In Northwest Portland, two neighborhoods lie within the same confines of Old Town-Chinatown.One is an up-and-coming area in which the city has invested to make safer, a place the Portland Development Commission boasts about and plugs as a good place for new businesses to make their home and flourish.
The other is described by Old Town residents and business owners as a much darker place. A place, say the owners of Hamburger Mary’s restaurant, where drug deals happen in the middle of the day and crack-cocaine smoking takes place on the street outside the restaurant’s windows.
It’s where they reopened the iconic restaurant 10 months ago after a decade-long hiatus — and where they might have to leave if the situation doesn’t improve.
“If we can’t get help, then we’re not going to be able to stay here,” said Frank Saenz, Hamburger Mary’s assistant general manager. “You can’t get customer loyalty with a crack dealer standing outside.”
Crime is nothing new for Old Town, the Northwest Portland neighborhood of businesses, low-cost housing and numerous social service organizations between the Pearl District and the Willamette River. Nearly four months ago, the city pledged to step up police patrols and hire a new assistant district attorney.
But several Old Town business owners say police, the city and 9-1-1 dispatchers have not done enough to keep the neighborhood safe. And crime in the area is taking its toll, pushing a record store to move out.
When they began scouting locations for their restaurant, Hamburger Mary’s owners Ian Cooke and Emily Quick knew something about the reputation of Old Town, but Cooke said the development commission told them that the neighborhood would improve.
During the past five years, the commission has injected $20.5 million worth of development projects and grants into the downtown waterfront Urban Renewal Area, most of which includes Old Town-Chinatown.Peter Englander, the commission’s development manager for the area, said he believes the neighborhood is getting safer.
“I think we’ve gotten past the point that the Old Town-Chinatown neighborhood is floundering,” Englander said.
He says the neighborhood is not a hard sell to business owners.
“I think the Old Town-Chinatown neighborhood is selling itself,” Englander said. “I think people see this as a particularly unique part of the central city. It’s very different from the downtown employment and retail core.”
But Cooke said he felt the neighborhood’s issues were downplayed by the commission and that other city agencies aren’t providing the support to keep businesses there. Saenz estimated that Hamburger Mary’s staff members have called 9-1-1 twice a week since the restaurant reopened, but Cooke said dispatchers tell them to call a nonemergency number, which often results in slow or no police response.
“We’re being shuffled around by those services,” Cooke said. “Nonemergency will tell us that no one is coming out because there are other issues at hand. If you’re going to bring businesses in, how are you going to protect those businesses?”
Recently, a woman wielding a knife threatened a Hamburger Mary’s employee. No one was injured, but Cooke worries about his employees’ safety and even reduced weekend hours of operation.
Central Precinct Capt. Sara Westbrook said she spoke to Hamburger Mary’s staffers recently and said she believes they don’t understand how the emergency response system works.
“Hamburger Mary’s is frustrated, I get it,” she said. “But if the suspect is not there right now, then that’s going to be downgraded to a lower level of response; it doesn’t mean we’re not going to come.”
Cooke said he’s seen more foot patrols near the business since the conversation with Westbrook, but he worries it’s temporary.
Mike Boyer, crime prevention specialist with the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, said city and county officials recently met with six area businesses. City officials said they would look into the 9-1-1 calls that Hamburger Mary’s has made to ensure proper action was taken by dispatchers.
Hamburger Mary’s, a Portland institution, came back to Portland 10 months ago and set up shop at 19 N.W. Fifth Ave. But transients take refuge in the entryway as soon as the lights are out in the restaurant, and employees have to shoo them away the next morning.
“There are obvious issues with the (9-1-1) system,” Boyer said. But he added that he’s pursuing other ideas that could cut down on crime, including updating a trespass agreement for Hamburger Mary’s that would allow police to arrest people for being on the restaurant’s property without permission.
He would also ask the Salvation Army Female Emergency Shelter next door to Hamburger Mary’s to place staffers outside the shelter to police residents.
But Salvation Army Maj. Don Gilger said that won’t happen.
“Once they step on the street, they’re not under my control,” Gilger said. “To say that it’s a dangerous area is a correct statement. It’s not any more dangerous because we’re there.”
Westbrook estimated that Old Town has “more resources per square foot than I suspect any other area of the city has.”
She said the Central Precinct has several patrols that no other precinct has, including a mounted patrol, street crimes unit and a walking patrol that works overtime hours.
“What’s here is scary”
But the police presence hasn’t been able to deter crime enough for Jon Klote to stay in the neighborhood. He recently relocated his record store, Anthem Records, from Old Town to Northeast Flanders Street and 28th Avenue.
“People who come to Old Town are usually lost while looking for Voodoo Doughnuts. What’s here is scary things for people like that,” Klote said. “It’s not worthwhile to do business here.”
During the two years he operated in Old Town, Klote said, he regularly slapped crack out of people’s hands and cleaned up urine and feces in the doorway.
“A lot of people, I think they want to see things work in Old Town,” Klote said. “It’s just that it’s very volatile because there is no oversight” for the people staying at the shelters.
Cooke and others don’t blame the shelters for the neighborhood’s issues, but they say the organizations and city have an obligation to make sure the neighborhood is safe.
“We need support,” Cooke said. “We’re not here to ruffle feathers, we’re here to make a change. The only way change happens is with support, and we’ve done everything we can; we’re running on empty.”
“We cannot accept this. We cannot accept the neighborhood the way it is.”