Biking in the buff stirs up neighbors
Portland is funny when it comes to nudity.
We don't like naked violinists, but we love naked bike riders. Well, at least some of the population does.
Just two weeks ago, a 20-year-old man playing the violin in the buff outside the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse in downtown Portland got arrested for indecent exposure, after generating a lot of complaints and refusing to put his clothes on.
The story landed on national news sites and blogs, reinforcing the Rose City's most persistent slogan: Keep Portland Weird.
At the same time, Portland is world-famous for attracting the most participants in the World Naked Bike Ride each year, an event that now happens in 70 cities and 25 countries worldwide.
Last year, more than 8,000 people stripped down "as bare as they dare," the organizers like to say, riding from the South Park Blocks for seven miles around the city at a leisurely pace.
Decked out in body paint, glow lights and various stages of undress, the ride started 10 years ago as a protest against fossil fuels. It has evolved into more of a celebration of the freedom and an expression of cyclists' vulnerability, organizers say.
That doesn't matter to Kathy and Joseph Goertz, a Northeast Portland couple in their 60s who have been unwittingly trapped in the world of naked bike riders two years in a row.
Last year, they became stuck in the mass of riders as they were leaving the Rose Festival.
"As we were coming back about 11 p.m. across the Hawthorne Bridge, there was a constant stream of naked bike riders riding by us, about two feet apart. I had to be careful. I couldn't handle it," Kathy Goertz says. "I walked across with my paper in front of my face."
When they got to their car on the other side of the bridge, there were more naked bike riders, and police escorts.
"I went up to them and said why aren't you arresting these people?" she says. "They said, 'The mayor says it's legal. Talk to the mayor.' How can the mayor declare an illegal activity is legal?"
The Goertzes tried to move their car out of the crowd, but people wouldn't listen, Kathy Goertz says. Finally they were able to leave, but because police were still blocking traffic, they had to drive back at a snail's pace along the Hawthorne Bridge, next to more naked riders.
This year, Saturday, June 7, the event has received a permit to stage at a neighborhood park for the first time, to avoid the Rose Festival and other traffic downtown.
In a cruel bit of irony that would be funny if it weren't so real for the Goertzes, the neighborhood park just happens to be Normandale Park, directly across from their house of 43 years.
It was almost too much for them to handle.
"We pay taxes," Goertz says. "This shouldn't be going to that."
The legality of the event is in fact a balancing act for the city, Portland Police Sgt. Pete Simpson says.
The naked violinist got arrested for violating Section 14A.40.030 of the City Code, which states, "It is unlawful for any person to expose his or her genitalia while in a public place or place visible from a public place, if the public place is open or available to persons of the opposite sex."
The naked bike ride — which received a permit from Portland Parks & Recreation — is different on two accounts, city officials say.
On the one hand, "we simply cannot effectively arrest hundreds or thousands of naked people," Simpson says. "It's just not feasible, much like the unpermitted protests that happen regularly downtown."
When events like this happen, "we'd rather be assisting the movement of it," Simpson says, "rather than stand there with our arms crossed, because it's against the law."
So, as they do every year, dozens of traffic division cops will help block the roads and help the ride move as smoothly as possible. Police receive a copy of the route beforehand, but it's not released to the public so as to keep additional gawkers and crowds from gathering.
"In past years, we haven't had any issues other than traffic tie-ups," Simpson says.
The other reason the naked bike ride is allowed — while a naked violinist is not — is that the city attorney's office has advised police the Oregon Constitution gives a lot of leeway for protests involving nudity, Simpson says.
If the police were to make arrests at an event like this, there would be a good case for them to be overturned, Simpson says.
The violinist was "drawing art on the sidewalk and playing a violin," Simpson says. "If he was protesting something, it's not clear."
Protest against fossil fuels
The naked bike ride was designed to grab attention. It started in Portland in 2004 with 125 people but adopted its formal name a year later. Over the years it's grown from hundreds to thousands of riders, now organized by a grassroots nonprofit called Umbrella, which promotes "community-based street culture" through other projects like Shift and the Multnomah County Bike Fair.
In past years the ride kicked off at a vacant lot near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry; last year with the support of the Portland Art Museum they gathered at the South Park Blocks. This year they asked for permission from the Rose City Neighorhood Association, which approved it.
Event organizer Stephen Upchurch describes the ride on the city permit as "a lighthearted protest against our dependency on fossil fuels and a commentary on the vulnerability of users of the road such as pedestrians, cyclists and skaters." The goal of the ride is to express those objectives, he says, as well as to "contribute to the eclectic nature of our city in a celebratory fashion."
The group paid $1,383 for the city parks permit for the right to assemble at Normandale Park. The permit lists steps they must take to notify neighbors about the event, at least a week in advance. Those include placing 10 lawn signs throughout the park, with contact info and event details. They also must contact neighbors within two blocks of the park to give them "fair warning of the nature of the event," the number of expected participants, and relay that the streets adjacent to the park will be closed during the duration, from 6 p.m. to midnight.
Kathy Goertz says one week's notice is not good enough. She says her husband put up his own signs in the park, which were taken down. And she went to neighbors to tell them about the event and collect signatures from people calling for a stop to it. Twenty-five of her neighbors signed on.
This year the Goertzes have children and grandchildren coming to town to celebrate a graduation, and would've been gathering outside. But they'll stay indoors instead. The Goertzes are concerned about the families who'll get caught unawares along the route, like they did.
They plan to take their case to Parks Commissioner Amanda Fritz this summer.
Police and parks officials say they have received complaints by people opposed to the event this year.
But they don't seem to carry weight in the big picture.
Says parks spokesman Mark Ross: "We permit hundreds of events every year, and unless they are illegal, we base our permitting decisions on the organizers' ability to meet criteria for safety and well-being for the event and associated parks ... not on whether some people may object."