Walking the talk at the St. Johns Parade

by Steve, May 10th, 2008

The first installment of photos from the St. Johns parade: candidates walking their talk (or not).

Fritz Walked
Fritz walked.

Fish walked
Fish walked.

Bissonnette walked
Bissonnette walked.

Branam walked, too (sorry, no picture). But what about Chris “Streetcar” Smith, the guy who wants to cut our carbon footprint in half by replicating the Pearl district on the east side?

Chris Smith rode
Smith got a ride.

Say what?!?

Is that a Prius, Chris?

I don’t think so!

Chris Smith's ride
But it’s okay, he’s sharing the road with bikes. You can’t make this stuff up, folks!

Mayor Potter
The Mayor rode, but he hitched a ride with the convertible club. Plus, he’s a real dignitary.

Sam Adams
The Mayor-in-Waiting, rode, too. It was good to see him looking so comfortable mixing it up with the regular folk. “Hi neighbor! Hi neighbor!” he called, trying really hard to smile. Or at least not grimace.

Next installment: Clowns for Christ. I’m not kidding. What a great day for a parade!

Happy May Day!

by Steve, May 1st, 2008

I always find that on International Workers Day it is good to reflect on the basic reality that labor creates all wealth. This year, as the global economy teeters on the brink of calamity, the end game of three decades of deregulation of the financial sector, this concept is especially poignant.

Hedge fund managers, investment bankers and stock traders don’t create wealth, they skim it. It would actually be more accurate to say they steal it, since they don’t produce anything of intrinsic value to society.

The sub-prime crisis is just the canary in the coal mine, indicating a financial system rife with ethical corruption and iniquity. Among other things, this crisis represents one of the greatest transfers of wealth away from black Americans in the history of our nation. To blame the victims, even as we bail out the predators to the tune of $30 billion, is as offensive as it is ignorant.

Capitalism is predicated on continuous growth. Like a shark, it must keep moving to survive. This basic premise ignores the fact that we live in a closed system with finite resources. It is becoming undeniable that the system is feeding on itself in a way that, if left to its own devices, will lead to its demise, much like Marx predicted.

It may not be too late to steer clear of total collapse. The first step is to re-regulate all aspects of the financial sector.

We’ve also got to stop squandering money and lives on the Iraq occupation. This military adventure is part and parcel of the gross upward redistribution of wealth of the past decades.

And we’ve got to socialize health care in this country as part of a new New Deal. Instead of continuing our devastating investment in “killingry,” as R. Buckminster Fuller called it, we need to reinvest in “livingry.”

Will Obama be the FDR to Bush’s Hoover? So far both Democratic candidates have bent over backwards to show their loyalty to Wall Street, which indicates we’re not likely to see any major change of course from three decades of bi-partisan neoliberal deregulation.

There is another way, which is better for the planet, better for our neighbors, and which, above all, gives credit where credit is due: to the workers.

Too bad nobody running for president is willing to talk about it.

Gentrification is the issue

by Steve, April 22nd, 2008

So why aren’t the candidates for Portland mayor talking about it?

It is undeniable that housing prices in Portland have outrun the ability for the local job market to sustain them. Yet our city government continues to promote and subsidize the kind of high-density development that seeks to encourage (and cash in on) this trend.

As I wrote yesterday, Sam Adams and Sho Dozono represent real estate developers and the business community respectively, so they’ve got no real interest in tempering the trend of total gentrification in Portland’s residential core.

Adams went so far as to posit that there is “too much affordable housing in North Portland” at Sunday’s North Portland Candidates’ Forum, exposing himself as someone who 1) can easily be construed as a racist and 2) doesn’t have the faintest clue what gentrification means to the working and middle classes of Portland.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to use Google to plumb the depths of this issue in the current races for city government. I searched for the term “gentrification OR gentrify” on the candidates’ campaign sites, and was not surprised to be greeted with the sound of crickets chirping on most of them, starting with Sam Adams and Sho Dozono.

Going down the ticket to city council seat #1, the seat Sam Adams is leaving to run for mayor, we’ve got more crickets from Chris Smith, John Branam, Charles Lewis and Jeff Bissonnette.

Amanda Fritz wins the prize for actually using the word “gentrification” on her campaign Web site, stating “The most pressing issue is the gap between people who are doing well, and those who are not.”

