It took a big hit the other day, my romance with Portland. I’ve been here about a year now, and for the first time ever, I really understood how Portland’s progressiveness might be a tall tale.
It was Valentine’s Day, and Charlie and I took a bus ride to SE 82nd and Division. We were going to have dim sum at Wong’s King Seafood Restaurant, something I’ve been trying to organize for the last two weeks–since Chinese New Years started–but have been incredibly unsuccessful with. I was itching to see this part of Portland. When my mom visited in November, she had asked around to figure out where the real Chinatown was, and the resounding answer was this far-off intersection. There were less bikers and pedestrians as the street numbers climbed while increasingly more restaurants and schools flew multilingual banners: Vietnamese, Russian, Chinese and English.
The bus warp-sped through a wormhole between 57th and 85th streets. In that 30-block span, the greenery, the foot traffic–all of it disappeared. The quaint, early 20th century houses faded into 70’s architecture and sprawl. We were dropped off in a literal concrete jungle with debris instead of sidewalks and crosswalks every three blocks.
We had a 40-minute wait for Wong’s, so Charlie and I decided to take a walk in search of the fabled Fubonn Supermarket. But instead of taking a left at 82nd, we took a right and passed countless car dealerships. I watched people dodge traffic to avoid walking a couple endless blocks to the nearest crosswalk. It was an unpleasant street to be on, so we tried the backstreets on our return to Wong’s. Where there should have been asphalt, the streets had been ground into gravel. No sidewalks. No grid pattern. Just dead ends pointing to poor urban planning.
I was stunned. Where was Portland? This “neighborhood” was as good as being in the suburbs, and yet it’s still well within the city limits. Everything we celebrate about Portland–great public transportation, walkability, bikability–none of it applied. Many Chinese and other ethnic groups had been pushed out to the edges due to rising costs of living in inner-Portland, but this was ridiculous. Biking might be a fresh choice in Portland, but it’s also one of the oldest, most common-sense economic options anywhere. On SE 82nd and Division, it was not an option. The streets had clearly been unpaved for years, and it was an unnavigable and dangerously car-saturated area.
Was this racism? Classism? Assuming the Chinese weren’t there till recently, where was the City when the roads began to blister and crack? And assuming the Chinese had been there for a while, did the City presume that this immigrant group preferred the ubiquitous expense of cars over walkability? Even though the majority of people in Asia’s most population-choked cities walk and utilize public transportation? It was an outrage. Where everything great about Portland would have made the best sense, it didn’t exist in one of the areas that needed it the most.