"All politics is local." It may be the ultimate political maxim.
Politicians and journalists instinctively understand the importance of place in peoples' lives--at least the good ones do. Yet, when it comes to governance, everyone also intuitively knows the struggle to deliver programs that are informed and responsive to what people need. A politician's nightmare is a good idea that gets turned into an acronym-laden program rolled out according to some internal bureaucratic logic, without the connection to community. The gap between what we know needs to be done and what we actually do is the fault line in American politics.
The failure to take geography into account is one of the biggest public policy failings in the United States. We're just not set up to think about policy choices in terms of geography, and as a result we have some major blind spots. Even in Oregon, where we coordinate land use planning with transportation, protect farm and forest land, and encourage compact urban forms, we still often miss the boat when it comes to the complex relationship that people have with their neighborhoods. This is especially true on critical infrastructure needs like housing, education, transit and access to medical care, as well as the overlapping societal issues of race, poverty and health.
Let's take as an example the recent beanbag shooting of a 12-year old girl by a Portland Police officer on a MAX platform at NE 148th Ave.
It has everyone's attention, with most of the focus on the laws and rules governing the behavior of police officers and citizens. This single case will continue to be dissected in microscopic detail as the use-of-force investigation progresses. The underlying architecture of these high profile cases--and why they become high profile in the first place--is that of a morality play, and the deeper we look the more the actors start to resemble caricatures of good and evil, based upon how we are each predisposed to view the world. I think we tell ourselves that we are making progress by examining the details of the case and rendering the verdict of public opinion, while we also suspect that no real good will come of this for anyone.
But take a step back from this one episode, one of thousands of interactions between security officers and young people on the MAX in the last several years. This one hit the public radar, but the real story begins with that daily interaction between teenagers, other MAX passengers, and transit and public safety officials. Other high profile episodes have driven public opinion on MAX safety, most notably the bludgeoning of a 71-year-old man with a baseball bat in November 2007. TriMet and Portland Police have dedicated significant focus and resources to MAX security, with a significant drop in reported incidents compared to the peak in 2006.
In addition to more police officers, more cameras, and stronger fare inspection efforts, new enforcement tools include the ability to exclude and/or detain (for up to 36 hours) riders who are deemed by authorities to be "rowdy", "intimidating", "violent", "threatening", "disruptive", "excessively boisterous", or "unreasonably loud". Eight 'rider advocates' have been hired to engage and work with youth to promote safe behavior on the system.
Here's the rub. You've got tons of teenagers on the MAX, some of them loud, some of them committing crimes. Beyond that, what is the public understanding of what is really going on? What do elected officials really know about the details of what's happening with young people on the trains? It's not unreasonable to assume that the general message to TriMet and from TriMet to the transit police was "fix this crime problem". But who decides what is too loud and what is expressive? This is a highly subjective issue, and let's face it, one with lots of racial overtones. But now it appears that we have police officers empowered to exclude and/or detain riders for being too loud or boisterous. Is that a complaint-driven process?
Let's take another step back, to finally get to the critical role of geography in all of this. As reflected in the 1990 and 2000 census and various other studies, thousands of low income residents--many of them African-Americans--were displaced from inner north and northeast Portland owing to radically increasing housing costs. During the same period, there was 21% growth in the multicultural tracks of the census in the Portland metro area. The Portland region grew less white as a whole, yet whiter and more affluent in central city neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, east of 82nd avenue out to Gresham, there was an explosion in population. The city annexed this part of town some twenty-odd years ago in order to provide court-mandated sewers to 54,000 households. The area was almost semi-rural in form, and certainly demographically much whiter and older than it is now. Even though the area lacks adequate streets, sidewalks, parks, recreation facilities, and many other necessary components of a healthy community, an incredible amount of infill development was allowed to happen. The lower-end market rate apartments became packed with lower income households, many of them extended families much larger than the design capacity of the apartments. Ethnic and racial diversity changed rapidly in the schools from year to year, as families bounced from place to place, with a general trend of greatly increased number of minorities and low income families. Students eligible for a free or reduced lunch jumped from a fraction of the total to 3/4 or more, and the schools became extraordinarily overcrowded.
