Candidates get street-level view of issues
East Portland tour highlights need for more attention
State Rep. Jefferson Smith, D-Portland, put out feelers in July that he's flirting with a run for Portland mayor. But the 38-year-old Oregon Bus Project cofounder is already well on his way to becoming the latest unofficial 'mayor' of East Portland.
Smith, who relocated near David Douglas High School shortly after the local House seat came open in 2007, has since made it his mission to shine more attention on the oft-neglected part of the city east of 82nd Avenue.
Last week, Smith shepherded a group of local politicians in a Chevy Suburban, in the second of two guided tours designed to educate candidates and officeholders about conditions facing East Portland. Packed into the SUV, among others, were state Rep. Mary Nolan, D-Portland, who's running for Portland City Council; Bob Stacey, candidate for Metro Council; state Rep. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, who's running for reelection to the House seat for inner northeast Portland; and Shemia Fagan, newly elected David Douglas School Board member.
While introducing why such a tour was needed, Fagan explained how people reacted when she told them she was running for the David Douglas School Board. Some asked her, 'Is that in Douglas County in Southern Oregon?'
'No,' she said, 'in East Portland.'
'You mean Lents?' they said.
'No,' she said, 'there's 60 blocks of Portland east of Lents.'
As Smith conceded, the broad chunk of the city includes more than a fourth of Portland's population but still needs to 'develop a sense of place.'
Most of the area was pressured to annex into the city three decades ago to get sewer hookups.
'Much of East Portland was planned, and I use that term very loosely, as suburbs,' Smith boomed from the front seat of the SUV. 'It has a much more suburban sprawl kind of feeling.'
Increasingly, East Portland has a feeling of urban blight, as low-income people are priced out of inner northeast, north and southeast Portland to the low-rent districts east of 82nd Avenue and Interstate 205. A decade ago, Fagan said, about half the David Douglas students got free and reduced lunch, which is offered to low-income families.
'Now we're close to 80 percent,' she said.
The first stop on the tour was Portland Adventist Hospital, where a man died in the parking garage in February. Smith contends that the emergency room is hard to find and noted that Adventist provides a relatively low share of uncompensated care for poor people, despite the low income level of the surrounding community. He's pressing the largest employer in his part of town - with 515 physicians and 2,113 total employees - to donate more to high school-based health centers.
The SUV pulled into a new jewel of East Portland, the swimming pool complex at East Portland Community Center, which was the nation's first pool to earn a platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating.
Next the group pulled alongside vacant Marshall High School, shuttered in June by Portland Public Schools, even while neighboring David Douglas High has one of the highest enrollments in Oregon.
Marshall closed largely because the surrounding blue-collar, heavily immigrant community lacked political clout, Smith said, a view echoed by others in the SUV.
'This at one point was the most technically advanced high school in the city,' said Frederick, a former Portland Public Schools spokesman.
Members got out to stroll past a boarded-up house on a barely paved stretch of Southeast 127th Avenue south of Mill Street. On the wall were graffiti tags of four different gangs vying for supremacy in the neighborhood.
'The idea of segregating poverty, thinking that you'll segregate problems, doesn't work,' Smith said, complaining that housing developers aren't offering a wide enough range of housing choices in East Portland.
Smith also has been tangling with TriMet to improve its public safety efforts along the Blue Max line running through East Portland. The area near 162nd and Burnside, Smith said, 'is the biggest crime hot spot, as I understand it, in the state,' with 3,200 police complaints in a 10-block radius in one year.
Smith aide Lucy Palmersheim identified the area near Northeast 138th Avenue and Glisan Street as the city's worst 'food desert,' a place where it's hard to find fresh foods for purchase.
Smith also directed the SUV to what he views as bright spots in the area. There are skateboarders flocking to the specially design skater's site at Ed Benedict Park, on Southeast Powell Boulevard and 109th Avenue. He views Lily Market, an attractive shop on Weidler Street and Northeast 111th Avenue, as a model for retail for the area.
The SUV also cruised past an empty retail parcel at Northeast Halsey Street and 102nd Avenue, where some said Kaiser Permanente may relocate its clinic on Division Street south of Mount Tabor.
The tour ended at El Indio Mexican Restaurant on 111th and Halsey, where Smith's staff had conveniently arranged a group of East Portland activists to meet and greet the politicians.
'We hope you will spend at least 10 percent of your campaign time east of 82nd,' Smith called out to the politicians as they gathered to head home.