This Tuesday was a perfect October day in Portland for a bike ride. So I hauled out my battered Bridgestone, cleaned up the gears and lubed the chain with 3-in-1 and a rag, filled a water bottle and took off. Only a few clouds dotted the sky, and I enjoyed the contrast of intermittent shade as they drifted west to east, although especially those moments when the sun re-emerged and bathed me in a warm, autumn-golden light. Bike rides like that in Portland in October can trigger a flavor of euphoria in me, always fleeting, but somehow—dare I say it—“transcendental.”
Five miles later, I disembarked from my two-wheeled steed, feeling a little rubbery in the knees for being out of shape. I visited a friend, whom I gifted with some pinenuts from a recent harvest in Nevada, dropped into the natural foods co-op where I ran into an old friend, purchased a slab of tempeh and a can of local cider (which is treating my palate quite nicely at this moment), and then started heading back.
I decided, as I have often done over the last few months in Portland—from which I’ve been away for most of the last five years—to walk my bike up Southeast Division Street, from the 20’s to the 40’s (in Avenues). This particular zone has changed a lot during my absence. I had lived in the neighborhood for many years previously, when it was a somewhat gritty strip of small businesses and bars, for the most part unpretentious, though a patisserie, a fancy candy shop, and a few upper-crust restaurants had always been anchored there as long as I had known it.
Nowadays, the street is newly dominated by many three-to-four story, box-shaped apartments and condominiums, lending a canyon-like atmosphere to some stretches. Shops, services and eateries inhabit the ground floors with residential units stacked above, often with balconies looking down on the scene below.
In one sense, this new street-scape is totally old-fashioned, an imitation of a small town’s Main Street where commerce and housing shared space. Indeed, this was the explicit intention. In the early 2000’s, the neighborhood associations, local businesses, and other interests in the area collaborated with the city to create the “Division Green Street/Main Street Plan,” which called for everything that has since happened. The “green” component is reflected by bioswales between the sidewalk and the street and regularly placed bike racks along the curbs, among other elements. I was peripherally involved with my neighborhood association at that time when I lived in the area, and remember that the planning process was lengthy and detailed. In other words, no one should be surprised by what happened.
But much ink has been spilled—and pixels lit up—with complaints about the transformation of Division Street and of other districts in Portland where similar (and also planned) development has occurred. Some people find the buildings ugly. Others don’t like the increased density. A few seem opposed to change itself. Most complaints, however, stem from the fact that the new developments have higher rents than what they replaced, in some cases much higher; what they represent, in a word, is gentrification.
Use of the word “gentrification” is now common in Portland—and in other cities suffering from it—popping up in person, the press and on social media. And rightly so: Rents have been rising at double-digit (and sometimes even triple-digit) rates, vacancies are at all time lows, and upscale enterprises are supplanting more utilitarian businesses. According to Governing Magazine, Portland has gentrified more than any other city in the U.S. in the 21st Century.
Previously, Portland was a politically progressive though homely backwater. Nobody from New York City gave a rat’s ass about it. But by 2011, Portland was being celebrated as a hip trend-setter on the national level, leading to such inanities as “Portland was Brooklyn before Brooklyn was Brooklyn.” This rise in currency was due in no small part to marketing campaigns by Portland business interests, with which the television show, “Portlandia,” was (probably) an unwitting accomplice.
There are many causes of the gentrification. First and foremost is the lack of housing for the tremendous influx of new residents, some of them from tonier locations, for whom Portland’s rents are lower. High-tech, app-driven companies have been locating or expanding their operations in the city, drawn by the same thing. While the Great Recession was underway, the rate of new construction in Portland dipped, which led directly to the housing shortage of today. Though new construction has been increased during the so-called “recovery,” it is still a game of catch-up, and the influx of new people has not slowed down.
Another factor that exacerbates gentrification is the Portland metro area’s urban-growth boundary, which prevents suburban encroachment on farmland and so drives up the value of urban real estate. Ironically, this invention is an example of the progressive urban planning that contributed to Portland’s groovy “green” reputation in the first place and helped make it a draw for new residents. Moving the boundary out and eating up green space to manufacture lower property values, however, would be a step in the wrong direction. Portland is not Reno and that should stay that way.
On the legal front, the city of Portland is not allowed to restrict rising rents due to a state-level prohibition on rent-control. Landlords can jack up rates as high as the market will bear, which, due to the above factors, is turning out to be very high. They are also allowed to issue no-cause evictions with short notices. The result is mass displacement of many long-term renters, in especially high numbers this year. The city is also legally limited in its ability to demand a certain percentage of low-income units in new projects.
All this adds up to a bona fide housing crisis, which even the business-friendly mayor has been forced to admit (especially since an election is looming). A proposal has been floated to extend the amount of notice a landlord must give in the cases of a no-cause eviction or a rent hike over a certain percentage, but that’s a band-aid, and local housing activists are skeptical it would make enough of a difference.
