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November 4th, 2009 Ethan Smith | Special Section Stories
 

A Cause And A Crisis

Portland’s stance on two defining issues, then and now.

     
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Gay Rights


THEN: In its second-ever issue, Willamette Week ran a story headlined “Council evades—gay rights to ballot.” It describes the Portland City Council dodging a decision on a proposed “resolution to establish a policy of nondiscrimination against homosexuals in city employment” by referring the question to voters in the 1976 general election.

Gay rights groups had been lobbying for such a resolution since at least 1971, but their cause had been willfully lost in the bureaucratic shuffle because of the political heat it entailed. Among the opposition were the Portland Police Association, the city’s superintendent of parks and a municipal employees union. At the time, the Portland Police Bureau’s psychiatric examination asked prospective cops, “Are you a homosexual?” And during the Council’s contentious debate, Commissioner (and future Portland Mayor) Frank Ivancie called homosexuality “a severe, unnatural personal problem.”

Ultimately, however, the Council overcame its timidity, reviving and passing the resolution later that year, and in 1974, the defense of gay rights became official city policy. This basic protection from blatant discrimination was far from true equality, but it was a first step in the right direction.

NOW: For 48 days in 2004, gay couples could wed in Multnomah County. Between March 4 and April 20, 3,022 same-sex couples were issued marriage licenses, after a county attorney argued that denying gay couples the right to marry violated the Oregon Constitution. But what looked like a monumental victory for Oregon’s gay community was all too quickly snatched away.

Anti-gay activists, incensed by Multnomah County’s decision, rapidly mobilized, forming the Defense of Marriage Coalition, which waged war against same-sex marriage in the courts and brought Measure 36—a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage—to the 2004 ballot. Oregon passed the measure 57 percent to 43 percent. Then, in April 2005, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled to invalidate the licenses that had already been issued. For the foreseeable future, gay marriage in Oregon was, and is, dead.

In 2007, the Oregon Legislature passed a domestic partnership law, granting same-sex couples most of the rights enjoyed by married couples, while avoiding any mention of “marriage” or even “civil unions.” Semantics, perhaps, but still a sign of inequality.

In 2008, Portland elected Mayor Sam Adams, becoming the first major American city with an openly gay mayor. Though his term has been racked with controversy, Portland has clearly come a long way since 1974, when Commissioner Ivancie, who served as mayor from 1981 to 1983, ranted, “I am not going to support homos in firehouses.”

The Environment


THEN: In 1974, Portland already had a budding environmental conscience. Oregon had earned a reputation for pioneering environmental policy: 1967’s Beach Bill, designating the Oregon Coast public property; 1971’s first-of-its-kind Bottle Bill; and a dramatically successful Willamette River clean-up. Yet Portland was grappling with a litany of other environmental issues, still unsure how to respond.

In the deep-green Portland of today, it’s easy to see our eco-friendly outcome as a foregone conclusion. But reading early issues of Willamette Week, it wasn’t at all clear whether Portland’s burgeoning green ethic would persist. Nearly every issue during WW’s first year reports on environmental concerns—recycling, urban sprawl, carpooling, air pollution, river protection, even bike lanes. But few are stories of resolution. Rather, they describe debate and controversy.

In 1974, Portland had a full-time “bikeways coordinator” and an ambitious proposal calling for 46 new routes—but only a paltry $45,000 budget. Garbage collection had become “solid waste management” and curbside recycling was on the agenda, but there were stark disagreements on the best approach, with battle lines drawn between environmentalists looking to minimize waste and contractors looking to maximize profit. Oregon’s newly established Land Conservation and Development Commission had been granted sweeping powers to enforce responsible development and conservation statewide. Yet the fledgling agency was tentative with its authority and vague in its goals, in danger of irrelevance before its first birthday.

In 1974, Portland was a city of great green potential—but potential not yet fulfilled.

NOW: In many ways, today’s Portland has realized its ecotopian promise. Last year, Popular Science named us the “Greenest City in America,” just the latest accolade heaped on a metropolis that started limiting emissions, pushing public transit and reining in sprawl decades before environmentalism achieved its current vogue.

So how did Portland answer the environmental questions posed during WW’s first year? We’re winning the war on sprawl thanks to visionary city planners and the innovative Urban Growth Boundary. Curbside recycling became a reality in 1983, and today more than 60 percent of the city’s waste gets reclaimed. And Portland is the most bike-friendly city in America, with 226 miles of bike lanes and more pedaling commuters than anywhere else in the nation.

Portland is also the national leader in green construction, with scores of LEED-certified buildings and a Green Investment Fund that doles out grants to sustainable development projects. Our current carbon emissions are below 1990 levels, and 2009’s Climate Action Plans calls for an additional 80 percent reduction by 2050. Solar-powered parking meters dot downtown, TriMet buses run on biodiesel, and a quarter of commuters leave their cars at home. The list goes on….

But an ugly scar on Portland’s environmental record winds right through the city. The Willamette, scrubbed clean in the ’70s, is again befouled by industrial pollution and stormwater runoff that have rendered the riverbed a veritable toxic sludge of carcinogens and heavy metals. And Portland’s antiquated sewer system overflows into the river every time it rains, though the Big Pipe Project promises to bring that to end in 2011.

 
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