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October 12th, 2011 12:01 am COREY PEIN | Cover Story

The Other Portland

It’s poor, it’s dangerous, it’s growing like crazy—and it’s more important than ever.


Population With Bachelor’s Degree Or Higher
(click on the neighborhood segment for info)

Demographers say educational attainment is one of the most revealing indicators of class and social mobility. East Portland has the city’s lowest rates of educational attainment. Source: U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey

Lewis steers his work van through the vanished landscape of his childhood. The 60-year-old carpenter, who lives 23 blocks from where he grew up on 171st Avenue, pulls onto Southeast Mill Street, not far from his old family home. The van rolls past a wooden fence bearing a freshly spray-painted welcome: “Fuck U Hoes.”

He is nostalgic. A dance hall where the Kingsmen of “Louie Louie” fame once played is now an unfinished housing development. Lewis circles the cul-de-sac, providing a panorama of brown grass dotted with piles of wire and rubble, and after about a mile, stops at Southeast 136th Avenue and Powell Boulevard.

“Our business district,” Lewis says.

A pawnshop advertises “Cash 4 Guns.” The Pallas strip club offers $3 breakfast all day and a once-over with the metal-detector wand at the door. Roll Your Own Mart offers…well, whatever you need. 

The van turns east, toward a ghost mall at the city’s edge. The mall’s former anchor tenant, Safeway, closed in March. The liquor store remains open. 

Drink is different here. East Portland has more off-premises liquor licensees than on-premises establishments, while the rest of the city has more bars than grab-and-gos.

Food is different, too, with visible consequences. In an effort to measure the effect of the built environment on public health, Multnomah County culled height and weight data from 74,000 driver’s licenses. It found East Portlanders have higher obesity rates than other city residents—53 percent, compared to 42 percent in the rest of the city. Yet for an area with one-quarter of the city’s population, there are only seven full-service grocery stores in East Portland; fast-food chains and convenience stores predominate. The $1 value menu at 7-Eleven is cheaper than bus fare to the farmers market. 

Policy wonks call it a “food desert.”

That phrase does evoke a landscape that fits East Portland, once strawberry fields and horse pastures. 

The area sprawled after World War II, with little planning. Most of it was not part of the city until 1983, when Portland began annexing it. The lawyers and surveyors did their jobs in pushing Portland’s boundaries east, but the politicians never succeeded in convincing residents they were wanted by the city that swallowed them.

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 Census

As other parts of Portland flourished thanks to decades of targeted spending and boosterism from City Hall and corporate leaders, cheaper land in East Portland attracted developers who threw up block after block of apartment complexes. A 1996 East Portland planning document presented to the City Council by then-Commissioner (and now mayoral candidate) Charlie Hales accurately predicted the newly annexed areas would grow quickly, but the document’s vision of streetcars, tree canopy and walkable neighborhoods failed to materialize. 

Today, nearly half of the city’s multifamily housing complexes are east of I-205, as are more than half of the mobile-home parks.

The challenges facing far East Portland go way beyond the lack of streetcars. 

The most obvious problem is transportation, especially when traveling north or south. TriMet runs only one frequent-service bus line in East Portland, the No. 4 along Southeast Division Street, despite growing demand. In 2009, the agency reduced service on one north-south line that serviced the area’s largest employer, Adventist Medical Center.

Here the bike lanes glisten with broken glass. Only 1 percent of East Portland residents commute by bike, compared to 7 percent of Portlanders citywide, a city survey shows. As often as they convey cyclists, the bike lanes are filled with wheelchairs, driven by the disabled and elderly residents of East Portland’s 261 adult-care homes. (There are only 89 adult-care homes inside the city west of I-205.)

Their perilous commutes play out in slow motion alongside five lanes of speeding traffic—de-facto highways designated by the Portland Bureau of Transportation as “high-crash corridors.” Last year, a 62-year-old woman in an electric wheelchair, Melinda Barnett, was hit by a car while traveling from a coffee shop on 162nd Avenue to her home 11 blocks away, following the bike lane on Division Street. Police never found the hit-and-run driver.

The rate of vehicle crashes involving pedestrians on 122nd Avenue is 50 percent higher than the citywide average. Jaywalking is common because the average distance between pedestrian crossings is over a quarter-mile, roughly the distance between Powell’s Books and Big Pink, a stretch of West Burnside Street with eight crosswalks.

“The circumstances we have [in East Portland] are a result of lack of planning. But is there anyone to blame?” asks Shea Marshman, director of planning and research for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. “I don’t think so…. It just kind of crashed together like so many other places in the country.”

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