Aug 26 2011

Livability and Downtown

Posted by PAgent in Portland, Rant

One morning last spring I came to work, settled down at my desk, and had just begun to check my email when I heard the crash of breaking glass outside. I stood up and craned my neck to look out the window and down to the sidewalk. Two figures were scuffling, rolling around together and throwing punches.

From appearances, some young man had decided to harass an older man, and had dumped out his bag of collected bottles and cans. I think the young buck may have underestimated his balding opponent, because the older guy was connecting with more of his punches. After a few moments they separated. The kid postured and threatened a bit, but he wasn’t pressing the issue. “Get your fucking mess off the sidewalk,” he taunted, then strutted away down the sidewalk.

It wasn’t 1:00 am, it was 8:30 in the morning in the middle of the workweek. It wasn’t in some alley in an industrial park, it was on the transit mall in downtown Portland. I mean, go across the street and you had Pioneer Place Mall. Walk a block further and you had Tiffany’s jewelry. Turn around and walk the other way, and you would shortly hit Pioneer Courthouse Square, aka Portland’s Living Room.

This part of downtown Portland is arguably Ground Zero for high-end retail. Businessmen have upscale drinks at The Departures Lounge, or in Urban Farmer. Law firms send their important out-of-town guests to the Hilton Executive Tower, or The Nines. Shoppers carry their Nordstrom bags next to their Kate Spade purses.

But in these very same few blocks, you often have to step over puddles of vomit on the sidewalk, or human excrement left in doorways, and the sidewalks have become a squatting ground for a thriving community of filthy and profane street punks. They sit or sprawl on the sidewalks in little clusters, surrounded by their backpacks and their puppies, with their carefully lettered cardboard signs laid out before them:

Spare Some Change?

Bet you can’t hit me with a quarter.

Unemployed Supermodel.

Why lie? I need a BEER.

I’m traveling and I’m UGLY.

They sit and stand, smoking cigarettes or joints, and spend their days yelling, scuffling, screaming, and generally being a public nuisance.

What the hell happened?

I started commuting downtown about ten years ago. Things were different then. It’s true that there were buskers on the corners, but even though some were awful most could actually play music. Now you rarely hear anything I would call music, just someone screaming while they thrash some poor abused guitar, or the insanity-inducing din of the bucket drummers.

And there have always been panhandlers, usually sitting on a corner, shaking a cup full of change. But the number of folks on the street has dramatically increased over the years. Now they’re everywhere, and they’re far more aggressive. They like to stand directly in front of the doorway to a business, so they can hit you up as you enter or leave. Or they walk down the sidewalk and ask everyone down the line for change. I’ve been approached three different times recently while standing at a food cart counter. Now, I’m a big guy, and when I say “no” or “not today”, that’s usually the end of it, but I think being followed down the sidewalk by someone repeatedly asking for money could be intimidating for some folks.

How did downtown PDX become a refuge for these social parasites? That’s a harsh term, but I’m using it intentionally. They aren’t earning a wage, or paying taxes. Their spending in the community is, I would assume, minimal. Meanwhile, the folks who have jobs or businesses downtown, who pay rent and property taxes, are increasingly being held hostage. We have to go about our day, run our errands and be productive, all while trying to ignore the begging, the screaming, the swearing, the scuffling, and the dog fights.

And although their impact on general livability is bad enough, even worse is the black eye that these street kids put on the face that Portland presents to tourists and business visitors. It’s embarrassing to be meeting an important associate from overseas, only to have the meeting interrupted by a shockingly loud stream of profanity from street level. It’s even worse to try and take your guests to a lovely local eatery only to have them stepping over and around surly (and smelly) squatters.

Right now I have coworkers that will go around the block every day in order to avoid the spots where street kids habitually congregate. How long will it be until the idea of working somewhere where they won’t have to deal with this kind of crap becomes attractive enough to look elsewhere?

What can be done? I don’t have any answers. It’s easy to say “more policing!”, except city budgets are already being cut to the bone. Additionally, since the courts have classified panhandling as protected speech, and sidewalks as public property, it’s become nearly impossible for the police to actually do anything there. Remember Sit/Lie? But clearly something needs to be done.

Some cities have adopted the “Broken Window” strategy developed by George Kelling and James Wilson. The concept works like this: Graffiti, petty vandalism, and other signs of decay indicate public disinterest. Fear of crime increases, and the most law-abiding citizens leave the neighborhood, accelerating the increase of more serious crimes. Therefore, a vigorous enforcement of even minor misdemeanors and behavioral offenses creates a deterrent and a decrease in serious crime. It’s a reasonable idea, and Rudy Guiliani’s “zero-tolerance” policy is often credited with turning around the crime rate in New York.

But if you scrutinize the data, the correlation isn’t all that convincing. And besides, do you really want to tell the Portland Police to be harder on petty criminals? After they killed James Chasse? After they shotgunned a 12-year old in the thigh with a beanbag round for trespassing on a Tri-Met platform? The cure could be worse than the disease.