The underlying problem is a lack of physical housing. Despite this, the new housing that is being constructed is being criticized as if it were itself the cause of the gentrification, and not—as it ultimately is—part of the solution. “Density” has become a dirty word even though that’s what we need, not only so that everyone has a home, but because dense cities are better for the environment. This point bears repeating because it seems to have been forgotten while other concerns have been raised: With a human population still on the rise, density in urban living is essential to the health of the planet, its ecosystems, and their non-human denizens. With the effects of anthropomorphic Climate Change imposing further stress on the environment, density becomes even more important.
Much vitriol has been leveled against the architecture itself—“skinny houses” in the neighborhoods and the multi-story mixed-use complexes on the commercial streets. Lack of off-street parking for the new apartments has been a point of contention for some neighbors of these developments, who are worried about losing curb space on their streets (despite the fact that most of their Craftsman homes are appointed with driveways). A myopia is revealed in this NIMBYism: surface-level parking lots are ugly space-wasters and their curtailment under city code was a victory for progressive planning. In an example of how politics have turned upside down, one of the neighborhood activists who originally fought for these changes, back in the 1970’s, is now catching heat for the lot-less apartment complexes he is building.
Appeals to “preserve neighborhood character” are predominantly aesthetic and fail to recognize that these older neighborhoods, built in the first half of the 20th Century, were never sustainable in the first place. It is worth it to take a moment here to revisit the history of that time—of the previous turn-of-the-century—to understand what motivated the platting of these neighborhoods, who benefited, and where their vision was short-sighted.
As in many other cities in the U.S.A., the “close-in” neighborhoods of Portland are “streetcar suburbs.” These days, we tend to reserve the word “suburb” for the Levittowns of the immediate post-WWII era, the “Brady Bunch” ranch housing of the 60’s, the dismal cul-de-sac conglomerations of the 70’s and 80’s and the McMansions of the 90’s, and for the deadening landscape of mega-malls, gas-stations, and convenience stores that surrounds them. But the suburb was actually invented much earlier, and the streetcar suburb was its first form.
Streetcar suburbs were a well-meaning, if ultimately not well thought-out, attempt to address the nightmare that city life had become. After the Civil War, heavy industry—with its noxious fumes and incessant noise—had set up shop in the cities, and although it tended to concentrate along rivers and railroad tracks, its presence had a deleterious effect on the general liveability of the entire urban area. Right next to the factories workers crowded into tenement apartments where squalid conditions prevailed: poor sanitation, lack of ventilation, entire families packed into one room. It was a public health disaster. People sought to escape these conditions, but at first only some—namely, the expanding management classes—had the means to do so.
These first suburbs were served by a branching network of streetcar lines, with commercial districts often lining the tracks and neighborhoods of detached houses with yards filing the space behind them. In Portland, as in most cities in the U.S.A. (with the notable exception of Boston) the streetcar system was dismantled long ago, but their commercial arteries remain and are still extant on thoroughfares such as Hawthorne, Belmont, and—yes—Division. Occasionally, when the city is doing roadwork, or when a particularly deep pothole opens up, one can get a glimpse of the old rails, which in many cases were never removed but only covered with asphalt or concrete.
A car-free life was easy in the streetcar suburb days but we should resist the urge to become too sentimental about them. These neighborhoods were actually the first examples of “sprawl.” Their low density was, and is, quite a luxury by global standards. And their residents were not the line-workers, “yearning to be free,” but their middle-management bosses. (The big boss owners enjoyed their own Acadian districts, often gated.) If you were black or a member of some other minority, you were certainly not welcome.
With the streetcar suburb, a model of built environment had been concocted that was neither fully urban nor fully rural, and lacked advantages of both, as many people in the field of urban studies have noted. For example, a property in a streetcar suburb had a yard, but not enough space to grow food. (This one I know well. As an urban farmer in Portland a few years ago, I had to amass a network of three dozen different plots in order to have an acre of space to work with. It was a tremendous hassle, especially since I tended to them by bicycle.) So the extra space taken up by the new development accomplished little else except to expand the footprint of the city as a whole, taking out farmland and razing wild places at a faster rate.
Additionally, the streetcar suburb did not offer the real solace of a rural area, as it still suffered from the urban area’s noise and light pollution, which would only increase over time. And when the streetcars were shut down during the 1950’s, these neighborhoods became car-dependent, being located too far from city centers to walk anymore. The uptick in bicycling of recent decades, though celebrated in the culture and the press, has barely made an impact. Portland’s percentage of bicycle commuters is one of the highest in the nation, but at 7% it leaves much to be desired.
As with today’s new real estate projects, there was big money in developing streetcar suburbs. Often one individual or company owned the entire plot of land that would become a neighborhood, so it was in their interest to entice people however they could. For example, streetcar fares would be kept purposely low. The profits came from the sales of lots and the construction of buildings, not the rails.
