Burly meatpacker David Rigby—who stands 6'11" tall and cuts quite a presence in his buzz cut—knocked on the door of the Carolina Motel at 112th and NE Sandy last Friday night, June 2, and politely asked the owners to stop charging hourly rates.
The Carolina advertises cable TV and hot tubs, and looks like it could use a coat of paint. As Rigby arrived with his neighbors, they saw a young woman emerging who they thought looked like a prostitute. ("Prostitues? Don't know anything about that," the Carolina's owner told the Mercury. "This is a motel.")
Rigby also asked The Carolina's owners to sign a Good Neighbor Agreement, committing to neighborhood friendly business practices, as part of a "Salvage our Neighborhood" march down NE Sandy. Rigby, along with other members of Parkrose's newly formed Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) chapter—the group is part of ACORN's national network—is concerned about prostitution, drug houses, and other problems in the area. The residents are approaching local businesses to ask for their help.
At a burger cookout before the march (Rigby packed the burgers himself, and they're not bad), he explains that being within spitting distance of I-84 and I-205—the neighborhood's a quick four mile drive from the Washington state line—Parkrose has become a handy stop-off for truckers and anyone else wishing to "dip their noodle."
Most motel owners seem surprised when the ACORN group marches in, dressed in distinctive red t-shirts—and all refused to sign agreements on the spot.
But outside of Parkrose, social service providers say targeting hourly motel rates might not accomplish the neighbors' goals—and could instead just force prostitutes out onto the streets. A more rounded approach is needed to clean up the neighborhood, says Cassandra Garrison, public policy manager for the Oregon Food Bank.
"It is great to organize to save the neighborhood, but they need to address the root causes. Most sex workers are not doing the work because they like it, and moving prostitutes [out of motels] won't get rid of them," she says.
A spokeswoman for the Portland Women's Crisis Line says, "It is obvious that if sex workers are moved on by motels, they will be impacted. At least [in motels] they have a safe place where they can set their own terms, as opposed to just getting into someone's car."
Garrison, who lives in the Lents neighborhood, has recently organized a community outreach trailer with the help of Outside In. The trailer is parked once a week outside the old Department of Human Services building at 82nd and SE Flavel, an area with a well-documented prostitution problem. Garrison says the women often have no access to clinics, affordable housing, shelters, or places to get meals.
Rigby admits that petitioning local motels might look like the group is picking on prostitutes, but he says his group has only been meeting for five weeks—they're just getting started. He made initial attempts to pull in social services, but Rigby and his neighbors aren't going to sit around until those organizations move into the neighborhood—they want to start doing something now about the neighborhood's problems.
Rigby approaches the Parkrose situation with an unusually frank, firsthand perspective. He describes Parkrose as an uncanny mirror image of his past in the troubled suburb of Rose Park, Utah, just west of Salt Lake City.
"I come at this as a former heroin addict who spent 10 years getting clean. Hell, there were a couple of times where I even prostituted myself to pay for drugs," he says.
"That's why I'm so into this ACORN stuff. When I got clean it took the police, outreach groups, mental health people, a whole bunch of people to come around and give me a slap in the face." And Rigby seems convinced that such direct action will save his new neighborhood, where he has now lived for three years. Watching a dozen locals follow him down Sandy as the sun sets, it is impossible not to be impressed by his leadership.
Rigby says he is keen to work with Garrison and other non-profit groups to find more ways to clean up the neighborhood. (It seems the feeling is mutual: Dr. Wayne Centrone, who runs the Outside In trailer in Lents, told the Mercury, "We're very interested in working with vulnerable and higher risk young women, and there could very well be potential for a partnership on Sandy.")
Since the Parkrose ACORN group formed, only one motel on Sandy has signed a Good Neighbor Agreement—which includes promising to call 911 in case of life threatening emergencies, and wherever possible, notifying community outreach programs about illegal activity—but Rigby and ACORN are undeterred. They plan to call back after the motel owners have had time to mull over the agreement.