It’s poor, it’s dangerous, it’s growing like crazy—and it’s more important than ever.
In case you didn’t get the invite, Portland is an endless party in a shining urban utopia where everyone has a $1,000 bicycle, eats
locally sourced gourmet dishes from food carts and is blindingly, self-consciously white. It’s Paris in the 1920s, but with iPhones. Portland is not just a noun, it’s an adjective for good government and livability, smart planning and the next hip thing.
Well, wake up. There’s another Portland you should know about, one unknown even to many longtime locals.
It’s an expanse of the city without a single Zipcar spot or independent microbrewery, where you’ll see more pajama bottoms than skinny jeans. It’s a landscape of chain link and surface parking that, by contrast, makes 82nd Avenue look positively gentrified. It’s a cookie-cutter residential sprawl so devoid of landmarks, public spaces and commercial centers that some residents simply call it “The Numbers.”
It’s where you can walk a quarter-mile without finding a crosswalk (assuming you can find a paved sidewalk). You’d have to go even farther to find a bus stop or MAX station. Forget about a city-maintained bike rack—in 50 square miles, there are only three.
It is, however, the most diverse place in Oregon. You may find yourself struggling to read the signs on local businesses, unless you’re fluent in Spanish or Vietnamese. If you see white people, two things might be true: The trucker hat isn’t meant to be ironic, or they speak Russian.
This place is poor, and relatively dangerous.
Median household income is at least 23 percent lower than in the city as a whole, and the official poverty rates are worse than almost anywhere else in the metro area. Violent crime is up. The mortality rate is the highest in the county.
It’s East Portland, the city’s frontier.
More than a quarter of the city’s residents live here, separated from the rest by Interstate 205, a physical and psychological barrier more divisive than the Willamette River. If East Portland were its own city—and in many ways, it is—it’d be the third-largest in Oregon, with 150,000 people, roughly equal in population to Eugene and Salem.
And now, as the city heads into an election season that will be more competitive than most, and with new attention paid to social disparities across the country, East Portland is emerging as a political force.
All three major candidates for mayor are portraying themselves as the new champions of the neighborhoods east of I-205. New Seasons Market co-founder Eileen Brady promises greater investment in East Portland. Charlie Hales, a former city commissioner, talks about the lack of sidewalks and delivering East Portland its “birthright.” And state Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland) has beaten the drum for the area since moving there in 2007 to run for the Legislature.
The political attention comes, in part, because East Portland’s problems can no longer be ignored.
“Crime has gone up. The school system does not know how to handle the influx of children of color,” says the Rev. W.G. Hardy Jr., whose church draws hundreds of black families from East Portland. “[Politicians are] talking about livable cities, with modes of transportation—bus, bike, pedestrian, car. But we don’t have that. They’re talking about healthy grocery stores within walking distance. We don’t have that.”
Altruism alone doesn’t explain the mayoral candidates’ new eastward focus. There’s also a stark political cartography.
“Even a naive politician has got to admit that 25 percent of Portland’s population is going to have a voice someday,” says Tom Lewis, a carpenter who heads the Centennial Community Association. “They’ve got to go there.”
When he ran for mayor in 2008, Sam Adams won virtually every precinct in the city except for those east of I-205. And he didn’t simply lose in East Portland precincts. In many, he got thumped.
Hales and Brady launched their campaigns against Adams with appeals to those East Portland voters. Now that Adams won’t seek re-election, they’ve held on to their eastside strategy.
That’s why you’ll soon be hearing about East Portland as never before—and why it’s important to understand what is true, and what is myth, about the least “Portlandy” part of Portland.
Lewis steers his work van through the vanished landscape of his childhood. The 60-year-old carpenter, who lives 23 blocks from where he grew up on 171st Avenue, pulls onto Southeast Mill Street, not far from his old family home. The van rolls past a wooden fence bearing a freshly spray-painted welcome: “Fuck U Hoes.”
He is nostalgic. A dance hall where the Kingsmen of “Louie Louie” fame once played is now an unfinished housing development. Lewis circles the cul-de-sac, providing a panorama of brown grass dotted with piles of wire and rubble, and after about a mile, stops at Southeast 136th Avenue and Powell Boulevard.
“Our business district,” Lewis says.
