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Columnist Rick Seifert discusses Native Americans, New York and his recent book in analyzing Portland's density debate

The back-and-forth about infill, housing density, affordability and threats to neighborhood "character" has been grinding away for months, if not years. It would help to stand back and look at it from a different perspective.

Consider the inscription on a T-shirt I bought at the Durango, Colo., airport a few years ago. The shirt depicts mounted Native American warriors in battle regalia. The seven braves, armed with spears, are clearly on high alert, scanning the landscape for immigrants.

Over the shirt's image in large letters are the words "Homeland Security," and beneath the picture is the caption "Fighting Terrorism Since 1492."

Let that sink in.

The caption could just as easily have read "Fighting INFILL Since 1492."

Another buzzword from the Great Infill Debate, NIMBY, suggests itself for historical consideration. Could the native peoples have been the first NIMBYS opposed to change — "Not in my backyard"?

The mere question reveals a chasm separating traditional and Western cultures. The native peoples have no "my" when it comes to the land. No one "owns" it. Not you, not me, not developers, not speculators, not Native Americans. The land, they believe, is our mother. You don't "own" your mother.

Consider the words of Snohalla of the Nez Perce tribe: "You ask me to plow the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's breasts? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stone. Shall I dig under her skin for bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again."

Where, one might ask, does "zoning" fit into this? Or "overlays," "land-use reviews," "affordability" or "population projections"?

And what about "density"?

Here's another perspective. Some years ago, I lived in New York City in Greenwich Village. Talk about density! And yet the cheek-to-jowl "Village," which once was a village, is routinely described as "charming." I had no car because I didn't need one. I'd walk two blocks to the Sheridan Square subway station, my gateway to the rest of the City — and the world.

Here another term from the current debate arises. High-density Greenwich Village was, and is, known for its "character." Its narrow, tree-lined streets, pocket parks and brownstone buildings exude charm.

That character emerged over 400 years of change. Its current character is far different from the maternal one native peoples described before the Europeans — with their slaves, disease and indentured servants — arrived. 

The Village evolved from one character to the next.

With time, places change — as will our own neighborhoods. The question isn't if it will happen; it is how it will happen.

I recently published a book, "In My Time, Growing up in Pre-Suburbia," which was written by the late Paul Pintarich, whose boyhood in Southwest Portland in the 1940s and '50s saw a transformation from forests, farms and dairies to today's suburbs. It was a shock to young Paul, but he never stopped loving his native home. The place was in his bones. You could say it was, in its own way, his "mother," just as it was to native peoples who not all that long ago fished, gathered wapato and hunted here.

Today, we are faced with a lot to plan for. Beyond the "infill" list are disasters such as earthquakes, forest fires and landslides. Oh, and while we are at it, global warming or nuclear war.

Interested in preserving the "character" of your neighborhood? Think about RESTORING it after an earthquake or the inferno of forest fire or war.

More immediately, we have work to do: adding sidewalks, paving streets, stormwater management, pollution abatement, emergency planning. I'd add a couple of "frivolous" personal favorites: undergrounded utilities and enforced sign codes.

In mid-May, I posted advice on the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability "public comment" website regarding "infill." My perspective was on accommodating our growing population. (I didn't mention birth control and family planning, but probably should have).

I told City planners to allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), but that other provisions for increased density on lots MUST REQUIRE in the nearby neighborhood certain "amenities" such as sidewalks, paved streets (with curbs), street trees, undergrounded utilities and stormwater management.

Funds to pay for these improvements, I wrote, should come from EXISTING property taxes on properties affected (defined by the block of the lot and all contiguous blocks or properties within 200 yards of the property). Further, there should be NO increase in taxes on these properties to pay for the improvements. Existing taxes would be fully dedicated to the improvements until completion.

Alas, I didn't invoke the words of Snohalla of the Nez Perce or Paul Pintarich of Southwest Portland. But I have now.

Rick Seifert is the founding editor of The Southwest Community Connection and The Hillsdale News. He lives in Hillsdale. Contact Seifert with comments and column ideas at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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