I spent ages yesterday gushing to a friend at home about Portland. I told her about the cute coffee shops, the spot in Powell’s Books where I spend hours writing and drinking coffee, the massive farmer’s market with marionberries and, you guessed it, coffee. The quirky hairdos and the dogs and the glorious summer weather without a hint of humidity and the culture of environmental sustainability and hiking and gardening…the list goes on. Naturally, after hearing this, my friend declared that she wanted to join me in my pursuit to move here after college. She happily agreed to ditch the pre-med track in favor of spending her days working on a u-pick berry farm and hiking mountains on the weekends.
But, looking back, I realize I may have painted an overly-rosy picture of the city. To borrow an old writing professor’s favorite phrase, Portland has somewhat of a “seedy underbelly.” That is to say, it’s not all lavender farms and coffee shops (although there are plenty of both). Living in Portland for two months is long enough to learn the layout of the city and figure out the bus schedule, but not quite long enough to truly experience some of Portland’s systemic issues. Through our weekly group dinners, we have begun to uncover some of the underlying problems Portland faces.
One of the first facts we faced was that when Oregon gained statehood, African Americans were outright banned from living here. While the law can be changed, this original mentality set a precedent for the future. Today, 84.89% of Oregon is white, with a mere 1.9% African American population. These numbers are hardly less jarring in the city; Portland is closer to 72% white and 6% African American. Such small minority populations are all-too-easily overshadowed by majorities, and are denied representation. Nonprofits like OPAL, Organizing People, Activating Leaders, work tirelessly to make sure that minority and indigenous communities are over-represented in decision-making, in order to compensate for the lack of diversity on boards and elected groups.
Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, this systemic racism seeps into other aspects of life in Portland, especially the housing issue. Because of Portland’s “green” values, many funds are invested in bringing green spaces to urban areas. However, this inevitably raises the property value of these once affordable neighborhoods, making the rent too high for people already living there and ultimately displacing them. Gentrification lands heavily on minority communities, who are left out of the conversation when it comes to making decisions that affect them.
Beyond the systemic racism of Oregon, there is also a noticeably large houseless population. Portland’s friendlier treatment of the houseless community has paradoxically attracted more houseless people to move to the city from neighboring states, which has only exacerbated the problem. For people in our group who grew up in cities, seeing this many houseless people isn’t surprising. But for others who are used to the suburbs, it has caught some off guard. In our time here we have participated in Operation Nightwatch and interacted one-on-one with houseless people. Such experiences have made it clear that these people are no different from us. But, it still can be somewhat unnerving to walk to the bus stop streets and be followed or yelled at.
Portland certainly upholds the reputation set forth by Portlandia, and the quirks of the city give it a unique character. But the luster of the hipster aesthetic shrouds some unsettling issues in Oregon.