On to seat #2, being vacated by Erik Sten mid-term, things get a little more interesting. Nick Fish gets a hit on his response to a housing opportunity quiestionnaire, where he states (PDF) “Lower home ownership rates for people of color translates into lost opportunities to create wealth, less stable neighborhoods and leaves minorities more vulnerable to displacement because of gentrification.”

But Jim Middaugh also gets a hit for his “issues” page, where he notes “Portland’s African-American community, with its traditional base in North and Northeast Portland, is determined to thrive in the face of the powerful forces of gentrification and hold together a sense of community.” He also talks a good game about “Keeping Portland Affordable.”

Middaugh is Erik Sten’s chief of staff, and Sten is known for his work on housing. Specifically low-income housing and homelessness, i.e. the very low end of the spectrum. Middaugh, of course, wants to carry on this work, which is commendable. But we need to distinguish between issues of subsidized housing and gentrification. Yes, they’re both pieces of the same puzzle. But my reading of Sten’s policy is that while he’s done great work on the low end, he’s done little to nothing on the issue of preserving affordable housing for the working and middle classes. In fact, he’s been right on board with the development policies that feed gentrification.

Middaugh has shown himself to be in league with the “smart growth” crowd, citing the 300,000 coming residents and the need to continue subsidizing (and otherwise encouraging) high density condo development all over our city.

Maybe I’m being unfair to Middaugh, but I don’t think we should expect any great departure from Sten’s policies, and the proof is in the pudding. I know I couldn’t afford my North Portland house at today’s prices, and I just bought it eight years ago.

Unfortunately, the seat #2 race has been quickly reduced to a two-way between Middaugh and Sten. It’s unfortunate, because Ed Garren has been quite up front about how city policies encourage gentrification. “The current gentrification model encourages persons of lower and moderate means to move to the edges of, or out of the city. The issues involving traditional communities of color in the city relate directly to this issue, and it is a nationwide situation, not just in Portland. The city needs to decide if all neighborhoods in the city are going to offer economically diverse housing, or are we going to continue to ‘red line’ neighborhoods and create policies that favor some groups and discriminate others,” writes Garren in response to the Housing Opportunities questionnaire.

That’s the kind of plain talk I’d like to hear from the other candidates.

Actually, I’d settle for any kind of talk.

Charting Portland’s Political Landscape

by Steve, April 21st, 2008

Local politics, particularly in a liberal city like Portland, are not a localized version of the national scene. There is not a labor/business split in our governing bodies, for example, and nary a Republican in sight serving in any significant local public office.

The historic split in municipal politics has come between real estate developers, who want to maximize the value of their land by increasing density, and those who have stood in their way: neighborhood preservationists and environmentalists.

Siding with the developers, you often find labor, since commercial real estate development usually means union jobs.

But a funny thing happened on the way to global warming. The developers managed to co-opt environmentalists with the idea of “smart growth.” Without the environmental movement in their way, the developers now have virtual carte blanche to run things as they please.

One of the only constituencies left in opposition to this juggernaut are those who oppose gentrification and favor rent controls, that is, people who are virtually powerless by definition.

There’s also the business constituency, relatively weak in Portland compared to other big cities, which takes issue with using tax revenue to subsidize anything, except maybe parking. But they don’t object to gentrification, since it tends to grow markets for the goods and services they sell.

To be clear, I like the ideas of limiting sprawl, preserving green spaces, and developing housing near employment. But the “sustainable” label has been used and abused beyond recognition in Portland. We’ve significantly over-built condos in the central city, publicly subsidized to the tune of millions of dollars annually with a streetcar system that does not solve any identifiable transportation problem and an aerial tram to no place in particular.

Additionally, the “sustainable development” crew has pushed “skinny lots” in our core residential neighborhoods, and multi-story condo developments in our distributed town centers, like Belmont, Hawthorne, Alberta, and now Interstate and Mississippi. All of this is predicated on the notion that we’ve already maxed out our available housing stock, and must choose between building up or building out.

People who object to having a nine-story condo building towering over their back yards obviously don’t understand that we’re going to have 300,000 new residents in Portland, Real Soon Now.

That’s the canard that’s repeated ad nauseum and without qualification or any sense of irony by the candidates who represent big developers. Oh, they’re coming, whether we like it or not, they assure us, and we better make sure we build up rather than out to accommodate them.

So commercial real estate developers not only get to maximize their land values by increasing density under the cloak of “sustainability,” they’re given significant public subsidy to do so.