A pawnshop advertises “Cash 4 Guns.” The Pallas strip club offers $3 breakfast all day and a once-over with the metal-detector wand at the door. Roll Your Own Mart offers…well, whatever you need.
The van turns east, toward a ghost mall at the city’s edge. The mall’s former anchor tenant, Safeway, closed in March. The liquor store remains open.
Drink is different here. East Portland has more off-premises liquor licensees than on-premises establishments, while the rest of the city has more bars than grab-and-gos.
Food is different, too, with visible consequences. In an effort to measure the effect of the built environment on public health, Multnomah County culled height and weight data from 74,000 driver’s licenses. It found East Portlanders have higher obesity rates than other city residents—53 percent, compared to 42 percent in the rest of the city. Yet for an area with one-quarter of the city’s population, there are only seven full-service grocery stores in East Portland; fast-food chains and convenience stores predominate. The $1 value menu at 7-Eleven is cheaper than bus fare to the farmers market.
Policy wonks call it a “food desert.”
That phrase does evoke a landscape that fits East Portland, once strawberry fields and horse pastures.
The area sprawled after World War II, with little planning. Most of it was not part of the city until 1983, when Portland began annexing it. The lawyers and surveyors did their jobs in pushing Portland’s boundaries east, but the politicians never succeeded in convincing residents they were wanted by the city that swallowed them.
As other parts of Portland flourished thanks to decades of targeted spending and boosterism from City Hall and corporate leaders,
cheaper land in East Portland attracted developers who threw up block after block of apartment complexes. A 1996 East Portland planning document presented to the City Council by then-Commissioner (and now mayoral candidate) Charlie Hales accurately predicted the newly annexed areas would grow quickly, but the document’s vision of streetcars, tree canopy and walkable neighborhoods failed to materialize.
Today, nearly half of the city’s multifamily housing complexes are east of I-205, as are more than half of the mobile-home parks.
The challenges facing far East Portland go way beyond the lack of streetcars.
The most obvious problem is transportation, especially when traveling north or south. TriMet runs only one frequent-service bus line in East Portland, the No. 4 along Southeast Division Street, despite growing demand. In 2009, the agency reduced service on one north-south line that serviced the area’s largest employer, Adventist Medical Center.
Here the bike lanes glisten with broken glass. Only 1 percent of East Portland residents commute by bike, compared to 7 percent of Portlanders citywide, a city survey shows. As often as they convey cyclists, the bike lanes are filled with wheelchairs, driven by the disabled and elderly residents of East Portland’s 261 adult-care homes. (There are only 89 adult-care homes inside the city west of I-205.)
Their perilous commutes play out in slow motion alongside five lanes of speeding traffic—de-facto highways designated by the Portland Bureau of Transportation as “high-crash corridors.” Last year, a 62-year-old woman in an electric wheelchair, Melinda Barnett, was hit by a car while traveling from a coffee shop on 162nd Avenue to her home 11 blocks away, following the bike lane on Division Street. Police never found the hit-and-run driver.
The rate of vehicle crashes involving pedestrians on 122nd Avenue is 50 percent higher than the citywide average. Jaywalking is common because the average distance between pedestrian crossings is over a quarter-mile, roughly the distance between Powell’s Books and Big Pink, a stretch of West Burnside Street with eight crosswalks.
“The circumstances we have [in East Portland] are a result of lack of planning. But is there anyone to blame?” asks Shea Marshman, director of planning and research for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. “I don’t think so…. It just kind of crashed together like so many other places in the country.”
What emerged in East Portland is what social workers describe as a suburban grid with urban problems.
The area’s growing crime problem is well-known to police, less so to the city at large. Since 2002, the Portland Police Bureau’s East Precinct has responded to more calls for help than any other precinct in the city. In the year ending this August, five of the 10 neighborhoods with the most reported aggravated assaults were east of I-205. Eight of the 29 reported homicides in that period occurred here.
The intersection of Southeast 162nd Avenue and Burnside is consistently among the top three locations for police service calls in the Portland metro area, Marshman says. It’s also where many Portlanders on probation and parole happen to live. “When people here call the police, they’re often calling about someone they know and love,” says Marshman, a former parole officer. “It’s a much worse problem [than the statistics indicate]. It’s a call of last resort.”
An increasing awareness of these problems among elected officials and bureaucrats has created a sense of urgency and a desperation for answers.
