What’s Happened to Portland?

Portland is dying.  The heart of Downtown Portland is like a heart in atrial fibrillation with a lot of uncoordinated “quivering jelly” movement, but no strong purposeful life-giving muscular contraction or beat. Over the last six months, the heart of Portland’s downtown has been devastated first by the COVID pandemic and now by the on-going nightly demonstrations.  It need not be this way.

Portland used to be that quirky, charming place that people gravitated to, because if its open and welcoming heart.  It became a destination city for people from across our nation, and for many Oregonians.  It was a place to stroll, enjoy the friendly atmosphere, take in cultural offerings such as the art museums and cutting-edge plays and dance and music, enjoy a Blazer game, and dine on wonderful artisanal foods.  Who hasn’t gone to taste the donuts—Voodoo or Blue Star, or posed in front of the “Keep Portland Weird” mural?

The pandemic shut down many shops and hotels and put many into furloughs and unemployment.  Businesses and their many associated working families were shuttered and stopped operations.  Foot traffic decreased to almost nil. Downtown activities disappeared and became like a scared person hiding behind curtained windows.  Even Powell’s Books shut down to customers.  A blow to the heart of Downtown Portland.

The upheaval in race relations started as peaceful demonstrations of unearthed pain and anguish of dreams and hope unfulfilled.  Michael Wilbon, a Black sportscaster said it best, “Stop killing us!”  Black parents should not have to have “The Talk” with their children about what to do when they interact with law enforcement, so they survive the encounter.  All encounters should result in the private citizen being safe, the officer is safe, and the law is upheld. People should not be fearing law enforcement but feel that they are being protected.  Much work needs to be done.

Those demonstrations morphed into nightly violent demonstrations that have continued for almost 100 nights with messages of anger and violence and are not a path to a better place. Damage has been done to those Black communities that the demonstrations are supposedly trying to help. Black businesses were caught in the crosshairs.  Black aspirations have not been furthered. How can there be conversations and communications among people coming together to solve problems in this environment? A few weeks ago, fires and damage occurred at the building where the Mayor lives. These incidents serve to harden hearts, not bring people together.  More blows to the heart of Portland.

I went to Downtown Portland not long ago.  I saw fear and avoidance. I saw boarded-up windows and shop fronts and few, if any people.  It was hard to tell if a shop was open or closed—all I saw was plywood. I saw ugly vicious graffiti on public buildings, laying blame at the foot of long-dead historical figures, institutions, local leaders, and law enforcement.  More blows to Portland.

People who used to go to Downtown Portland, now no longer go.  “I have no need for that city.  Why should I go?” they say. Even our states’ residents no longer support their own largest city.  The feeling of pride of place is gone.  Businesses who had offices downtown have gradually moved their employees out. Those still working in Downtown Portland scurry from place to place, trying to avoid thinking that they are even there.  Death knells for the heart of Portland?

All these need not be the final daggers that kill Downtown Portland.  Leaders from the Governor, the Mayor, the City Council, Portland Police Bureau, and the business community and concerned citizens need to gather and work together for a common goal of a vital Downtown Portland. End the violent demonstrations.  It is overdue.  Give that jolt to Downtown Portland to put it back on the path to vitality.  It is not too late.  Good people were Downtown before and will return when they have confidence that there is an emphasis on welcome and support for those who work and live and visit there; when safety returns; and there is protection for private and public persons and property in Downtown Portland. It is time to restore Downtown Portland to life and good health.