Over the last six months, George Kyler, 52, has become a regular at neighborhood meetings across Portland.
A seemingly inoffensive man, Kyler is married, a father of two children and a steward at St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church in Beaverton.
But at these meetings he's often cast as the moral equivalent of an orc. Kyler is regional site acquisition manager for McDonald's Corp. His job is to nail down a site for a new Golden Arches in Portland. It shouldn't be difficult.
Portland is as fast-food-possessed as the rest of America. There are approximately 75 major fast-food franchises in Portland--as many as in similar-sized cities such as Sacramento, Calif. and Tucson, Ariz. But while there are now 21 McDonald's in Portland, getting to the 22nd is proving as easy as converting a feminist to Islam.
Last summer, Kyler tried to site a McDonald's on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and ran into a phalanx of neighborhood activists waving petitions and hefting protest signs. McDonald's retreated to its suburban offices.
Last week, Kyler began again, filing a design with the City of Portland for a new McDonald's on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Once more, he's facing neighbors who are ready to go to DefCon 1.
One of the Eliot neighbors who don't want the Golden Arches in their universe is Diane Frank. She's 52, a painting and wallpaper contractor by trade. Not since her days of protesting the Vietnam War at the University of Oregon has she been an activist.
But, since she learned of McDonald's plans, she's returned to her roots. The global giant must be stopped.
"A McDonald's isn't a place that provides jobs," says Frank, who swears she hasn't eaten fast food in 30 years. "It sets a tone for a community; it lowers the bar."
Last October, approximately 100 of her neighbors gathered at the site of the proposed McDonald's on a rainy Tuesday afternoon to protest the company stomping on their community. This week, Eliot residents will begin besieging city planning officials with dozens of letters protesting the McDonald's design.
Frank and others in the Eliot neighborhood have a host of worries, from the archetypal NIMBY concern over traffic and trash to a dislike of the all-powerful fast-food industry and the low wages offered its workers. And the protests will get a shot in the arm this week with the visit to Portland of Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, which, in the vein of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, shines light on what he says is the dark side of the fast-food industry (see Q&A, page 18). For his part, Schlosser thinks the Portland protesters may be onto something.
"Maybe Portland is going to be the beginning of this movement," he says.
At the corner of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and 34th Avenue sits an empty white building, the former site of an Arby's. Last summer, McDonald's envisioned it with the golden arches and cars circuiting the drive-through. The locals saw a global corporation crashing their funky neighborhood party.
McDonald's made an offer to buy the site in early July. Residents and local business people began circulating a "we won't buy from you" pledge along the boulevard. On the first weekend, 4,000 people signed it. Protests with yellow and red signs followed.
Hawthorne being Hawthorne, the rhetoric approached the screeching of castrati. Residents insisted that McDonald's would spoil the organic feel of the neighborhood--despite the fact that Ben & Jerry's, Starbucks and Subway have stores within three blocks of the spot.
It appeared that McDonald's could legally use the site; it was zoned commercial. In land-use terms, that usually means a slam-dunk.
In the meantime, the Hawthorne community held a meeting at the Miracle Temple on Southeast 39th Avenue; McDonald's was not invited. There, the company's opponents--dubbed the Healthy Hawthorne Project--aired their arguments against McDonald's.
The proposed restaurant, residents said, violated the area's concept of livability. By morning, there would be noisy delivery trucks; by night, noisy customers. Worse, McDonald's trash would be all over the neighborhood.
Then there was the traffic. Residents claimed that cars would clog Hawthorne as they waited to turn left into the parking lot. Only the year before, the City of Portland had finalized a planning process that called for de-emphasizing cars in the Hawthorne area.
Soon, the opposition gained important allies. On Aug. 1, city Commissioners Jim Francesconi, Charlie Hales and Erik Sten each sent separate letters to McDonald's, suggesting that a Hawthorne development was not a great idea.
"Perhaps there is a better place for your next restaurant," wrote Sten.
On Aug. 16, a second meeting at Miracle Temple took place. This time, Kyler and other McDonald's officials were invited to hear 500 residents uncork broader concerns.
McDonald's had a lousy record on the environment, residents said. Its food had transformed the American diet into a high-calorie, high-fat smorgasbord. McDonald's employed youths at low wages, actively recruited recent immigrants and treated them with disrespect.
"You are Satan, I will stop you!" one young man actually screamed at Kyler and his colleagues.
"I was surprised at the hostility of the crowd," says Sarah Stephan, a McDonald's spokeswoman.
