It may not have the refinement of the Pearl or Boise neighborhoods, or the earthy vibrancy of the city’s downtown, or even the modern quaint feel of Northeast Portland’s creative districts. It isn’t blessed with the coveted shaded lanes of the inner Southwest or the views and real estate of the West Hills.
But East Portland is, without the benefit of any comparable government investment, the home of more and more working-class families, newly arriving immigrant communities, small businesses trying to make a go, and lower-income individuals who cannot afford the rest of the city. This isn’t where most eyes turn to when they think of the city of Portland’s development efforts or priorities, and that’s for good reason. It simply hasn’t garnered the same level of clout, or money, as other regions of the city, even though nearly one-third of the city’s population lives beyond 82nd Avenue.
That’s what State Rep. Jefferson Smith, who represents much of East Portland, pointedly argues has to end. Because far from the views of City Hall, East Portland residents live with an inordinate number of unfinished roads and thoroughfares with no sidewalks. Yet less than 4 percent of the city’s transportation project money is spent east of 82nd Avenue. And in a recent application process for a share of $11 million from a subsidized loan program for schools, schools east of I-205 weren’t even invited to apply, says Smith. Approximately 40 percent of the city’s school children attend schools in the eastern region of Portland, and in one school district, David Douglas, Smith points out that 75 percent of the students are on free or reduced-priced lunch. These kids are more likely to see a new payday lender or discount tobacco outlet on their walk to school than a tram, a streetcar or horseback patrol. And yet they received only scant attention in the distribution of city’s federal stimulus project funds – 2 percent.
East Portland is also where new residents – to not only Portland but also the United States – are moving. The region boasts dynamic communities of Africans, Eastern Europeans, Asians and Central Americans. This is the Portland’s true International District, and it should be celebrated. We could learn something from our neighbors in Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco, who believe that culturally rich neighborhoods like east Portland are prizes for their cities. It’s time that our cities political, business and planning leaders expanded their vantage on the city’s potential.
To be sure, the financial capacity at all levels of government are strained, and clamoring for more money in one direction over the other is simply adding to the din, pitting one need against another.
Before money, however, must come the recognition that we are a big city, and its expansion is eastward. There’s more to us than a skyline – and much more than the stereotyped Portlander highlighted in local and national magazines.
Our regional planning must go beyond what our region historically come accustom to, and that means investing in immigrant neighborhoods and communities, housing, and small businesses in East Portland. It means not just producing studies of equity and displacement, but finding a way to leverage those findings to invest in our citizens, both young and old. Then, we may be on track to living up to our motto of the “City that works.”