Our opinion: Efforts to reinvigorate downtown are important
Last weekend, Portlanders were shocked and saddened by a mass shooting downtown. Just one weekend later, they are invited by civic-minded groups to come back to the "Heart of Portland" to celebrate the city center's recovery from a year of pandemic and vandalism.
The city's residents, of course, might reasonably wonder if it's prudent to venture downtown when their own hearts were so recently broken by the shooting and their safety is in doubt. The answer to that question is somewhat counterintuitive: Until people who are coming downtown to do positive things far outnumber the folks intent on doing harm, Portland's jewel — its previously heralded core — will not return to its former state.
The shooting in the early morning hours of Saturday, July 17, was indeed tragic. Makayla Maree Harris, an 18-year-old girl who should have had a long and promising life in front of her, was killed, while six others were injured. As of late this week, police were keeping details of the shooting confidential. Grieving family members say Makayla may have been hit by gunfire intended for someone else in a crowd of young people.
The crime once again put Portland in the news for all the wrong reasons. Such seemingly random violence was the last thing downtown needed now. For much of the past year, vandals have been breaking storefront windows. Homelessness has spiraled out of control, and fairly or not, some national media outlets have been intent on portraying Portland as a chaotic and dangerous place.
Yet, the irony is that downtown has been coming back in recent weeks. The streets are visibly busier with pedestrian activity. Employees are returning to offices. Stores and restaurants are getting more crowded, and some merchants have dared to remove the plywood from their windows.
To build on this sense of revival, civic organizations and businesses planned several events for this week and weekend. On Thursday, July 22, Mayor Ted Wheeler along with Portland State University President Stephen Percy, business leaders and other notables held a press conference at PSU to promote downtown's "Welcome Back" campaign. SOLV volunteers descended on downtown a couple of times this week to remove litter from unsightly streets, sidewalks and parks. And the entire weekend will be filled with events, as displaced food carts reopen and Pink Martini leads a sing-along.
It might seem futile to haul out the downtown cheerleaders and throw a big party while police are still investigating a horrific crime and city leaders are squabbling over who's to blame for this year's spike in homicides. The debate over appropriate levels of police staffing is complicated. The community has been talking for over a year, with little apparent consensus, about what the police should and shouldn't be expected to do.
We do know one thing for sure: The number of uniformed officers currently is 70 positions below what's called for in the police budget, which itself has been cut two years running. So, filling vacant positions with qualified and well-trained officers would be a logical place to start.
But we would push back against those who say, after all that's happened, it's pointless to rally the community around downtown. The opposite is true: Portlanders are the very people who can restore downtown vibrancy — and more importantly, make it safer. If the streets and sidewalks are filled with local residents who are there for the right reasons, the feeling of downtown security will increase.
So, yes, SOLV should keep picking up the litter and civic groups should continue staging big events. The police need a consistent and conspicuous presence downtown as well. But these efforts are far from futile. They are essential.
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