Kyler and company absorbed the body blows. They didn't even break a sweat. Taking the floor, they argued that McDonald's was a solid corporate citizen. It, for example, had responded to its critics by pledging that McDonald's beef would not be raised on deforested land in South America. What's more, the company paid fair wages and offered career opportunities. Hisses ensued.
The real work of blocking McDonald's move into the neighborhood was performed behind the scenes.
Ralph Bloemers, a lawyer who works in the Hawthorne area, dug through permits relating to the property. In a July 23 letter to the city's Office of Planning and Development Review, he contended that the proposed drive-through was not legal.
On Aug. 16, the city issued an opinion agreeing with Bloemers.
The following month, McDonald's backed away from the property.
For Kyler, who still won't discuss the reasons for leaving Hawthorne, the struggles were just beginning.
A collection of early-20th-century, Old Portland-style homes, the Eliot neighborhood stretches from the Willamette River to Irvington. Once it was a solidly African-American neighborhood, a world apart from white Portland, with nightclubs on North Vancouver, hair salons and grocery stores. On summer nights, cook smoke from barbecue restaurants filled the air.
But as the 1970s dawned, many of those business disappeared, replaced by urban blight. So bad was the area's micro-economy that a McDonald's at the corner of Northeast MLK (then Union Avenue) and Fremont Street closed in the late 1970s.
Much like other once-ignored parts of Portland, Eliot has undergone a small renaissance over the past decade. New residents have moved in; some homes have well-tended gardens, while others lie vacant with their old siding pulled off, in an early stage of repair. Businesses such as the Nike factory store and Billy Reed's restaurant have followed.
But there are blots on this rebirth. Empty lots with old cars parked on them. An old service station that hasn't seen a car since Hemi 'Cudas ruled the streets.
Just south of Fremont Street sits the old Raven Creamery, closed now for a year (the creamery moved to Clackamas). Fast-food trash from the nearby Popeye's litters the empty parking lot. The one-acre property is zoned for commercial use; other nearby lots are zoned residential.
In October, McDonald's announced plans to acquire the property; the asking price was $1.1 million. The company wants to level the creamery building and erect a restaurant with a large parking lot in back. It will also have a drive-through.
"There are no zoning issues," says Ann Kohler, an OPDR spokeswoman. "The use is allowed by right, including a drive-through." That means no planning loophole is likely to drive a stake through McDonald's heart here.
But that zoning reality hasn't stopped many Eliot neighbors from taking the first incremental steps to block the development.
On Oct. 16, 100 residents turned out at the old creamery site and hefted protest signs in the rain. Two hundred and fifty households have signed petitions against the restaurant.
At core, the neighbors say they believe that the arrival of the familiar golden arches would augur the end of the neighborhood renaissance.
"The last thing we want is for this to turn into another 82nd Avenue," says Chris Corneille, who lives across Northeast Ivy Street from the site in a house he rents from Diane Frank. In front of the house is a sign announcing in black letters, "No New 'M' on MLK Blvd." There are similar signs for blocks around.
"We all share the same concern with high-traffic cut-through," says David Jahns, 33, an area resident who works as a video editor at Wieden + Kennedy.
Kyler contends that the proposed McDonald's will not boost traffic in the area. He says that this McDonald's would merely serve the surrounding community and the auto traffic that's already passing by on MLK.
But walk through the blocks surrounding the creamery site and you can see that Kyler's message isn't getting across. There are all those homeowners voting with "No McDonald's" signs.
Lois Cortell, a senior project coordinator for the Portland Development Commission, says George Kyler even contacted PDC two years ago.
"We told them we wanted mixed-use projects," she says. "We said that to George."
Then, last year, the Raven Creamery closed. Its facility went on the market for $1.1 million, but there were no offers until McDonald's made its bid last fall.
Cortell says she has no problem with McDonald's developing the site. But in so doing, she says, the company will essentially big-foot the shiny, happy plans for the area. She describes its proposal for the Raven Creamery site as "a lost opportunity" for a mixed-use facility.
Kyler is unmoved by such talk. In fact, he didn't blink when a mini-warehouse facility opened near his own home, because the property was zoned for that use and "that's the way it is."
He feels the same about the Raven Creamery site.
"It's a commercially zoned piece of property appropriate for our use," says Kyler. "We're not trying to do something way out of bounds."
Portlanders who vote with their stomachs might think that the Eliot resistance smells like elitism fueled by new residents of the gentrifying neighborhood. Such an assessment would be about as phony as Ronald McDonald.
