The 5 Spot Café on Upper Queen Anne runs geographically themed specials throughout the year. They’ve done New Orleans. They’ve done Rio. Right now, it’s Portlandia, echoing the television series that satirizes the uber-PC city on the Willamette River.
No doubt, jokes will fly when burger orders are placed: What was the cow’s name? Where did it grow up? Did it have a good life?
Bliss ninny-dippiness is only one petal that makes up the Rose City.
Here’s another: a post-Apocalyptic army, with pit bull mascots, of haggard, homeless, white kids strewn across pavement and parks, with joggers going by. And another: a heroin problem even the most myopic tourist can’t miss. And panhandling happening all over the city, which, the locals will tell you, is for drugs, not food, since there are a dozen places downtown to serve the hungry.
Portland has a problem. Or, looked at from another angle, Portland, for a mostly white, middle-class city, has not succeeded in pushing its problems out of sight.
Yes, Portland is a beautiful, walkable, bike-able city with a laundry list of virtues: leafy parks and an urban canopy that allows downtown birdsong; really good street food; the attractive Pearl District, home of Powell’s Books; old buildings and big skies over the river and bridges; the charming pocket neighborhoods across the river; the creative poster and print culture that recalls Europe; Washington Park with its rose gardens, Japanese gardens and Vietnam Memorial; and the Benson Hotel, where, at the end of the day, the bar feels more like a chapel.
All that, and no sales tax, too.
The hip migration from Seattle to Portland in recent years has its reasons. Living is cheaper, there’s a thriving music scene, the efficient public transportation system runs on time and there’s less cliquishness — for which Seattle is almost famous.
The median cost for a Portland house is $262,600 to Seattle’s $370,600. Remember, though, Portland’s unemployment rate in 2010 hovered at 10 percent, while Seattle came in at 8.6 percent. The average household income in Portland is on the downside, too: $40,146 vs. Seattle’s $45,736.
But that’s all chamber of commerce, infrastructure stuff.
Depending on the time of year, and summer is high season, what the visitor may take away from a Portland visit are the visual vignettes wrung from the harder side of life.
Portland, unlike Seattle, won’t let you avoid these scenes. Once Burnside was Portland’s Skid Road; now, all of Downtown Portland is. In Seattle, the lives of the afflicted are clustered on the Ave, Broadway, Pioneer Square and pockets of Belltown.
Which is why some “polite” Seattleites avoid these places.
“It’s accepted here,” stated a young, buff street-food vendor in Portland. He said he’d been a sub-prime-loan dude riding the bubble in Puget Sound country and had it all: fast cars, pretty women, cool drugs.
“I was one of those guys,” he said, shaking his head, “but now I’m doing what I love.”
“But this” — he gestured to several panhandlers on the sidewalk — “hacks me off.”
He then slipped more than a crust of bread to a street person.
Social-service experts will tell you many of the kids on the street in American cities left home because the streets were safer. Others have mental-health issues. Others come from stable environments but were pulled under by a narcissist, self-destructive youth culture.
You can see it in the Pearl and across the river: the young and smart — the prevalence of cigarette smoking is another European touch — flirting with the edge.
Recent statistics point to a 42-percent jump in syringes given out by the Multnomah County Health Department, which includes Portland.
Multnomah County prosecutor Ryan Lufkin keeps a photo scrapbook of those killed by heroin and their stories, which includes two highly publicized deaths at privileged Reed College.
In another high profile case, the daughter of a Portland city commissioner, fighting addiction, turned her gun on herself while at a shooting range and pulled the trigger.
Last year, Multnomah County, with
far less than half of King County’s population, recorded 52 heroin-related deaths; King County logged 50.
In Portland, a small amount of heroin may get you up to 30 days in jail and probation; here, the penalty is up to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.
For Seattle surrounded by so much beauty, a hidden danger lurks: These kinds of issues are mostly out of sight. In Portland, the danger comes from what happens to people who constantly look the other way just to get through the day.
On every sidewalk, around every corner, in every park, Portland poses the question: If we really are our brother’s and sister’s keepers, what then?
It’s not all about heroin or other drugs. Remember, many of these kids are escaping from worse problems at home.
Of what army are they the vanguard? Portland suggests: It might be later than we think.