Downtown Portland residents have seen it all this year — a pandemic, racial justice protests, broken windows and graffitied storefronts. Now, some say they’re starting to see the area turn a corner as vaccinations increase and COVID-19 restrictions lift.
More people are venturing into the city’s core to shop and eat. Weekend markets seem to be bustling once again. As residents emerge from their year-and-a-half-long lockdown, signs of life are returning downtown.
But many contend there are serious lingering issues that need to be addressed if the city wants to make a full recovery. As part of OPB’s ongoing series on the fate of downtown, we checked in with residents on what they see as some of the most pressing issues holding the downtown area back.
Occasionally, over the last year, people who live outside Portland will talk about the city as if it’s in a perpetual state of unrest — and, in extreme cases, literally on fire.
When they do, there’s a common response you might hear from residents: The media is only focused on downtown. ... That’s not what most of Portland is like. ... It’s not where most Portlanders live.
These kinds of retorts, while they may be true, occasionally bother resident Diane Sussman. Because she does live there — and while it’s certainly not going up in flames, it has also not been an easy area to call home.
“They think of it as a place you either go to work and then you go home or you come and have a drink or you have dinner or you go to a museum or you do something cultural — and then you go home,” said Sussman. “We don’t go home, we are home. We really struggle to get people to understand we’re a neighborhood like any other neighborhood.”
Sussman, 71, is a semi-retired journalist. Five years ago, she bought a small condo downtown near Portland State University. She chose the area because it was centrally located with plenty of public transit. She liked being surrounded by people.
But she’s since soured on the area. Over the past year, Sussman said she started to feel like “collateral” damage to the unprecedented unrest occurring downtown. Last summer, tear gas wafted through her windows. It felt like new graffiti objecting to the Portland Police or the mayor appeared on her building daily.
She’s considering selling her home and moving to Seattle or maybe Ohio.
“The perception from out-of-towners, I think, is often exaggerated and overblown — yet it really isn’t,” she said. “It has been hard to live downtown for the last year and a half.”
But for some other residents, the period of protests brought a sense of purpose to the area.
A frequent attendee of racial justice demonstrations that took place last summer, Monique Jefferson, 47, said she loved being within earshot of the city’s Black Lives Matter revolution. For most of the pandemic, Jefferson rented an apartment just across the street from the Portland Art Museum.
“I was so proud to live downtown,” she said. “I loved hearing the drums. I loved hearing the music. I loved hearing the chanting.”
Kat Bernard, 62, also said she felt living downtown has been a net positive experience. She left her North Portland rental for downtown in May 2020 after deciding she wanted to move into a smaller space that was closer to her office.
To many Portlanders, that might seem an untimely departure — just weeks before racial justice protests erupted downtown. But Bernard said she has no regrets. The dangers her friends talked about when discussing downtown never aligned with her experience of the area.
“It’s been nice for me to actually be able to see with my own eyes what’s happening out here,” she said. “What I see and what I’m hearing from other people are two different things.”
But Bernard said there’s one issue that has not been over exaggerated in the slightest: the issue of homelessness.
Tents line many city blocks downtown and encampments have proliferated across the city.
“It just became more visible as to how much of a problem with homelessness the city of Portland actually has,” said Chad, who asked OPB not to use his last name.
Chad, 45, is one of many who consider homelessness a top concern for the area. He himself has been camping downtown since losing his job as a cook and his home last spring.
He ended up erecting a tent right near Old Town Chinatown’s Blanchet House, which provides shelter, clothing and food to people experiencing homelessness. He stayed downtown because there were so many other people living in tents and he felt there was safety in numbers. Plus, that’s where many of the region’s homeless services are located.
But many of the services unhoused people rely on during the pandemic such as shelters and public libraries shut their doors or scaled back capacity during the pandemic. He watched people living on the streets deteriorate mentally as a result.
“Over the course of the lockdown, a lot of people I saw — yes there was addiction, whether it’s drugs or alcohol — but there was also a mental health issue,” he said.
Chad recently secured housing at Blanchet House through one of the group’s housing programs. He wants to see more programs offered downtown serving people who experience mental illness and addiction.
That’s what helped 62-year-old Marty Swinehart.
Swinehart lived on Portland streets for a third of his life. He was homeless from 1982 through 2005 when he found a local program that helped him get clean and land an apartment at Gretchen Kafoury Commons, just off Interstate 405. He’s been there ever since.
Swinehart said he too wants to see different interventions and programs to stop people who are living on downtown streets from slipping into chronic homelessness. But he feels the city has grown overwhelmed by the need, neglecting not just some of the homeless population but many of the services that used to keep residents safe and the streets clean.
Swineheart said there are steps he takes to fill the void he feels has been left by the city. He’ll hand out sandwiches and water to homeless individuals on his block. Armed with a shopping cart and a trash picker, he spends a few hours each week collecting the litter on his block.
“I don’t mind doing my part — and there’s a lot of us already — but we need more,” he said.