And what about the “G” word? Yes folks, “smart growth” is progressively gentrifying every neighborhood in Portland’s residential core. This isn’t very “smart” if you, like me, value the diversity of your neighborhood.

And that brings us to what’s wrong with the Mayor’s race in Portland. You’ve got Sam Adams, unabashedly pushing the big developer’s agenda, and Sho Dozono unabashedly pushing the big business agenda (criticizing Adams for opposing Wal-Mart).

But this is a false dichotomy, since they both essentially represent big money. Neither candidate says “boo” about rent stabilization, preserving affordable housing (as opposed to building it per the big developers’ “smart growth” vision) or preserving the historic quality of our neighborhoods.

Both, of course, are “green” candidates, as is virtually every candidate running for city office (Mike Fahey nothwithstanding). But neither of them seems to have much interest in affordable housing.

At yesterday’s North Portland Candidates’ Forum, Adams went so far as to say North Portland has too much affordable housing, a reference to all the public housing on the Peninsula. Which could be taken as thinly-veiled racism.

It could also be construed as missing the point, since it isn’t just the poor and working poor who struggle with housing prices in Portland, but increasingly two-income, middle class families.

At least in the council races, there are a couple candidates who will speak earnestly about issues of housing and gentrification.

For seat #2, being vacated mid-term by Erik Sten, Ed Garren has been the only candidate to actually talk about rent control. Nick Fish talked about “fixing the roof before putting in a jacuzzi” at yesterday’s forum, which is nice. But Jim Middaugh, Erik Sten’s chief of staff, mostly wanted to remind us of those 300,000 people moving here. (Sure, Middaugh talks a good game on his campaign Web site, but I can’t get over the feeling that it’s just boilerplate. He wanted to talk a lot more about those 300,000 new residents yesterday than the communities displaced by the City Hall business as usual his candidacy represents.)

Likewise John Brannam, running for seat #1, who was the first to intone the 300,000 figure at yesterday’s forum. We all know where Chris “streetcar” Smith stands, of course, so much so that he doesn’t even have to speak of the 300,000 promised ones.

In his Willamette Week endorsement interview, Smith talked of replicating the kind of development supported by the central city streetcar loop on the east side. Yes, folks, condos and streetcars for all your friends! To Gresham with the unwashed masses! Let them ride MAX! Somehow, Smith thinks we can cut our carbon footprint in half by pushing all the po’ folks to the margins of our metro area. Well, maybe he doesn’t really think it through that far. But that’s the upshot of gentrifying our close-in neighborhoods with the kind of development he champions.

Amanda Fritz and Charles Lewis stand out as candidates for seat #1 who want to focus on neighborhoods. Lewis had the audacity yesterday to speak of affordable housing (gasp!), and Fritz has been steadfast in her advocacy for shifting the city’s budget priorities to basic services in the neighborhoods. (I’ve already endorsed Fritz for this seat.)

So our Portland body politic is divvied up into a handful of sometimes-overlapping camps, with an overarching “sustainable” umbrella big enough to offer refuge to all kinds of scoundrels. (“Sustainability” is to Portland politics what patriotism is to national politics.)

Dozono is alone in his big retail fealty, but Sam Adams has good company in the real estate developers’ court with Jim Middaugh and Chris Smith.

Those seeking to preserve the character and livability of neighborhoods, affordable family housing, and communities of color are harder to come by, and they aren’t going to have any mayoral coattails to ride this election season. Ain’t it a shame?

White Line Fever

by Steve, August 19th, 2007

I grew up road tripping family style. Starting with a coast-to-coast odyssey in a playpen in the back of a VW Microbus, and working my way through car, train, bus, truck and plane trips of all sorts through most of the United States and Mexico and parts of Canada and Europe.

San Rafael Reef, Utah

My traveling days, along with my ability to live out out of a backpack for months at a time, ended when I had two children. Or so it seemed. This summer, with the little ones getting bigger and with the aid of such niceties I never knew — like air conditioning and DVD players — we embarked on our first epic family road trip across the iconic landscapes of the American West. Twenty-six hundred miles of desert, forest, rock, canyon, mountain and gorge.

Shoshone Falls, Idaho

The joy of going overland is that the journey becomes a major part of the trip, rather than an annoyance to put up with on the way somewhere else. I love seeing the landscape change as I go. Read the rest of this entry »