Marshman, for example, helped found the Rosewood Cafe, the newest tenant in a small strip development on Southeast 162nd Avenue between Alder and Stark streets. The Rosewood is supposed to be a new community center in a neighborhood that has no center. The cafe has no menu. The water cooler is empty. The furniture consists of flimsy card tables and metal folding chairs, arranged in a semicircle facing a half-painted wall. Handcuffs dangle from the handle of an interior door.
The county spent $14,000 to help create the center, which began as a community-policing initiative, and is intended to help give the area a sense of identity, not to mention a place for neighbors to meet. Public money covers a fraction of the anticipated costs. Earlier this year, volunteers raised $1,000 with a scrap-metal drive.
On a recent Wednesday at lunchtime, about three dozen people have shown up. They include cops, landowners, church pastors, bureaucrats and community organizers, all bearing statistics, speeches and, sometimes, competing agendas.
Valerie Salazar, 34, is one of the few people who isn’t paid to be here. Salazar, a boisterous, unemployed, tattooed and churchgoing single mother from Mesa, Ariz., lives on Southeast 162nd Avenue. For the past week, she has volunteered at the Rosewood Cafe because she wants to help clean up the neighborhood. She also hopes her work will lead to a job.
Salazar surveys the room. She sees a police captain holding a folder stuffed with dossiers on her neighbors. She hears a city crime-prevention officer tell landlords that evicting “problem children” pays “big dividends.” She listens as Marshman asks everyone in the room for money—as little as 15 cents—to keep the cafe open.
Salazar says that many on 162nd Avenue are suspicious of the city’s sudden show of interest.
“You’re like, ‘I’m here to help,’” she says. “If you don’t keep your word for these people, they will write you off.”
Growing racial tension compounds the mistrust.
According to census tracts, only the white population in East Portland decreased over the past decade. The Hispanic population grew 106 percent, more than three times as fast as the rest of the city. The black population grew 166 percent, while decreasing 13 percent in the rest of the city.
This is why, five years ago, Rev. Hardy moved his Highland Christian Center from Northeast 18th Avenue to Northeast 76th. He estimates 30 percent of the predominantly black families who attend his church now live in “The Numbers,” having been priced out of the inner city and moved east of I-205, where the welcome has not always been neighborly, and services are lacking.
“Most of them have to commute back into the city to get hair-care products, and connect to people who still remain in inner Northeast Portland,” Hardy says. “Those who cannot afford 24-Hour Fitness, they’re still coming in to go to the Salvation Army on Killingsworth. They still consider PCC Cascade their community college, even though Mount Hood [Community College] is down the street.”
Hardy, a former TriMet employee, moved to The Numbers in the 1990s, to be closer to his workplace. “When I first moved out there, it was strawberry fields. There were nurseries out there. It was rural Oregon,” Hardy says. His family were the only blacks around, except for his neighbor’s maid. Not so today.
All this change matters most to the fastest-growing minority in East Portland: children.
“Massive amounts of kids are moving there, primarily because of rents,” says Scott Stewart, who tracked regional demographic trends for the Portland-Multnomah Progress Board, a study group dissolved by the City Council in 2008. “Think about what that does to the infrastructure of the place,” Stewart says. “There are more kids, and they’re poorer. That’s quite a burden.”
The trend was clear years ago, but little was done. Between 2002 and 2006, enrollment in Portland Public Schools declined 18 percent. In the same period, the school districts east of I-205—David Douglas, Reynolds, Parkrose and Centennial—grew by a combined average of 15 percent.
The eastern districts’ problem is Portland’s as a whole, Stewart says, to the extent that schools are a tool for upward mobility. Failing schools produce an ill-equipped workforce, and the economy suffers.
Perhaps nowhere have these trends been more clear than at Alder Elementary, a Reynolds district school that sits one block south of Southeast Stark Street at 172nd Avenue.
This is not just one of the poorest schools in Portland, but according to annual socioeconomic analyses by the Oregon Department of Education, it has long ranked as one of the poorest schools in the state. In recent years, up to 98 percent of the 600 students enrolled at Alder were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Seventy percent are learning English as a second language.
