Who’s to say Portland is over?

Is Portland over?

It seems like it. Houselessness is visible everywhere, trash is accumulating, and a string of businesses and even large department stores that called downtown home for decades have closed shop, leaving glaring holes in the city’s economic and cultural landscape. Pioneer Square and the nearby Pioneer Place feel like ghost towns even though they are thrumming compared to the once-mighty Lloyd Center. Walking around Oldtown and even in more residential neighborhoods on the east side often involves stepping over orange caps. To make things worse, gun violence this year is on track to substantially outstrip the year before, with 17 more shootings last month than took place during the same month a year ago. Many longtime Portlanders have been left with no choice but to pack up and move to the outer neighborhoods and suburbs, or skip town entirely.

It is February 2020, and at this point only a few American have heard of COVID-19. While Black Lives Matter protests have taken place in cities across the country for more than half a decade, protesters have not yet had to add the names of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor to a disturbingly long list of Americans killed by police. And although violent protests in Portland have grabbed national headlines and even made it into Dave Chappelle’s SNL monologue following the 2016 election, it seems no one is suggesting, “Portland is over.” The city is still near the top of the heap of American cities when it comes to outside investors, construction cranes, livability rankings, and insufferable superlative listicles (some written by yours truly).

Two empty storefronts adjacent to Pioneer Courthouse Square, or “Portland’s Living Room”, in the center of the downtown business district. This picture was taken in 2019. The stores are currently occupied.

But that was then, when the Portlanders leaving homes they had lived in for generations were leaving because they had been priced out. When the driving force shuttering downtown businesses was not a pandemic, but the million-tentacled competition strangler of Amazon and a handful of other multinational corporations, one of which felt the best way to profit off of Portland’s unique culture was to build a luxury hotel on top of a popular food cart block.

The victims of those changes were more likely to not have high enough incomes or the multi-generational wealth necessary to fend off gentrification, which in America means people of color were overrepresented. After more than a decade of watching gentrification displace entire Black and brown communities and the number of Portlanders sleeping on the street grow, were there news segments asking whether Portland is over? Probably some, but it was hard to hear over the din of coins rattling in the pockets of real estate developers and their investors.

So who says now is different?

Well, based on a high-profile op-ed, a good deal of online commentary, and the opening of Koin 6’s weeklong segment “Is Portland Over”, mainly older white people, some of who don’t live in the city, yet still feel it is too unsafe to walk around the ghost town/anarchist hotbed of downtown Portland. Of course, not all white people feel that way. Certainly not those who lined up to get into Pioneer Place’s high-end stores on Mother’s Day. Perhaps they understood that much of the gun violence plaguing this city, like COVID-19 infections, is concentrated in communities east of 82nd Ave, where few have benefitted from Portland being a media darling for the past ten years.

This photo was taken in early summer 2019, when one specific demographic would never describe the city as “over.” (Photo by Me)

Yes, the whiteness and age of Portland’s doomsayers absolutely matter. It matters because the housing, healthcare, policing, and economic crises laid bare in all of America’s largest cities during the pandemic are not unavoidable, but largely the product of decisions made by my demographic.

For the past 40 years, us white Americans have put their faith in trickle-down economics and voted for politicians- Republican and Democrat alike- who deregulated the finance industry, attacked labor unions, gutted the safety net, fought against any kind of healthcare reform, started a drug war that primarily targeted people of color, squashed any hope of effective gun control laws, and armed police departments with military-grade weapons. If you can’t draw the connection between these decisions and the violence that has defined so much of the past year, or the fact that half a million Americans are houseless, you might not actually care about the health of this city or this country, but rather how much wealth you can extract from both.

It is telling that the veiled threat in much of the commentary about Portland’s imminent death is not, “This is what should be done to fix this” but, “I’m going to take my capital somewhere where I don’t feel threatened by the symptoms of inequality.” History rhymes and it appears many white Americans would like to complete a couplet with the white flight of the 20th century, which financially benefited so many of their parents to the detriment of cities like Portland. It is equally telling that when economist Bill Connerly, the Lake Oswego resident who wrote “Death of a City” about Portland for Forbes Magazine in January, sees Portlanders living on sidewalks, his first thought is it is a shame his houseless neighbors managed to find affordable tents.

This particular line drew criticism from some readers, presumably because it feels strange to be frustrated over the houseless buying tents when there are American billionaires who own boats so big they need an extra boat for their boat, and who are so arrogant that they feel comfortable hanging out at the New York town house of a convicted serial child sex trafficker, or committing a federal crime on Joe Rogan’s podcast. It is stranger still to be frustrated with a city when half of America’s senators would rather protect the wallets of a few billionaires than commit to ending this nationwide suffering.

When wealthy, white, older men in particular say something like, “this city is dying”, they often aren’t saying that a city like Portland is suddenly uninhabitable, that countless residents wouldn’t do anything to be able to start a competitive small business or buy a house there (just try to buy a house in Portland right now), that the city’s food has gone bland, music flat, and culture sour… what they are saying is, “after decades of looting America’s cities for all their economic value, the consequences of my actions are becoming too noticeable and it makes me uncomfortable.”

And rather than recognize our complicity and commit to addressing the problems present in every major city- which many of their white neighbors will commendably do- these courageous few will choose to pretend disaster is inevitable and bounce. Probably to a state that will let them hold on to the wealth they acquired and, not coincidentally, a state that is making it harder for people without wealth to vote.

One thing is true: the Portlandia era is very much over. When the pandemic silenced our bars, restaurants, music venues, bookstores, and breweries, the joyous sounds of those establishments were no longer there to drown out the sounds of injustice or the rage against it.

While some are clearly desperate to try, we cannot go back to pretending the structure of our nation’s economy has not created an obscene amount of unnecessary suffering in its cities to the benefit of a shrinking elite demographic. A demographic that, by the way, just might still be alive when some of the deadliest consequences of their actions- from ignoring climate change, to militarizing the police, and allowing the creation of billionaires that would make a Rockefeller blush- are felt to their fullest extent in all of America’s cities.

It is fair to be concerned about the future of Portland as downtown businesses shutter and so many residents are living through the worst wave of shootings in thirty years (two calamities that are unlikely to personally impact a white man living Lake Oswego). But instead of wondering whether Portland is “over” like it is a pair of skinny jeans or chunky sneakers, maybe consider that many of the challenges facing this city aren’t a product of the pandemic or protests or shifting fashion trends, but the injustice and inequality that has been here the whole time.


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