Homeless in Portland: Sidewalk Living in Portland’s Old Town
I took this photo from my former office window on the other side of the building. That’s a homeless person’s bedroom. Right there on the sidewalk. Nice view, right? That’s an everyday vista around here.
When I moved to Portland over thirty years ago, it didn’t take me long to pinpoint Northwest Portland as the place for me. I lived and worked there for the first years of my time here, and returned to work in the neighborhood fifteen years ago. So over half my time in Portland has been spent in the Northwest neighborhood.
There have always been homeless people in this quadrant of the city. But the problem, the population, the misery and the mess have spread to many areas in Portland. It’s grown from terrible to unthinkable, resulting in ugly clashes. Homeless camps in residential areas are a new thing for the city in general, but they are nothing new in Old Town.
Old Town — The War Zone
Old Town starts on the Northwest side of the Willamette River in Waterfront Park, at the end of the park that is more-or-less unofficially surrendered to overnight camping–especially the area in and around the memorial to those Japanese-American citizens who suffered through internment in WWII. It’s all cherry blossoms and bedrolls.
From there, you walk up through our gay bar district (still home to Darcelle’s), our shrinking original Chinatown (with its beautiful walled garden), and the majority of Portland’s missions and soup kitchens. There is also a huge weekend bar scene, so streets are barricaded against traffic, allowing the bar-goers to party hard and take Ubers home to the suburbs. This is where I work.
There are other businesses in my little patch of Old Town; offices and galleries and pubs and restaurants, and a skateboard shop and a comic book store and a high-end sneaker store. They struggle along in an area rife with drug dealers and users, mentally ill wanderers, homeless camps, streetwalkers, pimps and all the problems they bring with them. Business endures despite the guns, knives and drugs on every corner.
The Urban Canopy — Park Blocks
Old Town ends at Portland’s Park Blocks. This swath of wooded beauty stretches through the inner Westside, hosting a mix of homeless people and office workers seeking a sunny place to eat a bag lunch. The South Park Blocks terminate in a University, and are full of sculptures. In the North Park Blocks, there are fewer sculptures (though the elephant in the photo above caused a stir when it was installed), and there are basketball courts, bocce courts and a playground used several times per weekday by a neighborhood charter school.
The playground is right next to an area where homeless people have been camping. And they really make themselves at home, fighting, playing music, drinking and having sex with each other in broad daylight. Right by the playground, actually. And no one does anything.
I wish these blocks were calmer. I worry about the kids and the campers, and I also worry about the future of our urban canopy. No one ever thought about what would happen when these trees neared the end of their life cycles.
Conspicuous Consumption — The Pearl District
The Park Blocks end, and the Pearl begins. It’s a nearly magical line of demarcation. This urban enclave of prosperity has all the boutiques, galleries, yoga studios, lofts and upscale restaurants you’d ever want to visit. Entitled people walk blindly into the streets, Anthropologie bags dangling from their wrists, on their way to Andina for cocktails, oblivious to the squealing of brakes.
Powell’s City of Books is here, and a fantastic old-school diner called Fuller’s. These are beacons of the old days in a neighborhood given over to tiny boutiques. I love the Gerding Theater, which houses Portland Center Stage in a reclaimed structure that used to be the old Armory, where way back when, Portland’s professional wrestlers did their thing. This area used to house warehouses, a train yard, and several breweries. It was rough, and I remember walking to work through here early one weekday morning and feeling distinctly unsafe. So I should like that it’s clean and safe now, yes? But I sort of hate the Pearl District. I take this transformation of our seedy old Brewery Blocks personally. It makes me feel old, poor and grumpy.
Old Northwest — Beauty, Gentrification and History
Above the Pearl is the old Northwest District. Listen, old Northwest is just the best. It’s a gorgeous neighborhood of shops and restaurants, there to serve the residents of the beautiful, massive old homes and apartment buildings that fill this area.
I worked and lived here in the early eighties, and was upset by the first wave of gentrification that hit the neighborhood, depriving it of a pharmacy, laundromats, all the normal trappings of a functional neighborhood. Some stalwarts remain, like the Nob Hill Tavern and Cinema 21. But I remember the music store! The bookstore! The wonderful thrift store! And of course, the vintage shop where I worked on and off for a decade–The Shady Lady on NW 23rd. It was such a great, crazy neighborhood in the 70s and 80s. But the charm here is so strong, the personal nostalgia so overwhelming, that I can forgive what’s happened.
Northwest — The Whole Piece
These are the strange strata of Portland’s Northwest, spanning a mere 30 blocks from river to the beginning of the heights, where the neighborhood ends. It’s always been a dense and diverse quarter of the city, and it suffers from strange compressions and interminglings. People who think they’re still in the Pearl District find themselves too close to the river, and start consulting their phones to get back to a safe place. Young people headed to the Barrel Room are harassed on their way back to their cars by crack dealers who resent the intrusion into their territory. Cheerful tourists roll their suitcases off the train and wade into the Old Town war zone on their way to the Lan Su Chinese Gardens, baffled by the human misery heaped on every sidewalk of “America’s Cleanest City.”
After fifteen years, I am still taken aback by my homeless neighbors in Old Town. I am appalled, repelled and moved by their misery every single day, every single person. And the whole point of my lengthy neighborhood portrait is to point you to a poem I wrote about coming to work each morning.
So, here you go: Working in Old Town