What emerged in East Portland is what social workers describe as a suburban grid with urban problems.
The area’s growing crime problem is well-known to police, less so to the city at large. Since 2002, the Portland Police Bureau’s East Precinct has responded to more calls for help than any other precinct in the city. In the year ending this August, five of the 10 neighborhoods with the most reported aggravated assaults were east of I-205. Eight of the 29 reported homicides in that period occurred here.
The intersection of Southeast 162nd Avenue and Burnside is consistently among the top three locations for police service calls in the Portland metro area, Marshman says. It’s also where many Portlanders on probation and parole happen to live. “When people here call the police, they’re often calling about someone they know and love,” says Marshman, a former parole officer. “It’s a much worse problem [than the statistics indicate]. It’s a call of last resort.”
An increasing awareness of these problems among elected officials and bureaucrats has created a sense of urgency and a desperation for answers.
Marshman, for example, helped found the Rosewood Cafe, the newest tenant in a small strip development on Southeast 162nd Avenue between Alder and Stark streets. The Rosewood is supposed to be a new community center in a neighborhood that has no center. The cafe has no menu. The water cooler is empty. The furniture consists of flimsy card tables and metal folding chairs, arranged in a semicircle facing a half-painted wall. Handcuffs dangle from the handle of an interior door.
The county spent $14,000 to help create the center, which began as a community-policing initiative, and is intended to help give the area a sense of identity, not to mention a place for neighbors to meet. Public money covers a fraction of the anticipated costs. Earlier this year, volunteers raised $1,000 with a scrap-metal drive.
On a recent Wednesday at lunchtime, about three dozen people have shown up. They include cops, landowners, church pastors, bureaucrats and community organizers, all bearing statistics, speeches and, sometimes, competing agendas.
Valerie Salazar, 34, is one of the few people who isn’t paid to be here. Salazar, a boisterous, unemployed, tattooed and churchgoing single mother from Mesa, Ariz., lives on Southeast 162nd Avenue. For the past week, she has volunteered at the Rosewood Cafe because she wants to help clean up the neighborhood. She also hopes her work will lead to a job.
Salazar surveys the room. She sees a police captain holding a folder stuffed with dossiers on her neighbors. She hears a city crime-prevention officer tell landlords that evicting “problem children” pays “big dividends.” She listens as Marshman asks everyone in the room for money—as little as 15 cents—to keep the cafe open.
Salazar says that many on 162nd Avenue are suspicious of the city’s sudden show of interest.
“You’re like, ‘I’m here to help,’” she says. “If you don’t keep your word for these people, they will write you off.”
Growing racial tension compounds the mistrust.
According to census tracts, only the white population in East Portland decreased over the past decade. The Hispanic population grew 106 percent, more than three times as fast as the rest of the city. The black population grew 166 percent, while decreasing 13 percent in the rest of the city.
This is why, five years ago, Rev. Hardy moved his Highland Christian Center from Northeast 18th Avenue to Northeast 76th. He estimates 30 percent of the predominantly black families who attend his church now live in “The Numbers,” having been priced out of the inner city and moved east of I-205, where the welcome has not always been neighborly, and services are lacking.
“Most of them have to commute back into the city to get hair-care products, and connect to people who still remain in inner Northeast Portland,” Hardy says. “Those who cannot afford 24-Hour Fitness, they’re still coming in to go to the Salvation Army on Killingsworth. They still consider PCC Cascade their community college, even though Mount Hood [Community College] is down the street.”
Hardy, a former TriMet employee, moved to The Numbers in the 1990s, to be closer to his workplace. “When I first moved out there, it was strawberry fields. There were nurseries out there. It was rural Oregon,” Hardy says. His family were the only blacks around, except for his neighbor’s maid. Not so today.
All this change matters most to the fastest-growing minority in East Portland: children.
“Massive amounts of kids are moving there, primarily because of rents,” says Scott Stewart, who tracked regional demographic trends for the Portland-Multnomah Progress Board, a study group dissolved by the City Council in 2008. “Think about what that does to the infrastructure of the place,” Stewart says. “There are more kids, and they’re poorer. That’s quite a burden.”
The trend was clear years ago, but little was done. Between 2002 and 2006, enrollment in Portland Public Schools declined 18 percent. In the same period, the school districts east of I-205—David Douglas, Reynolds, Parkrose and Centennial—grew by a combined average of 15 percent.
The eastern districts’ problem is Portland’s as a whole, Stewart says, to the extent that schools are a tool for upward mobility. Failing schools produce an ill-equipped workforce, and the economy suffers.
Perhaps nowhere have these trends been more clear than at Alder Elementary, a Reynolds district school that sits one block south of Southeast Stark Street at 172nd Avenue.
This is not just one of the poorest schools in Portland, but according to annual socioeconomic analyses by the Oregon Department of Education, it has long ranked as one of the poorest schools in the state. In recent years, up to 98 percent of the 600 students enrolled at Alder were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Seventy percent are learning English as a second language.
While the district as a whole has gotten poorer, Alder’s poverty figures have moderated somewhat. Now Glenfair Elementary, a school on Northeast Glisan Street at 153rd Avenue that draws students primarily from Portland, is Reynolds’ poorest, with 94 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
“This whole area out here is looking more and more like Alder,” Reynolds spokeswoman Andrea Watson says.
In a city famous for its public parks, kids who grow up in East Portland have almost no place to play. Schools lock up their swing sets after hours, and remove the nets from the basketball hoops.
The Police Activities
League Youth Center on 172nd Avenue offers some of the only
after-school activities in the area that would not meet a strict
definition of juvenile delinquency.
The center, located in an abandoned school building, has several study and game rooms, but the gym is the main draw. Between 70 and 150 kids use the center every day, depending on the time of year; many stay from the time that it opens at 2 pm until closing at 7 pm, and take an evening meal there—their third publicly funded meal of the day, counting the lunch and breakfast served at school.
“I have kids I send home with food on a regular basis,” says Britt Fredrickson, the center’s director. “I try not to pry too much about where [their parents] get their incomes.”