Portland Update, May 2015

Portland Update May 2015

Three miles from my house, hidden from the Spring Water Trail by thick vegetation, is a growing collection of cairns. My father has met the woman who makes these small stacks of river rock. She told him she is doing it for Mother Earth and has been building them since the oil spill in the gulf. I visit the stones on my walks. I love their whimsical shapes and how fragile they seem, as if a gust of wind could just blow them over. Don't grow too attached, the cairns seem to say. Enjoy us while you can. 


Over the last year TJ and I have been writing about our respective cities (Xi'an China and Portland, Oregon)  as much as we have been writing about our mental landscapes. Again, I find myself sitting down this month with not much to say about the city I live in. Or rather, my passion to write about Portland has crested already.

I could say that yes, it’s changing (not as fast as Xi’an, but changing nonetheless.) And people are angry and sad about it. There is a lot of blame and recrimination going around. Some people think we should preserve the old buildings, not tear them down to build multi-story apartment buildings and condominiums, some people think we should halt the displacement of African Americans in their historic neighborhood in the north and northeast, or else relocate the nexus elsewhere. Others lament the lack of affordable housing while still demonizing new construction. And still other people find it entertaining to mock old Portlanders (and poor people.)

But more and more I realize that keeping things exactly the way they are/were is no longer an option. Change is here and we have to think about what kind of city we want to live in. There is no going back to an imagined golden era. The only time that Portland has ever seen a decrease in the population was during the recession of the eighties and early nineties. My generation is reacting to that; we miss the blue-collar Portland of our childhoods. We are suspicious of the shiny and new. But the truth is that exponential population growth has been the norm since settlers founded the city. We can't combat the population growth but we can try to change how we react to gentrification and its deleterious effects. 


None of this is to say that we should just accept the most recent changes without grief, anger, or a sense of loss. What felt like our city, is now something different. For myself, over the last year I have come to accept that I might not ever live in Portland again. (You didn’t know it, but I actually live in Gresham, a cheaper suburb.) Sure it would be more convenient to live closer to my friends, but the higher cost of living would outweigh any benefits to me. By accepting this change, I can grieve what I lost and move on with figuring out …what next? Is it still worth it to rent a place in Montavilla? Do I want to buy a house in Oregon City? How about the Gorge? Will I just rent my one bedroom apartment in Gresham until I’m fifty? The main thing is that Portland isn’t Portland anymore so - why go back? Letting go of my aspiration to move back into Portland after three years in Gresham feels healing; the city has changed so much it really makes no difference to me anymore.


Another reason I don’t want to talk about Portland this month is because my heart is broken and I’m tired. My boyfriend and I broke up. It wasn’t my choice. And so it is just loss. Pure and simple.


It’s similar to the loss that I feel when I think about “Old” Portland. And let’s face it, what I really mean is MY Portland. The Portland I encountered when I moved here after college. Portland, circa 2003, where I lived in three cheap apartments, made  it work on my cheese-clerk wages, walked and biked to work, stayed out late at shows, made art and dated boys I met at parties. This city that I romanticize is not coming back and neither is my boyfriend. And even if they did, things weren’t perfect and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. They’re gone and now I have to think about what I want my future to look like in this city.

It’s silly and shortsighted to think that when you meet someone, who they appear to you is who they “really” are. People change and people have private fears and aspirations of their own. Your idea of who they are, more often than not, is a projection of your own desires.  Likewise, cities grow and you can no more control that than you can control other people. Some people have told me to “just get over it” regarding my grief over a changing Portland. I don’t think they understand that is like telling me to just get over my break up. Yes, you can’t stop change. But you can honor what was.

And what was, was beautiful.

I have been sad for weeks. When I think I have gotten over the worst of it, I find myself crying again. I catapult from relief that I don’t have to deal with the issues we had, to anger, to sadness, to just straight up missing my friend.

But learning how to deal with reality is essential for planning for the future. All I can do is be happy for the good times that we had together. Yes, I know this sounds trite, but it’s the best I can do at the moment.

Now that I am single I’m amazed at all the free time I have. I’ve been walking a lot out on the spring water trail near my house. The wildflowers are in bloom and the trail is so green and vibrant it hurts my eyes. About a mile from my house, the trail, which used to be a train line, runs by a brick factory. Outside the factory are thousands of old bricks that were just thrown out into a field. Over the years a forest has grown up over them.

I watch a lot of history documentaries and so when I see stuff like this I can’t help but wonder what people will think a thousand years from now when they find this stuff. I can just imagine an anthropologist looking up from a dig, one hand wiping away sweat from his forehead. He holds up a brick as he speaks into the camera, “The ancient Oregonians were expert builders as evidenced by this vast brick pile. They were such craftsmen and perfectionists when it came to brick-making that this pile actually represents the bricks that didn’t make the cut.” The anthropologist tosses the brick back onto the ground and the next scene is of him in a power-boat on the Columbia River, manned by his local guide, an ancestor of the tribe that invaded Oregon over five hundred years ago. The wind whips his hair and the documentary cuts to a scene with a leading authority on ancient Oregon standing in a museum.

I turn off this imaginary documentary. I want to yell at the screen: No! We didn’t care about the bricks! We did that for money. If you want to know what we really cared about, I’ll tell you – we cared about love.