do you want to happen?” was almost invariably met with snickers that said you were too old to understand, or with slogans, “Black lives matter!” and “Fuck the police!” and “Nothing changes except with violence.”
But that’s not true. Young people get bored, they grow out of things, they grow up. The devotion that had felt so essential, that provided the near-sexual nightly release, had for the most cooled by spring 2021. As this energy cooled, it was taken up by other parties and transferred to the city itself. Its vectors are the ostensible grown-ups in the room, the ones that followed my mother-in-law’s advice to a fault and said nothing as the city degraded, who ratified and sometimes endorsed the degrading, who found something to like in the chaos, found a place to put their confusion over policing and class and crime and race. They pumped money into private bail funds earmarked for protesters and, because accountability seemed too historically knotty to get right, looked past serial bad behavior. They believed, or were too intimidated to say they did not believe, or were too busy trying to survive a global pandemic to pay attention to what seemed like an extended temper tantrum, that Portland had the tensile strength to weather the violence, to perhaps emerge stronger than before.
Portland did neither. The literal and figurative taste of ash became overpowering. Parts of the city started to die. As I wrote in the previous post, “the homicide rate in 2021 was the highest ever in Portland, a record beat in 2022. More than 12,000 cars were reported stolen last year… Foot traffic is down 40% from pre-pandemic levels, and more than a quarter of retail and office spaces are empty. Vagrancy and drug activity fill the void.”
I went to Portland last week believing the city would be on the verge of 3.0. There was new leadership. It was spring and the dogwoods and magnolias were in bloom. Green shoots seemed inevitable, and I wanted to know what changes people were seeing and where those changes might lead. The responses were grim. More than half of those I spoke with said they were moving or considering moving. A friend made a swirling-the-drain finger when I asked where the city was headed. I was on the ground when REI’s flagship store announced it was closing for good; that the increase in crime and theft were “overwhelming the systems in place”; that the additional $800,000 in security the store spent in 2022 was not enough to ensure employee and customer safety. The national chain Shake Shack was set to open this week across the street from Powell’s Books. Before it could, its windows were smashed. A well-known pastry chef was out for a run on Monday when she was mauled by a dog and received 35 puncture wounds; the dog’s handler ran off and promptly overdosed on fentanyl. And a local company, Coava Coffee, last week closed one of its locations with the message:
The team members at this cafe have been on the front line enduring extreme violence and criminal activity on an almost daily basis for the last few years – crime and violence that is only increasing in frequency and severity. From theft, to physical displays of violence, threats of harm, break-ins, window smashing, and repeated traumatic in-cafe incidents where both staff and patrons feel unsafe.
We have brought all the resources to bear that we have access to: doubling up on shifts, locking one entrance, de-escalation training, hazard pay, and heightened management oversight. This has proven to not be a temporary situation—and it is not a situation we can manage. Most importantly, it is not a situation where we can thrive. We cannot continue operation here as we cannot ensure the safety of our team and customers. Our neighboring businesses have seen it, too – and we’ve watched them close one by one over the past few years. Sadly, we now join them.
I made this video last September. Things have not gotten better, and it brings me no pleasure to suggest that better things face an uphill battle for primacy. “I’ve been screaming for years that we have to stop normalizing what Portland has become,” a friend told me yesterday, several hours after someone on Twitter said people like me “support throwing literally millions of Americans in prison and/or empowering the police to murder them without consequence” because I suggested the slashing of an entire block of car tires was beneficial to no one but the tires shops.
My last morning in Portland, I woke at dawn with an image in my head. It was of a woman, from Portland, maybe 30. She was seated at a table with others that I could not see. In front of her was something maybe three feet long. It looked like watermelon except the flesh was black. The woman had her face buried in it, she was eating with dedication and without looking up, and I thought, she is eating death, she is its host now, from her it spreads into the city, Homer’s rosy fingers in reverse.
This is some powerful writing.
Nancy, really, publish all these writings about Portland as a book......its reluctant biography, it could be.