Time passed. The Twenties roared and crashed. The Depression settled in for a long stay. A war of fascism-vs.-fascism killed millions with firestorms, ovens and atomic blasts. The troops came home and needed somewhere to live and so did their children and their children’s children. What followed was the timeline already listed: Levittown. the Brady Bunch, cul-de-sacs, etc. While all this was going on, the old streetcar suburbs fell out of fashion and were taken over by the working class, including minorities, and later, artists and hippies.
But it all came full circle in the new century when yuppies moved in and started driving up real estate values. At this point, the streetcar suburbs have largely been returned to the professional classes that had been their original settlers and the minorities and laborers have been kicked back out. Adding insult to injury, these new owners are now making their appeals to “preserve neighborhood character,” never mind that these neighborhoods have been in constant demographic flux for their entire history, or that their density—though higher than the suburbs of later years—is still too low for living responsibly on the planet. What we have is moneyed liberals betraying the self-righteous entitlement typical of their class, congratulating themselves for their shopping choices and remaining willful ignorant of their own culpability in the planet’s destruction.
The streetcar suburbs had one positive thing going for them that is still with us today: their trees. In the generations since their planting, the trees have grew tall and met each other over the pavement, making a colonnade of furrowed trunks holding up a leafy roof. These groves provide shade, wildlife habitat and carbon sinks. But they have begun falling to the saw in the current wave of new construction. In Portland, protests have attended these losses, and in a few cases have prevented them. In one instance, three giant sequoias, relics of an indigenous trading route from California to Washington, were saved when neighborhood residents purchased the property from the developer (with the help of a tree-sitter who camped out in one of them while they negotiated). Not all neighborhoods have the resources to go that route, though, and the city is being pressured to strengthen protections for older trees. Fighting for city trees is a worthy fight, for sure, and has a history in the Northwest, so we can dare to hope for more success stories.
Of less value are the protests against demolishing older buildings for newer ones. Despite the facts—that in the last five years in Portland the ~1000 units that have been torn down have been replaced by over 2000 new units, helping to create the density we need—some people see the demolitions as part of the problem. Certainly, more effort should be made—or legally required—to carefully deconstruct old buildings so that their materials can be reused and recycled, rather than just knocking them down and hauling everything to the dump, as too often happens. Like every town in the Pacific Northwest, Portland was built with grades of old-growth timber that don’t even exist anymore, and this high quality wood can often still be repurposed.
Personally, I am a fan of the new Division Street. It feels much more urban than it did, reminding me favorably of districts in Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and even (very faintly) of streets in Budapest, Edinburgh or Heidelberg. The sense of enclosure among the new buildings gives the street the ambiance of large, outdoor room. The flurry of signage hanging above the sidewalk, from the brightly colored to the tastefully understated, is visually appealing and advertises fresh activity. The increased number of pedestrians crossing the street at regularly-spaced and clearly-marked cross-walks slows down the automobile traffic, taming what was previously a speedier (and less safe) road. Of course, closing the street to cars entirely would be the best way to create a truly vibrant space—as is common in Europe—but that’s too much to ask here.
Not that I don’t have complaints. The shops are either high-end or cater to tastes that I don’t share. The new buildings were constructed out of poor-quality materials. The bioswales narrowed the lanes so that a bicycle cannot comfortably share the road anymore. Aesthetically, I am generally not turned on by post-modernism as an architectural style, due to its superficiality and severance of form from function. But I realize that these are all quibbles. When the economy turns down again (which it will, as surely as a ball thrown into the air eventually falls back), this built environment will support a different class of shops and people, and more of them, and will perform better than its previous incarnation could have. As an investment in the future, the plan showed some smart thinking.
As with every issue these days, the elephant in the room here is Climate Change. I have spent most of the last five years traveling in the Western states and I have been shocked and dismayed by what I have witnessed. All ecosystems, with their botanical treasures and wild creatures, are at risk and it’s our fault. “Our mother is dying,” is how Shoshone elder Finisia Medrano puts it, and she is right. To slow down the assault on our mother, we must change our cities. More density makes for a smaller footprint not just in physical space but also in terms of resources burned for survival. Older patterns must be broken, and these include patterns of thought. We must recognize how sentimental ideals have been planted in our heads by media and culture: the tree-lined streets of detached Craftsman homes, each with their own paved driveway and useless yards, are a privilege we cannot afford. The “neighborhood character” of these places is that they are wasteful. Keep the trees, but pack in more buildings.
So where do we go from here? Relying on the “free” market and government to fix our cities is like hoping the military will bring peace to the world. It’s not their job to act in the best interest of collective humanity. The bottom-line is their bottom-line, and that will ever be so as long as Capitalism reigns. The well-meaning activists in Portland and elsewhere who are demanding housing justice are fighting a lost cause. This system does not exist to serve but purely to rule. Only total social transformation can bring about the changes we must implement if we, and the other creatures on earth, are going to survive.
In the meantime, there’s no point in complaining about the new apartments on Division Street in Portland, Oregon. They are not the problem. They are not even a problem.