Let's take another step back, to look at geography of race and poverty through history.
In the 1920s, Oregon's constitution prohibited African Americans from living here. In 1940, fewer than 1,800 blacks lived here. The origin of Portland's black population was mainly the shipyard work during World War II, bringing thousands out from the south, especially Louisiana and Arkansas. Most were packed into the housing provided for the workers in Vanport City, until 4:05 p.m. on May 30, 1948, when a 200 ft section of the dike holding back the Columbia collapsed, killing fifteen, and leaving all 18,000 people--40% of them African-American--instantly homeless.
After the Vanport Flood, Albina became the center of Portland's black community, in large part because of redlining. The neighborhood was home to flourishing black-owned businesses, dozens of black churches thrived, and over the course of fifty years deep social networks and institutions developed, although you can't say that the city fathers didn't try their damnedest to carve the neighborhood up.
Memorial Coliseum, completed in 1960, required the demolition of 476 houses, along with the historic Bethel AME Church and many black-owned businesses. I-5, completed in 1964, displaced another 300 households. In the early 1970s, 19 acres of homes and businesses were demolished to make way for the Emanuel Hospital expansion that never happened--meanwhile the city neglected neighborhood efforts to build investment at the grassroots level. In the 1980s, as inner cities around the country struggled with the crack epidemic and a poor economic climate, houses in Albina were boarded up. But perhaps the worst blow came next--a sort of Vanport Flood in reverse and in slow motion. In the early 1990s, many of the neighborhood's residents became a victim of the strong wave of investment that followed for about fifteen years as Albina and surrounding areas were home to a few of Portland's hottest neighborhoods during the renovation and condo craze.
I'm not going to try to characterize the entirety of the ongoing struggle for equality and opportunity in minority communities in the United States. I will say that I think race matters a lot more than many white people think it does. Even attempting to leave the larger questions of race out of it, it should be impossible to ignore that there was a cohesive and strong African-American community in Portland, in inner North and Northeast Portland. The facts are also clear that a very large percentage of that community moved out of the neighborhood, against their wishes, because of housing costs. A 2001 PSU survey of parents leaving the Portland Public Schools found that nearly 70% of them cited housing costs as a primary factor in their decision to leave, not the quality of the schools.
Enrollment declines are forcing significant changes in the operating model at Portland Public Schools. Each child brings around $7,000 a year in state funds, and you have a lot of fixed costs in the face of declining enrollment. Many said for years that it was cheaper to solve the housing problem on the front end than to try to fix the consequences. It's my opinion, for example, that the ongoing enrollment issues at Jefferson were mostly caused by housing and changing neighborhood demographics. So the neighborhood most definitely suffers when people leave.
Now let's follow the people forced to leave. Thousands of families were uprooted, which means thousands of kids need to find a way to fit into their new neighborhood. Many of those kids now live in outer east Portland or Gresham--and the schools alone face estimated capital costs of roughly $200 million to address the population boom, with no tax base or voter base to support it.
Portland's Slavic communities and Southeast Asian populations have deeper roots in outer SE, though issues of opportunity and income still persist. But even if outer east Portland had a history of being an African-American neighborhood, or longstanding ties to the Latino community or another ethnic group, it doesn't have adequate facilities and institutions to handle the numbers of kids who now live there. The average number of kids per household of the relatively new arrivals is much bigger than the overall metro Portland average. Music classes are held in halls, school lunches are taken in six twenty minute shifts, athletes have to compete among 3000 students for a shot as a varsity athlete. There is no SEI, no Ethos, no network of churches, nothing close to needed numbers of soccer fields, basketball courts, and other recreational facilities.
So 75 to 100 teenagers leave a party on a Friday night, and walk to a MAX station on 162nd, and someone calls the cops. I don't know why that 12 year old girl had been excluded, but it's come to the point that police officers are excluding kids for being too loud on the train. They pulled her off the train because she'd already been excluded, and she resisted.
I know those fifteen seconds of struggle as Officer Humphreys circled with his beanbag gun will be thoroughly examined, and all the parties will be held to account, both formally and in the public eye. It's appropriate to focus on public safety in all of its forms. But for me, it's hard to ignore the role of the last fifteen years.