Portland, Oregon is Not on Fire, Nor is it Dying

But It Is a Vision of a City that Might be Coming to Many Other Urban Centers if Rising Inequality and Injustice, Police Tactics, and Far-Right Provocateurs Are Not Addressed

This past year has been a rough one. For both people and cities. Entire downtowns and businesses have vacated otherwise populated urban centers. It’s quiet in downtown Portland, Oregon right now, but not in the way that’s comforting, like the silence and solitude of nature. Urban centers and businesses need people in order to thrive. And the people are not there. They are obeying stay at home orders as a global pandemic and subsequent mismanagement of said virus continue to decimate local American businesses and, until very recently, continue to overload hospitals and healthcare workers.

The pandemic hit Portland hard as it did in many other urban centers. Portland’s recent rise to national “fame” as a cool spot to live, was in large part due to the large number of breweries, restaurants, food carts, and coffee shops lining its streets. As many businesses closed up shop or boarded their windows due to the pandemic, (Insert sensational photos of tent camps, graffiti, and boarded up windows) then came the protests for racial justice and controversial police response (and yes some graffiti, but what is an urban center without graffiti?). And suddenly, Portland fell from being the 6th most desirable place to live in the U.S. in January of 2019, to 66th of 80 cities (and an audible gasp was heard around the internet! Just kidding, no one really cares).

Over the past year, many people around the country call to ask me how I am doing. As if the entire city of Portland was in a war zone, rather than the two square blocks where the protests occurred over the summer. The apparent destruction of Portland as portrayed by media outlets and even local writers from Lake Oswego who claim the city is dying has people worried, including many of my neighbors on the Next Door App. One article at Willamette Week mentioned the Portland would not die, but could become like Detroit and other Midwest cities. Many local Portlanders even welcome this. They are tired of rising housing costs.

Yet this characterization of Portland as a dying city on fire says more about the people who make the claim than it does about the city itself.

Yes there are some parts of Portland where I can *sort of* see where people are coming from. Yes there is houselessness, and tent camps, and boarded up windows, and even a rise in shootings (most of it due, not to protests, but to the pandemic) and yet Portland has always been a bit of a grungy, gritty, and industrial sort of town. The Pacific Northwest in general has always been a strange mixture of anarchists, socialists, hippies, and libertarians (It’s only in the last ten years that the city has become increasingly gentrified). I used to attend Portland State University in 2009 and 2010 just when it started to get “nice.” I lived downtown with six other guys in a two-bedroom duplex and we had two homeless guys that slept on our back stoop (I had just missed Psycho Safeway, but I heard stories).

There are moments in Portland’s, not too recent, past that have been far sketchier. I mean, have all these people who have moved here from California not seen the cinematic works of Gus Van Sant? Yet this ragged “weird” quality of Portland made me want to live here. It’s true that it does not look in the best of shape right now, most urban centers don’t, (the time of year doesn’t help either).

Portland is unique amongst the many other cities in that while the issues themselves are not necessarily that much different from what other cities on the West Coast are facing, the optics are. The houseless are more visible here. The racism is more visible — both due to Oregon’s racist history and its controversial police tactics against protestors. As a recent study by OPB found: Portland police arrest Black people at a per capita rate 4.3 times higher than white people.[i]”

Portland now is an example of what happens if ongoing inequality and injustice are allowed to exist (and the subsequent protests against police and far-right provocateurs that will inevitably occur). Right now, protests have resumed as have subsequent heavy-handed police crackdowns on the protests. And this more than anything feels like one of the more troubling aspects of Portland. Protests occur, along with yes, some property destruction, and the mayor and the police vow to crack down even harder, which only fans the flames of the protest against the police even more, thus perpetuating a seemingly endless cycle. As local civil rights advocate Zakir Khan notes in an excellent thread on Twitter:

Yet Portland is not much different than other cities like San Francisco (where one could argue that the striking distance between the houseless and the billionaire techies is even more pronounced). Protests, graffiti, and the houseless around the city receive the most media attention. But these are all related to larger issues of injustice and inequality. If the issues of economic equity and racial justice are not addressed, more protests will inevitably follow in the years to come — across not just Portland, but everywhere.

Portland is not burning. It is facing a reckoning and, hopefully, a transformation. One that would make Portland a more inhabitable and equitable place for all Portlanders. So far, city government continues to severely fumble the response to protests.

Every week I take my two-and-a-half year old daughter to a different park around the city. It’s not exactly sunny and bright right now, but it’s fine. I would not feel scared walking around with her downtown in the slightest (yet I also acknowledge my white-bearded-man-privilege in this).

Portland will bounce back. As most other cities will. The question now, is whether we will keep the same sore spots of inequality and injustice as before, or root them out, so that when we rebuild, we are rebuilding more than just painted walls and broken windows, but the entire system itself.

[i] https://www.opb.org/article/2021/02/07/portland-has-5th-worst-arrest-disparities-in-the-nation-according-to-data/