Nevertheless, I don’t think I’m alone in being fed up with the environment downtown. And a lot of my irritation comes down to believing what I was taught as a child — it’s impolite to scream in public, it’s rude to interrupt people, you should treat others the way you want to be treated, and you should take some interest in personal hygiene. And Portland, as a community, has the right to expect civilized behavior from all of the members of the community.

I know, without a doubt, that there are those who will denounce my attitude as classist and heartless. They will assert that these street people have been forced into horrible circumstances by a crappy economy. To which I say “bullshit”. I’m not targeting anyone for being homeless, or even for living on the street, but I’m completely fed up with people who engage in disruptive and antisocial behavior. Furthermore, I firmly believe that most of the people squatting on the sidewalks downtown aren’t asking for money in order to survive. In my opinion, these are folks who have made a choice to live a particular lifestyle, one that includes begging and does not include getting a job. They sport hundreds of dollars worth of tats and piercings, and they’re not going to use the money you give them to get off the street, they’re going to buy beer, cigarettes, and/or weed. And remember, these people aren’t victims meekly asking for charity — they’re running you down and demanding it. And they get irritated and indignant when they don’t get it.

Downtown should be better than this. Portland should be better than this.

22 Responses to “Livability and Downtown”

  1. Attorney At Large Says:

    Yes, yes, yes. It’s gotten much worse in the last ten years, and it seems worse this summer than it did last summer. I live downtown and I like living downtown, but until I have a big dog again, you won’t see me going out much at night. I really don’t like doing a needle/condom/vomit check when I take my kid to the park.

  2. Stuart Thompson Says:

    I completely agree. This has been something I’ve felt like blogging and sharing lately. You summed it up superbly.

    There are mornings where I feel like I’m actually going to be sick from the smell or the sight of someone sleeping in their own vomit or a pool of dog pee, usually from their own dog! That isn’t even to mention the constant harassment for “spare change” or “help to get the bus”. It’s very off-putting and its only getting worse.

  3. Jay R. Says:

    I simply think you’re older and noticing it more. I’ve spent much of the last 20 years in and around downtown as a teenager and adult, and aside from the influx of foodcarts and rail tracks, I really don’t think there’s been that much change.

    Those “social parasites” have always been there. They’re the gutter punks. They’ve been sitting on the wall at Pioneer Courthouse for two decades – the faces change, but the MO’s the same. Beg for change while wearing brand new Doc Martens, carting around their leashed kittens, while the hippies sit on the sidewalk in between the fountains stinking of patchouli and try to hock hemp jewelry.

    Actually – I have noticed a change. Fewer religious fanatics waving large signs and shouting doom and apocalypse down on everyone. The few that are still around now seem to stay closer to the Pioneer Place side of the Courthouse instead of in the upper-area of the Square.

    Going back even further (pre-MAX), downtown was a place that many people wouldn’t even visit. My parents would always instruct me to lock the car door when we had to drive through downtown. There were skinheads, the Guardian Angels (red-berets), and little retail or tourist draw.

  4. Sarah Says:

    Maybe YOU should be better. Why do you think all these different sorts of people are behaving this way? What do you think might change their behavior?
    What’s that? You don’t care? Oh, well, neither do they care about whether or not your doorway smells pee-y. I guess you both don’t care about the other. Seems perfectly balanced.

  5. Randall Says:

    It’s cool that you know so much about what it’s like to live with homelessness, addiction, and/or mental disorders to be able to diagnose that everyone is full of “bullshit.” You must be like a PhD of bums.

  6. Mac Says:

    In the last ten years, I’ve never felt less than safe downtown. Even in my shiny shoes, I’ve never been chased down for money. Maybe the people you’ve encountered sense the fear on you. The fear of the poor.

    Those things you were taught as a child may not have been taught to the people out there that you don’t like. Maybe they didn’t grow up with a lot of money. “Portland’s living room” will be a representation of many different subcultures that are prevalent here. You seem to be noticing one more than the others. I’m terribly sorry that your tax dollars are being used to help these people and some of them are still in your line of sight. I’d offer some solutions, but in a piece written in such a way, I don’t believe that’s what you want.

    Consider spending more time in other parts of downtown that have cleaned up considerably in the last ten years.

  7. jay jay mack Says:

    Where are you from?

    I’ve been running around downtown since the 80s, some spots have gotten a little worse most have gotten better, overall trend in last 25 years is improvement.

    Here’s my impression of the situation: You are a lilly-livered, histrionic little “female dog” who thinks people with expensive purses shouldn’t be bothered with poor ugly people in their “line of sight”. There are great places where you will fit in, there are little gucci enclaves made for people like you in california, with locking gates and everything.

  8. Localfella Says:

    Ah Diversity!

