Two weeks after the death of Lee Perlman, his rundown, 110-year-old Portland bungalow is a swarm of activity. Former friends, contractors and city staffers scurry around the property dividing up the rundown home’s contents.
Every surface is covered. Newspapers are stacked four feet tall in the corners. A mound of magazines three feet high subsumes a bed. Workers shuffle through narrow spaces on a carpet of paper four inches deep.
Lee’s brother Bill Perlman, just arrived from his home in Massachusetts, stands in one corner. “It’s a shock,” he says, “but not a surprise.”
In August, Lee Perlman, at the age of 64, killed himself in his Eliot neighborhood home. The death of the well-known reporter and 40-year neighborhood activist sent shock and dismay through Portland.
Perlman — recognizable for his snowy hair and beard, button-down shirt sleeve, jeans and work boots — recorded a generation of neighborhood activism that helped transform Portland’s once-neglected urban core into one of the most livable cities in the U.S.
Self-effacing, wry and sarcastic, Perlman led a life with an unswerving dedication to his city, its neighborhoods and his own principles. He made a name for himself as an indefatigable freelance reporter covering neighborhoods for almost every local paper in the city.
A legacy of activism
Lee was born in Brooklyn in 1949 to Samuel and Lucille Perlman. Political life was a family tradition — his great-grandfather was the editor of a Yiddish anarchist newspaper called Freie Arbeiter Stimme (The Free Voice of Labor). His uncle, Victor Rabinowitz, was a renowned civil rights attorney whose clients included Alger Hiss and who fought legal battles that contributed to the passage of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.
The Rabinowitz family was heir to L.M. Rabinowitz & Co, a manufacturer of women’s brassiere fasteners. Starting in 1957, the family used the estate’s charitable wing to fund liberal causes, including the pioneering civil rights group The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Lee studied journalism at Boston University. In 1972, two years after graduation, he moved to Portland.
“He wanted to get away from the family,” Bill Perlman said. “This was the only major city on the West Coast where the family didn’t know anyone. He wanted to make a life for himself, and he didn’t want any help.”
In his early years here, Perlman was active with a renters rights organization, the Portland Tenants Union, but eventually gravitated to neighborhood activism.
Under Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, the city was pushing to revitalize its city center and its older streetcar suburbs. Portland created a network of official neighborhood groups supported by the city’s Office of Neighborhood Associations, now the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, in a bid to get average residents involved.
Allen Classen publishes the Northwest Examiner and worked with Perlman for years.
“He was part of the neighborhood movement, when it really was a movement,” Classen said. “Gentrification wasn’t even a term then.”
Anne McLaughlin met Perlman in 1973 while he was neighborhood news editor for an alternative paper called the Portland Scribe.
“The neighborhood system really gave much more power to those groups than they’d had in the past,” McLaughlin said. “It’s where Lee saw citizen activism really could take place and really influence decisions.”
In 1975, Mike Ryerson and Bud Clark, the owner of the Goose Hollow Inn and a future mayor, started one of the city’s first neighborhood-focused newspapers, The Northwest Neighbor. They quickly brought Perlman onboard.
“Neighborhood news was really unheard of at that time,” Ryerson said. “Bud was very insistent that we have him. Nobody was on top of it like Lee.”
Simultaneous to his reporting, Perlman spent seven years working at Portland’s Office of Neighborhoods, where his expertise earned him the nickname “Mr. Neighborhood.”
After leaving the city in 1985, Perlman continued to build a reputation as an expert in the city’s neighborhoods. Few reporters could match his knowledge of bureaucracy, local players, neighborhood history and insatiable appetite for community events and association meetings.
“He wouldn’t just come to the meetings. He’d show up early and set up the chairs,” states one comment on Perlman’s memorial Facebook page.
Through his ubiquitous presence at meetings and events, he streamed miles of reporting that often telegraphed activists’ concerns to the mainstream media, but mostly to local residents.
“The Burnside Bridgehead, the development along the Eastside Industrial District, Mile Post 5,” said Nancy Tannler, Southeast Examiner editor. “He worked on the apartments built without parking on Southeast Division. I can’t think of all the issues.”
As an activist, Perlman’s passions ranged from homelessness to anti-nuclear campaigns. He advanced his belief that the city’s historic, single-family houses should be preserved and owner occupied.
Pieces of Lee
The man, however, was not as accessible as his reporting.
“He was a generous, patient and a very funny man,” said friend Christine Cherneski. “But everyone saw a different side of him.”
The outpouring of remembrance on the Facebook page offers a glimpse of that.
People knew a man who was alternately shy and confrontational, one who was warm and gentle but often came off curmudgeonly. He was modest and reclusive, but friends recall the half-marathon he ran across the Glenn Jackson Bridge wearing his trademark outfit: work boots and jeans.
Perlman possessed a rigidity of purpose and uncompromising adherence to principles that some saw as integrity, others saw it as stubbornness.
Spats with editors and publishers over rewrites were common. He routinely turned down raises if it meant compromising his coverage.
“I once offered him a 40 percent raise if he would cover something other than South Portland,” said Don Snedecor, publisher of the Southwest Post. Perlman declined. “Money was not a big thing to him.”
Yet, money was a struggle. Perlman insisted on living independently from his family and took odd jobs to fill in what writing could not. He drove a cab and worked as a receptionist at the Oregon Convention Center. He delivered newspapers.
During a visit back east in December, Perlman confided to his brother that he “wasn’t making it” financially. Family and friends frequently offered him financial help, but Perlman would almost always refuse it.
Alone in a crowd
On Aug. 5, Perlman sent a letter to all five of his editors stating he was resigning. He cited concerns about money and a failing confidence in his writing.
Mary Dehart, publisher of the Hollywood Star, went to Perlman’s home Aug. 8. She became concerned and alerted authorities, who entered the house later that day and discovered his body.
Bill Perlman sits at a table at the Gold Rush Coffee Bar, two blocks from Perlman’s home. He can’t quite absorb all the events of the past couple weeks.
“I had no idea that he was involved in all these things,” Bill said. “It’s unfortunate that he couldn’t accept or understand how people felt about him. But who can say what Lee thought or felt, or what scale he used to measure himself?”
Some wonder how someone so involved could be so isolated. Not even those closest to him had not been inside his home in years. Some wonder if he had health problems. Others were shocked to learn he struggled with depression.
“The suicide? Who can say,” Dehart said. “Knowing a lot of people but being lonely inside, I think a lot of people could understand that. He was really connected to the community, but not connected enough.”
Of the many sides people saw, Ryerson likes to remember the Perlman from his youth.
“We had this promotional T-shirt for The Neighbor,” Ryerson said. “Lee would always wear it when he delivered papers. I can still picture him — covered in ink, holding a stack of papers, smiling with a T-shirt on that read, ‘Love thy Neighbor.'”