The aromas of coffee and pee

I’ve been posting photos of favorite Portland locations lately, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s.

Every time I post an image, some people point out the disparities between then and now, specifically calling out the visible effects of the homeless crisis and political unrest. Inevitably, these complaints are followed by defensive rebuttals claiming that nothing is wrong, Portland is just fine, thank you very much. Sometimes the comments on the images devolve into sniping and snark.

So who’s right? Has Portland been ruined or is everything just fine? Actually, both sides can prove their points by choosing where and how to see the city.

In the late 1980s, I first moved to Portland. Part big city, part small town, Portland had the distinction of being one of the best-planned cities in North America. City leaders had taken a 50-year approach at a time when other cities only looked ahead 20 years for planning needs. The city’s clean downtown concrete was shaded by a staggering number of mature trees, undeniably giving Portland one of the most attractive downtown cores of any major city.

While Portland is a major city, usually hovering somewhere around the 25th largest in the U.S., it also retains many aspects of smaller-town living. Possessed of a vibrant nightlife when I lived downtown, the city nonetheless had its share of eateries and businesses close up shop nightly at 6 p.m. — much more per capita than larger communities like Chicago or New York. Sometimes, it did seem dead surprisingly early.

Then there was the social security card incident. I once lost my social security card — I’m still unsure how it went missing. Two weeks after I lost it, a friend handed my social security card to me, stating, “Oh, hey, I found this lying on the street down on the bus mall.” Now what are the odds of that? I’ve always been convinced Portland is a small town at heart and the social security card incident only served to reinforce my view.

Or maybe it’s the “keep Portland weird” aesthetic — sure, Austin technically started it but Portland fully owns it. Whatever the case, Portland is a city all its own. Fifty-year plan notwithstanding, sometimes even Portland doesn’t know where it’s going.

To be sure, Portland in the 1990s was not exactly a carefree walk in the park — literally. I was violently mugged downtown in 1993, near the Park Blocks. Seven thugs beat me up, forcibly taking my coat, my boots and my wallet. I was not pleased and I fought them but the fight was a little lopsided. For the following month, I carried a borrowed .38 revolver when I was out after dark. Back then, people regularly defecated in my downtown office doorway, the broken glass of shattered car windows peppered the morning streets after the previous night’s activities, things were no picnic in the 1990s.

But today, Portland is not the same as it was then. To pretend otherwise may feel like a noble defense of one’s town but it’s a disingenuous perspective at best. Probably no major U.S. city is the same as it was 25 years ago as the country is beset with issues and problems on scales it’s never experienced before. On the other hand, Portland is a tough town and will undoubtedly weather the current storm, albeit with battle scars and stories. It’s important to point out that for every photo of blight and filth, probably ten photos of “normal Portland” can be found. If you go downtown, you’ll find plenty to complain about but you’ll also find signs of hope and resilience.

Like so many issues, the truth lies closer to the center than either side would have you believe.

(I’m not going to debate the whys or hows or whose-faults here. This essay was a commentary on the comments that usually accompany Portland photos I post, nothing more.)

Photograph © Tedder via Wiki

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