What they really want is the city to get out of where they live, East Portland, and leave the residents of this often overlooked and neglected flank of the city beyond Interstate 205 to decide their own destiny.
The complaints aired by Swenson, a 48-year-old insurance adjuster, and Edwards, who is 51 and works for a cellphone carrier, aren't new. Most of East Portland was annexed in the early 1980s and in many places still lacks basic services, such as paved roads and sidewalks. Residents have long complained they only get the attention of City Hall during election season (âThe Other Portland,â WW, Oct. 12, 2011).
But Swenson and Edwards, both active in the Hazelwood Neighborhood Association, have taken their animosity toward City Hall further than anyone else, seeking a citywide vote in November 2016 to de-annex 13 neighborhoods in the East Portland Neighborhood Association.
Swenson, Edwards and their supporters need 31,345 signatures to force a vote. Portland officials rejected their first petition two weeks ago on technical grounds.
The secessionists say they will be back with a new petition—and finally force City Hall to listen to East Portland's grievances.
WW: So you're not going to let this drop after the city rejected your first petition?
Pat Edwards: We'll refile it until the cows come home. It's time for the city of Portland to get a dear John letter. We want to break up.
Collene Swenson: When we filed it, we knew they wouldn't take it. They have to come back with an answer of what laws they want us to address. So, in a way, the rejection is extremely helpful.
What was the last straw that made you want to secede?
Edwards: We don't get the attention that other parts of the city get. Gentrification is in full force, but we can't even get the streets paved.
We also learned some very disturbing things about how public safety was being allocated to our community: Between 11 pm and, like, 4 am or 6 am—we had two patrolling officers. That's all we could get from the city. Two. East Precinct, for that matter—
Swenson: Closed on weekends.
Edwards: It's a law enforcement agency that's closed on the weekends.
What doesn't City Hall understand about East Portland?
Swenson: They think we're troublemakers. Complainers. We're not complainers. There's nothing really different about us. We're different because we don't have the services that everybody else has. If they stop separating us out, we're just more people in the city who want a quality of life.
What's broken in your neighborhood?
Swenson: It's the same thing that's broken in every neighborhood. It's the same thing in the Pearl. We see the same things they do, on a different scale, in a different manner.
Edwards: But the Pearl doesn't have unpaved streets.
Does leaving the city really provide the answers?
Swenson: Our form of government [city commissioners elected citywide, instead of from districts] doesn't work. We don't want that future, where you can't control what's going on in your borders.
Do you think this idea would really have enough support?
Edwards: We're coming, and we are going to make a relentless effort. I can't emphasize that word enough: absolutely relentless effort. [The city] needs to take this seriously, we have an overwhelming positive response to this.
Swenson: From all over the city. I have little old ladies, little old men calling. All of my neighbors—they want to pass out petitions. They're from all walks of life. Young, old, hard-working people.
You're also talking about creating a new city out of the neighborhoods you seek to de-annex from Portland. Most of Portland's property tax value is west of I-205. Won't it be difficult to make up the difference if you create a new city?
Swenson: In the beginning, yes. In the two-mile area we're sitting in right now [at the Elmer's Restaurant at Mall 205], there are five strip clubs, six pot shops, hookah bars, vapor lounges. This is the kind of business they give us. [West of I-205] doesn't supplement us. So it's stacked against us.
You have to have the services, you have to have the assets back. You change the zoning to attract more residents. We're not saying it's not going to be hard at first; it's already hard with the money we have right now.
All of our improvements are paid for with urban renewal money—generated through our area, and it's spent in our area. On the other hand, every neighborhood's [taxes] go into a pool for the area that has the most daytime employees and the most daytime residents. Where is that?
Swenson: Right. They think we're a charity case. They're wrong. No more than they're a charity case. The only charity case that's around is downtown.
Edwards: Twenty percent of taxes come from this area. This area is in a state of serious, rapid deterioration. We don't see 20 percent of [Portland's] tax dollars coming back in our community.
What would you call the new city?
Swenson: I've been asked that 4 million times—more than anything else. That belongs to the people who are here. They get to pick.
Would you form your own police and fire bureaus or contract for services?
Swenson: All of those decisions ultimately end up being [up to] the new city. People keep asking about Metro, or school districts, or neighborhood associations, the county. We're not trying to remove them.
You'd have the same neighborhood association, the same Metro, the same county.
The only thing going away would be Portland.