While the district as a whole has gotten poorer, Alder’s poverty figures have moderated somewhat. Now Glenfair Elementary, a school on Northeast Glisan Street at 153rd Avenue that draws students primarily from Portland, is Reynolds’ poorest, with 94 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
“This whole area out here is looking more and more like Alder,” Reynolds spokeswoman Andrea Watson says.
In a city famous for its public parks, kids who grow up in East Portland have almost no place to play. Schools lock up their swing sets after hours, and remove the nets from the basketball hoops.
The Police Activities League Youth Center on 172nd Avenue offers some of the only after-school activities in the area that would not meet a strict definition of juvenile delinquency.
The center, located in an abandoned school building, has several study and game rooms, but the gym is the main draw. Between 70 and 150 kids use the center every day, depending on the time of year; many stay from the time that it opens at 2 pm until closing at 7 pm, and take an evening meal there—their third publicly funded meal of the day, counting the lunch and breakfast served at school.
“I have kids I send home with food on a regular basis,” says Britt Fredrickson, the center’s director. “I try not to pry too much about where [their parents] get their incomes.”
Many things that East Portlanders gripe about are only partially true. Take sidewalks. A Portland Bureau of Transportation analysis shows that the part of the city with the fewest sidewalks along major arterials is not East Portland but Southwest.
Take parks. A recent analysis by Commissioner Nick Fish’s office of historic Portland Parks Bureau spending shows that between 1990 and 2010, more money was spent acquiring parkland and improving park buildings in East Portland than in any other part of town. (Granted, two-thirds of city-owned parkland in East Portland remains unimproved.)
And as for those infamous food deserts: East Portland has them, but a Multnomah County analysis shows North Portland is still worse off when it comes to finding fresh or natural foods.
For decades, “North” and “Northeast” have been Portland code for African-American. In political rhetoric, it’s not yet clear what “East Portland” means.
Lisa Bates, a Portland State University urban planning professor who helped plan the city’s new Office of Equity and Human Rights, says all the talk over geographic disparities sidesteps a much tougher discussion. “Talking about institutional racism is alienating. Talking about geography is a lot less alienating,” Bates says. “If you’re running for elected office, speaking to a large group of people”—say, people who consider themselves East Portlanders—“can be very useful.”
New Seasons Market co-founder Eileen Brady has demonstrated some attention to the politics of language. “I’ve committed to never saying ‘out there,’” Brady says. As for why New Seasons has no East Portland locations, Brady says bank financing has proven difficult. “I don’t speak for New Seasons Market anymore,” she says. “We’ve definitely looked for sites in East Portland, but there is none that has worked out yet.”
In a campaign video, Hales promises to deliver East Portland its “birthright” with an increased budget for services. “Let me tell you
about 117th Avenue,” he says. “There’s a section of that street that goes from Division to Burnside, goes past two schools, a great neighborhood park, a big community church, and connects to light rail. But there are no sidewalks. That’s not OK.”
Jefferson Smith may have the strongest recent record of East Portland advocacy. Although Smith grew up in the Irvington neighborhood of inner Northeast Portland and only moved to his home in the Hazelwood neighborhood in 2007, a year before he ran unopposed for an open legislative seat, he has spent significant time building an image as East Portland’s most prominent political voice.
“There are people with larger cred and a deeper understanding than I’ve got, but I’ve been studying the issues very closely,” Smith says. “Almost every major city works with increasingly diverse communities. Portland is one of the few major cities that haven’t faced that much. We’ve got to be the city that gets that right.”
Back at the Rosewood Cafe, Michelle Phillips and Milton Lopez, who have lived in East Portland for about 15 years, help clean up after the meeting. They share an apartment in the Alder Village complex at 160th and Alder.
“It’s getting really, really rough,” Phillips says. Shots were fired from some nearby apartments three times in one weekend, she says. Then someone threw a rock out a window and hit a friend of hers in the head.
“It’s disheartening,” she says. “I feel like everybody skipped over East Portland.”
Lopez, a carpenter who recently attained U.S. citizenship, stares at the street outside. “The city dumped this on us,” he says. “They put all their money in Northeast, and we don’t get anything. Gresham is doing right by its people. Look at the trees and sidewalks they put in over there. We’d like to see some of that.
“We still love this place,” he goes on. “If we move, it feels like we’re giving up on something.
“Whatever candidate sells us the best story, we’re willing to go out and campaign for them. That’s how desperate we are out here.”