Portland: hip, healthy, homogeneous, and house of the homeless

I just visited Portland, Ore., twice now in the last nine days. Though I moved away in 1987, I have returned countless times. I still love it, as I have since I first visited the Rose City back in April 1983. I went to college in Portland from 1983 to 1987, and I have always felt comfortable studying, living, and working there. I fondly remember my outdoor summer job painting homes during the day and being able to commute nearly everywhere by my bike to my work locations.

I was enamored by the quirky stores like Corno’s on MLK Boulevard, which closed sadly in 1995 (RIP Corno’s we loved you!), and by the many urban gardens I saw in southeast Portland around the campus of Reed College. I also liked that I could bike throughout the city and feel relatively safe that bike commuting was accepted and more secure than in other cities because of the budding efforts by city planners to make that city bike friendly. Portland’s famous mayor from 1985-92, Bud Clark, a former Reed College dropout and tavern owner, made biking cool to a national audience by biking to his job in downtown nearly every day (way to go, Bud!). Mayor Bud made a big impression on me when we overlapped in Portland.

Portland is well-loved by its fans. Some call it one of the healthiest cities because of its many trails in the hills above the city, in Forest Park, an Olmstead Brothers designed gem from 1903 that today encompasses more than 5,100 acres and miles of multi-use trails and many critters.

Portland also defied a national trend by preventing a major highway construction project planned for Highway 26 from plowing through the downtown (the Mt. Hood Freeway). Instead, famed Gov. Tom McCall diverted highway funds ($23 million) in 1974 to build the now famous public transit system that laid the groundwork for the visionary light rail line known as MAX. Portland still has its freeways and gridlock, but it did go its one way. A highway was torn up in downtown and turned into a riverfront park. In essence, Portland has been making policy changes for many years that promoted an alternative vision to the sprawl development that has fueled this country’s destructive and costly obesity epidemic and proclivity to chronic diseases.

Portland is not perfect, however. By becoming trendy with progressives and attractive for lifestyle refugees, it is becoming more expensive and perhaps less diverse in some measurable ways.

First, on the plus side, many have praised the benefits to the “new urbanism” in Portland, for which the city is becoming increasingly famous. I’m not entirely convinced the high-end makeover of parts of Portland, such as the Pearl District, where the once famous Henry Weinhard’s brewery was converted to pricey condos and office/retail, is a good thing. Portland also has lots of farmers markets, parks, green spaces, and policy measures promoting healthy lifestyles and food choices. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention touts this as “healthy community design.”

On top of design features, such as denser developments that are pedestrian friendly and built to promote interactivity, the city is now ranked No. 1 as the most bike-friendly, knocking rival and bike-loving powerhouse Minneapolis-St. Paul back down to the No. 2 slot, according to Bicycling Magazine. “After being named runner-up in our last round of best bike city rankings in 2010, Portland reclaims the top spot. The only large city to earn Platinum status from the League of American Bicyclists is a paragon of bike-friendliness, with 180 miles of bike lanes and 79 miles of off-street bike paths. Always quick to embrace cyclist-friendly innovations, Portland was the first city in the United States to implement bike boxes at intersections and elementary-school bike commuting trains. Among the city’s many bike shops is newcomer Go By Bike, which is located under the aerial tram and offers valet parking, rentals, and repairs.”

Of course there’s a downside. The Oregonian newspaper in 2011 analyzed 2010 census data and found the “whitest city” in the country– that would be, yes, Portland–became even less diverse in the last decade, while surrounding areas have grown more diverse. This is also a national trend in other major cities, where exurbs and suburbs are becoming more diverse ethnically.

The April 30, 2011, article in the Oregonian (In Portland’s heart, 2010 Census shows diversity dwindling), noted: “Of 354 census tracts in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, 40 became whiter from 2000 to 2010, according to The Oregonian’s analysis of the 2010 Census. … The city core didn’t become whiter simply because lots of white residents moved in, the data show. Nearly 10,000 people of color, mostly African Americans, also moved out.” Census data show that of the city’s 584,000 residents, 76% are white, compared to Oregon’s whopping 86% figure. Latinos are the next largest racial/ethnic group at 9.4%, followed by Asian Americans (7.1%), and African Americans (6/3%). And not everyone is living well, riding overpriced road bikes, and sipping microbrews. About one in six residents lives below the poverty line. The unemployment is slightly higher than the nation’s, though on average four in 10 residents has a college degree. One person who works in public health I talked to about job prospects in Portland told me, many PhDs were pouring beers and waiting tables while looking for professional work on the side; don’t come here without a job.

The most glaring example of the problems I saw during my two visits was the crush of humanity that was waiting at the entrance to the Multnomah County Library as it opened its door on a sunny July 3 morning. I counted about 60 persons, the majority of whom were clearly homeless or indigent. There are about 1,700 people living on Portland’s streets. Many persons I saw that morning were carrying all of their possessions in backpacks or large plastic bags. Many had not had a shower in some time. The library provided both a restroom to use and Internet access and simply a shelter. It basically resembled libraries in Seattle that serve as de facto homeless shelters during business hours.

I decided not to photograph the clear signs of economic distress I saw on the streets or at the library’s gates and focused on snapshots of the downtown features that make the city fun and livable – its downtown streetcar, the MAX light rail, beautiful open spaces, yummy food carts, a downtown farmer’s markets, bike infrastructure that made me salivate, and a vibe that keeps my teenager’s crush alive and throbbing.

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