OPINION: What's the matter with Portland? An open letter
Mayor Ted Wheeler and Chair Deborah Kafoury:
I'd like to express my concerns following a recent experience traveling through Portland. It dramatically changed my feelings about the Rose City. I have read the stories and seen footage on television about what has taken place in the city, but actually seeing things in person is beyond belief.
I worked in Portland for many years and spent hours traveling throughout the city. I am now retired and live outside the city, so I don't go to Portland on a regular basis anymore.
In the past few weeks, I was in Portland for the first time in months, traveling east to west and north to south on my way to different destinations. To say that I was heartbroken by what I saw would be an understatement. As you are well aware, there is trash, graffiti, and glaring human tragedy everywhere.
The experience felt somewhat apocalyptic. It reminded me of how I felt going to the Columbia Gorge following the fire of 2017, looking at the devastation and remembering the beauty that was lost and wouldn't return in our lifetime was difficult to comprehend. Driving through Portland felt like that. It was personal and visceral.
How could a place of such beauty, friendliness, and civic pride suddenly become a place of ugliness, harshness, and obvious human pain? It was like observing physical abuse in a family for the first time. Perhaps the signs had been there all along, but now a family member had a black eye and was bleeding.
I still feel mad, sad, embarrassed and helpless by what I recently saw. Who did this? Why? Don't they care about our civic family? Why such destruction? Why disregard our community and neighbors? Is this the best we can be as human beings?
I get it. Yes, there are significant improvements to make for Portland to become the city it needs to be: police reform, matters of houselessness and affordable housing, racial equity, and a whole host of issues that plague our country as well related to hate and bigotry, equity and justice, senseless violence and public health.
Versions of this were true when I did community organizing in Portland in the 1970s and during the years since. We are a work in progress and these are issues to address and resolve together as a community and as a country in order to be healthy and whole.
But in spite of the challenges, I always felt there was enough beauty, friendliness and caring, enough civic pride, commitment to the common good, and Oregon know-how to turn the tide toward justice and compassion. Being in the city recently, I was speechless. What happened to our sense of stewardship for this place and does anyone care anymore? What happened to the civic commitment that made Portland such a beautiful place in which to work and live?
In 2016, I was part of a Portland host committee, welcoming thousands of people from around the world to the city for two weeks of meetings. I heard three things from our guests: One, this is one of the most beautiful places in the world; two, the people here are very friendly, and complete strangers in the streets and on MAX greet us with kindness and a willingness to help; and three, why are there so many tents on your streets?
With Portland pride, I responded by saying: Yes, this is a beautiful place; as Oregonians, we believe we are stewards of it. Yes, we are a friendly, hospitable people, who value the worth of others. And yes, there are a lot of homeless people on our streets, but we respect everyone's dignity and are working on this problem, so come back again to see how we've addressed it.
With some sense of Portland pride, I recited the motto "Keep Portland weird." I said it as if this sentiment had something to do with how we treat others and resolve things together here. But Portland doesn't feel weird anymore. It feels sad and tragic.
A lot has happened since those global guests visited in 2016. There's been the pandemic, police killings, mass shootings and social unrest. But what I saw driving through Portland recently was not beautiful, friendly or hospitable, and it didn't reflect our ability to address and resolve important civic issues. Portland looked damaged, hostile, clueless. Violence is an ugly thing. It can stop a human being from breathing, and it can suck the life out of a city. I feel like I've witnessed both things in the past year.
I love Portland, but barely recognized it. What can I — we — do to reclaim the spirit of this special place and once again be good stewards of what has been entrusted to us? How can we work as neighbors to become better together?
I hope the city will recover the spirit that once made this such an amazing place in which to live and work. The damage that has taken place should not be the final word on the matter.
Lowell Greathouse is a retired United Methodist minister who served local churches in Beaverton, Lake Oswego and Portland. He previously worked for United Way of the Columbia-Willamette and Community Action in Washington County. He lives in Forest Grove.
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