Opinion: Downtown Portland dies only if we do nothing to stop it
I recently read three articles about the state of downtown Portland — one concerned ("Death of a City: The Portland Story?" Jan. 28, Forbes Magazine) and two seemingly mocking the first ("Portland is the new Pompeii, according to Forbes," Jan. 30, Willamette Week) and ("Crying Wolf: If Portland tourism dies, you can thank downtown business interests and the police," Feb. 1, Portland Mercury).
I have been a Portland small-business owner for more than a decade, and have lived in Portland for almost 20 years. I am a woman, a minority (Chinese), a mother of three, and a former social worker. I started in the Kenton neighborhood with a small coffee shop and bakery, and five years ago I opened The Society Hotel in Old Town.
On the ground: While neighborhood shops rely on neighbors, downtown businesses rely on tourists, office workers and Portlanders to survive. With the events of 2020, not only are tourists not coming, but offices have closed, and locals aren't coming either. Our sales are down 90%, with no clear end in sight.
With no one around, safety issues have increased. The owner of Charlie's Deli was chased at knifepoint. OROX Leather had $10,000 of product recently stolen. Folks at Everett Street Auto witnessed a stabbing in front of their shop and helped pack the gaping wound.
And these are just three of hundreds of incidents reported.
Many days it feels like we are on the front lines of a war zone, fighting for our lives and livelihoods on the ground, while simultaneously fighting Portland's loudest armchair critics dismissing our experience online.
As the reality on the ground has become more extreme, the rhetoric has too. In the past year I have overheard nearly every person I know whispering, wondering how we moved from thoughtful liberalism to caustic extremism.
Reasonable citizens know that cities/societies are complex ecosystems that need symbiosis. Reasonable citizens understand that every person and profession plays a role in our ecosystem. Portland's ecosystem is out of balance.
Reclaiming Portland: I believe, as a city, we may be suffering from what social psychologist Irving L. Janis coined as groupthink, in which "group members' desire for consensus becomes more important than evaluating problems and solutions realistically."
Janis identified a number of different "symptoms" of groupthink, including "an unquestioned belief in the group's inherent morality, (thus) ignor(ing) ethical or moral consequences of their decisions," stereotyping the opposition as too evil to warrant genuine negotiations, pressuring dissenting voices as disloyal, resulting in self-censorship from any deviation from the group, and finally, illusions of anonymity, or the false assumption that silence means consent.
By definition, to be liberal is to be "willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one's own; open to new ideas." Reasonable people know there is value in diverse perspectives; that through debate, we get to better solutions. We are a city of reasonable people, and we must speak up.
Rebalancing the city: So let's discuss three areas out of balance, and how we can realistically solve them:
• Police: We need police reform, and we also need police. Even City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty needed the police to confront her Lyft driver in a Nov. 1, 2020, incident. Cutting budgets with no plan for replacement services is careless policy-making. Wonder why graffiti and shooting incidents are skyrocketing? There is a direct correlation between where we cut funding and types of crime.
We need procedural justice training for officers, and to limit protections in police contracts. We also need more officers. We are at our lowest number of police officers in 25 years.
• Homelessness: A study by ECONorthwest identified what we all observe daily as "unsheltered, chronic homelessness." While bond measures are funding affordable housing, we also need immediate, manageable solutions for the streets. We need organized areas where you can camp (with toilets, trash and a secure perimeter), but everywhere else is off limits, so that the rest of the city can re-establish symbiosis. We need legal injection sites with clinicians, and we need a broader interpretation of "imminent threat to oneself."
• Business: We need businesses of all sizes to have a healthy economic ecosystem, and dismissing or oversimplifying our experience hurts the whole. Small businesses create a city's identity, and big businesses employ more people at higher pay rates so they have enough income to patronize our small businesses.
It's time to stand up. We are better than this.
The Portland I know understands that to be liberal is not simple, or obvious, or condescending, or destructive. We must stop stereotyping the "opposition," while ignoring our neighbors pleading for help. Portlanders need to stop being held hostage by extremist group-think, and reclaim this city. Portland will only die if we let it.
Jessie Burke is with Portland's Old Town Community Association business committee. She also owns The Society Hotel.
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