Many things that East Portlanders gripe about are only partially true. Take sidewalks. A Portland Bureau of Transportation analysis shows that the part of the city with the fewest sidewalks along major arterials is not East Portland but Southwest.
Take parks. A recent analysis by Commissioner Nick Fish’s office of historic Portland Parks Bureau spending shows that between 1990 and 2010, more money was spent acquiring parkland and improving park buildings in East Portland than in any other part of town. (Granted, two-thirds of city-owned parkland in East Portland remains unimproved.)
And as for those infamous food deserts: East Portland has them, but a Multnomah County analysis shows North Portland is still worse off when it comes to finding fresh or natural foods.
For decades, “North” and “Northeast” have been Portland code for African-American. In political rhetoric, it’s not yet clear what “East Portland” means.
Lisa Bates, a Portland State University urban planning professor who helped plan the city’s new Office of Equity and Human Rights, says all the talk over geographic disparities sidesteps a much tougher discussion. “Talking about institutional racism is alienating. Talking about geography is a lot less alienating,” Bates says. “If you’re running for elected office, speaking to a large group of people”—say, people who consider themselves East Portlanders—“can be very useful.”
New Seasons Market co-founder Eileen Brady has demonstrated some attention to the politics of language. “I’ve committed to never saying ‘out there,’” Brady says. As for why New Seasons has no East Portland locations, Brady says bank financing has proven difficult. “I don’t speak for New Seasons Market anymore,” she says. “We’ve definitely looked for sites in East Portland, but there is none that has worked out yet.”
In a campaign video, Hales promises to deliver East Portland its “birthright” with an increased budget for services. “Let me tell you about 117th Avenue,” he says. “There’s a section of that street that goes from Division to Burnside, goes past two schools, a great neighborhood park, a big community church, and connects to light rail. But there are no sidewalks. That’s not OK.”
Jefferson Smith may have the strongest recent record of East Portland advocacy. Although Smith grew up in the Irvington neighborhood of inner Northeast Portland and only moved to his home in the Hazelwood neighborhood in 2007, a year before he ran unopposed for an open legislative seat, he has spent significant time building an image as East Portland’s most prominent political voice.
“There are people with larger cred and a deeper understanding than I’ve got, but I’ve been studying the issues very closely,” Smith says. “Almost every major city works with increasingly diverse communities. Portland is one of the few major cities that haven’t faced that much. We’ve got to be the city that gets that right.”
Back at the Rosewood Cafe, Michelle Phillips and Milton Lopez, who have lived in East Portland for about 15 years, help clean up after the meeting. They share an apartment in the Alder Village complex at 160th and Alder.
“It’s getting really, really rough,” Phillips says. Shots were fired from some nearby apartments three times in one weekend, she says. Then someone threw a rock out a window and hit a friend of hers in the head.
“It’s disheartening,” she says. “I feel like everybody skipped over East Portland.”
Lopez, a carpenter who recently attained U.S. citizenship, stares at the street outside. “The city dumped this on us,” he says. “They put all their money in Northeast, and we don’t get anything. Gresham is doing right by its people. Look at the trees and sidewalks they put in over there. We’d like to see some of that.
“We still love this place,” he goes on. “If we move, it feels like we’re giving up on something.
“Whatever candidate sells us the best story, we’re willing to go out and campaign for them. That’s how desperate we are out here.”