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October 12th, 2011 12:01 am COREY PEIN | Cover Story

The Other Portland

It’s poor, it’s dangerous, it’s growing like crazy—and it’s more important than ever.

lede_otherpdx_altered_3749WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS: Guy Dale uses the bike lane to make his way up Southeast 162nd Avenue in East Portland, where it’s not uncommon to see people in wheelchairs using roadways because the sidewalks are inadequate or missing. - IMAGE: Darryl James
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.

EASTERN PROMISES: Centennial Community Association President Tom Lewis says city projects like new parks and bike lanes aren’t always welcomed by longtime East Portlanders who mistrust City Hall.
IMAGE: Darryl James

 “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.

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