This is not a neighborhood of Swedish and German sedans. Here, American iron is parked along the curbs before homes that haven't seen a coat of paint since Jimmy Carter was president. Eliot is about as lower-middle-class as St. Johns.
Nor is it just the newer residents fighting McDonald's. Eliot residents of as long as four decades want the $15 billion corporation to find another place for its special sauce.
Yet when residents first showed backbone last fall, they were instantly cast as the children of Hawthorne.
"McDonald's was under the impression that it was the Hawthorne people spreading their message and going after McDonald's once again," says Dave Frankunas, 41, another Eliot neighbor.
Fearing they could wind up looking like a bunch of uppity lefties, they've uncoupled themselves from the Hawthorne struggle. They speak in calm tones of the traffic and trash McDonald's would bring. McDonald's as the Great Satan is not part of their argument, although they acknowledge it could be.
"We're definitely not choosing the whole range of issues we could be turning against McDonald's," says Eliot resident Ethan Medley, 34, a science teacher at Franklin High School.
(Thom Booze, one of the prime movers on Hawthorne, says his group only offered Eliot organizers encouragement, legal referrals and the template for its campaign's signage.)
Medley and other neighborhood activists hope to win over OPDR, which has just begun reviewing the McDonald's design, by pointing out that the creamery proposal is at odds with the vision plan. OPDR should rule by mid-March.
If neighbors lose in that forum, they say they will appeal to the Portland Design Commission. A loss there would put them into the court of last resort, the state's Land Use Board of Appeals.
Meanwhile, Eliot residents plan a parallel tack.
"Hopefully, we can shame McDonald's into doing the right thing," says Medley.
Not everyone in Northeast Portland agrees with activist neighbors.
"I'm somewhat appalled about the opposition," says Charles Ford. He lives in the adjacent Boise neighborhood and sits on the land-use committee for the North/Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, which includes Eliot. "I think it's a bunch of frustrated people."
Others' concerns are more gustatory. They want McDonald's, sooner rather than later.
"Bring it on!" says Charles Brown, stopping in front of the Raven Creamery.
"I want them here," says Linda Brown. "I like those fries."
Meanwhile, a recent visit to the Raven Creamery site found it dotted with trash not only from the nearby Popeye's but also from a Jack-in-the-Box and, yes, even a McDonald's--there's one a mile down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
It does suggest that even in a neighborhood where residents vocally oppose McDonald's, fast food has already wormed its way into the life of the community.
Q&A: Eric Schlosser
What's not to like about fast food? A bestselling author tells us.
Every so often a book becomes a bestseller not so much because it captures a fascinating person or event, but because it captures the tenor of the times. Today, many Americans are once again questioning the byproducts of capitalism. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, an exposé of the fast-food industry, feeds that hunger.
Schlosser slits open the stomach of America's obsession with--or is that addiction to?--fast food. The fast-food nation, he argues, is a dark place, where workers are exploited at low wages, meat is unsanitary and the American consumer is well on his way to an angioplasty.
He traces the industry to its post-World War II, southern California roots and attaches its rise firmly to the ascendancy of the suburban ideal in American culture. Big house. Big car. Little free time. But as franchises such as McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken innocently popped up at each American crossroads, they assumed a power much like that of big oil companies. They controlled the potato and meatpacking industries, where workers slaved in abysmal conditions. They controlled the eating habits of Americans who'd forgotten how to cook for themselves. They used cute, aggressive marketing ploys to hook children. Fast-food restaurants were, and are, everywhere, all the time, as Schlosser stressed in an interview with WW.
Willamette Week: How pervasive is fast food in our society?
Eric Schlosser: One in every four adult Americans goes to a fast-food restaurant any given day. One hundred and twelve billion dollars is how much we spend on fast food. That's more than we spend on higher education. That's more than we spend on computer software, books, movies, TV. It's a huge industry, and it's pervasive just in the sense of how unavoidable it is. It started out as freestanding restaurants; now it's in schools and airports, everywhere. It's a defining aspect of American life.
Not everything can be explained by fast food. But once I started looking, it was remarkable how fast it grew, how influential this industry is, and also how good a symbol, how good a metaphor it is.
A generation and a half ago, most Americans ate five or six dinners a week at home. Why did that change?
American wages in real terms peaked in 1973 and started to decline thereafter. And women entering the work force: They did it because as wages were declining you needed two people in the household to have an income to maintain a stable family income. So that kind of dinner that you have described and that kind of domestic life began to disappear because of economic pressures. The fast-food restaurants stepped into the breach. It's no coincidence that in an economic decline for ordinary working Americans, this industry starts to skyrocket. Suddenly it has access to all this cheap labor, and suddenly it has all these consumers who need inexpensive food they can eat on the run.