  9. the other white meat Says:

    Here’s my impression of the situation: You are a lilly-livered, histrionic little “female dog” who thinks people with expensive purses shouldn’t be bothered with poor ugly people in their “line of sight”.

    Not wanting to step over piss and vomit every day on the way to work is “histrionic”? Not wanting an agressive panhandler to jump in your path/doorway/line for food daily and demand money is “histrionic”? Aspiring to have a public space where body fluids, drugs, aggressive dogs, and campers are not pervasive is “histrionic”? I think YOU are being histrionic, my man.

    And while we’re on the subject of name calling and generalizations, how do YOU know enough to characterize the so-called homeless downtown? You took an extensive poll, perhaps? No? You “just know”? Hmm.

    What’s stunning to me is the commenters who didn’t even pause long enough in their rage to read the man’s words. It’s a considered opinion, and acknowledges the problems and imperfection of the world. Are there *any* people left in the world who can have a critical mind without turning it into a hateful one?

  10. Danly Says:

    I love all the bleeding hearts that come out of the woodwork on these types of posts. You don’t express love and understanding of poor people by lowering your expectations of them and excusing away antisocial behavior.

    There are literally many thousands of very poor people in this city that get by without harrassing other people, sitting around all day in their own filth, and yelling/drinking/fighting on downtown streets. Every one of these street kids is capable of doing the same.

    If you bleeding hearts really saw these street people as equals, you would expect more of them, not less.

  11. jay jay mack Says:

    The problem is too many stuck up people from California.

  12. we all can do better Says:

    I have never been harrased by a panhandler downtown. I have been politely asked and I have politely declined. I have never been I I am a native Oregonian and have lived in Portland most of my life. I worked in dowtown Portland up until August 5th. I have never been harassed by a panhandler in Portland. Individuals have politely asked for money and always said thank you regardless of my response. I have seen workers soliciting money from organizations use questionable tactics in the performance of their job. I have seen vomit on the street in front of the bar/ nightclub next to my office. Next time the legislature is in session, or the next time a ballot measure wants to fund or cut a social service program, think about how you can do better.

    Downtown Portland has changed in the last ten years. Perhaps in your cloud of fear you don’t see it. No human being should have to beg for money to survice yet we as a city do very little to prevent that from hanppening. Next time pay attention to the ballot mesaures that would support social service programs, or the next time the legistlaute is in session. What will you do? You can do better.

  13. Matt C Says:

    Coming from the east coast, I have never seen an “aggressive” panhandler in Portland. I’ve found folks out there to be extraordinarily polite. You don’t get have a “have a good day” from someone after you turn down their request for money when you’re in NYC or Boston.

    In my opinion, the real number one “livability” problem in downtown Portland is the canvassers. They’re on every corner, and they are relentless.

  14. Mac Says:

    It’s a beautiful thing when these are the problems that raise the ire of the community.

  15. Bruce Says:

    Why not move to Beaverton, Lake Oswego or Vancouver? That’s the only choice we have once we realize that Portland’s only getting worse (traffic/street urchins/parking fees). That’s what I’m doing, even though I had to take a small pay cut to find a job near my home.

  16. Bruce Says:

    If you think they are actually wishing you a good day, I have a slightly used Sellwood Bridge to sell you.

    “Have a good day” (often said with a smirk), is (at best) a passive aggressive “thanks for nothing”, and a class-warfare “fuck you” at worst.

    It’s not unlike when you’re greeting your ex-wife with your new wife on your arm: she’s not actually glad to see you.

  17. Arnold Says:

    There’s a place for people like you. It’s called the suburbs. Move and work there already.

  18. RJBob Says:

    I’ve worked downtown for the last 15 years. Your assessment is spot on. It’s a toilet down here. The pit bull-dragging gutter punk element has never been more pervasive and needs to be addressed. The mentally ill and chronically homeless will always be here but they’re not the problem.

  19. Jack Says:

    Your,”READ” of PDX is perfect, and look not one block more then city hall for the reasons, yet these LEMMINGS, will continue the road over the cliff until we all lay in ruin.

  20. Bruce Says:

    I’ve already taken your advice, Arnold. I took my six figure salary and moved to Vancouver. My property taxes are lower and the schools are better. I don’t pay to park at work. I don’t have to worry about a new city/county income tax, or real estate transfer tax, or URD. My neighborhood has sidewalks without any drug addicts begging for spare change or shooting up or keying cars. And our Police/Fire pensions are funded in advance.

    Y’all can buy my house when you finally wake up and escape the insanity that is the City of Portland. I’ll be retired by then, and living in Hawaii.

  21. DJ Says:

    If you think it is worse now than 10 years ago you haven’t been paying attention or you have an agenda.

  22. Arne Says:

    I’ve been working downtown for twenty-five years and from my perspective it has gotten worse, especially in the last couple of years. We have panhandlers downtown only because people give them money. No money: no panhandlers. The solution, therefore, should be to criminalize the giving of handouts.