Is there any evidence to suggest a correlation between class or education level and consumption of fast food?
I don't have the statistics around or anything like that, but there's no question. By and large, when you're talking about fast food, you're talking about the food of ordinary working people, and the food of the poor. And you know there is a class component to the consumers if you look at it in the huge aggregate.
The good things about fast food are that it's inexpensive and it's convenient. The bad thing is how unhealthy it is if you eat it all the time.
How unhealthy is fast food?
You've just got to look at the obesity rate in this country; we are now the fattest nation on earth. Sixty percent of the adults in America are overweight or obese. And the health costs of obesity now exceed the health costs of smoking. One other depressing statistic is that 300,000 Americans die every year from being obese or overweight. So if you look at the rise in obesity, and you look at the rise in fast-food consumption, then you put them on a graph, they parallel one another very neatly.
Have you seen any evidence of a substantial backlash against fast food in this country?
Sales for these companies are stagnant, they're running out of locations to open in, and there's certainly a backlash, a strong backlash in Europe [for example, the trashing of McDonald's on May 1, 2000, in London]. And I think we are now seeing the beginnings of it here.
Explain why French fries taste so damn good.
They [McDonald's] use very high-quality potatoes and all this elaborate machinery to perfect how long they should be cooked and how crisp they get, but there is also this extra added something. It's a little bit of a beef additive that gives them that subtle taste of beef. Again, I don't mind that because I'm not a vegetarian, but vegetarians should steer clear of McDonald's French fries.
It appears that is easy to create industries like fast food that people don't even question. It becomes more a matter of 'Did I get my calories today?' than of any conscious decision-making.
That's gotta change. The country that I would hold up as the highest embodiment of [food awareness] is Italy. In Italy, there is a very intense relationship to food that isn't as pushed in your face as haughty French cuisine often is. In Italy, the foods that are predominant tend to be peasant foods. Italy has been remarkably resistant to the fast-food industry, in a way that France hasn't. In Italy, they have just very quietly gone about their business and not embraced American fast food. There's a big push right now by McDonald's and the other fast-food chains in Italy, and it will be interesting to see if they're successful. I think people in America have to become more aware of their food, and where it comes from, how it's made, and what it's doing to their bodies, because even if you're not going to become a gourmand, this has huge health consequences and huge environmental consequences.
You end your book on an interesting note, calling upon McDonald's and the other fast-food companies to influence their suppliers to do good things. Is there any evidence that this is now happening?
It's absolutely happening. Activist groups have been campaigning against biotech foods for years, but Monsanto has been very slow to budge in the face of Greenpeace. Then McDonald's decided that they wouldn't buy any biotech potatoes, and the market for Monsanto New Leaf potatoes almost vanished overnight. So McDonald's power over the marketplace can be used for good ends. McDonald's responded to PETA's protest by laying down some pretty strict rules about how animals should be slaughtered and treated in the plants that supply them, and it looks like it's had a real effect. So this kind of power [the fast-food giants wield], I think, is too huge, but if it's going to exist, then it should be used for good ends. If McDonald's were to say that tomorrow afternoon they want slaughterhouses to be operated so that workers aren't getting hurt, it would happen.
Eric Schlosser reads from
at Powell's City of Books at 7:30 pm Wednesday, Jan. 23.
Eliot isn't the only neighborhood opposing McDonald's staking out a spot on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The Boise, Historic Irvington, King and Sabin neighborhood associations have all recently come out in support of Eliot's fight against McDonald's.
Eight American cities--for example, Concord, Mass.--either ban or severely limit fast-food restaurants.
At 1,020 calories, a Jack- in- the- Box Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger has 71 grams of fat, the worst among any fast-food burger. A McDonald's Big Mac has 590 calories and 32 grams of fat.
Supersize those fries? That will be 610 calories and 29 grams of fat.
In 1997, a British magistrate ruled in the infamous McLibel case that two activists had libeled McDonald's for distributing a leaflet titled "What's Wrong with McDonald's?"
and the Multnomah County Library are sponsoring a free public discussion of the issues surrounding fast food at 7 pm Thursday, Jan. 31, at the Central Library.
American spent $110 billion on fast food in 2001.
McDonald's has more than 28,000 restaurants in 121 countries.
The newest McDonald's in Portland opened last year at North Lombard and Ida streets.
Between 1991 and 2000, the obesity rate in Oregon jumped from 11.2 to 21 percent. Oregon has the highest obesity rate in the Western United States.