In Portland, we're a little scared of anger. Have you heard about the fights in New York over bike lanes? They're vicious—Park Slope residents are filing lawsuits!—and unproductive in the way that angrily ramming horns just gives everyone a headache.
But the recent city meetings over Portland's plan to make N. Williams safer for the 3,000 cyclists who use the street daily has been very heated in the good kind of way. The kind of way that lets off serious steam that's been building for a long, long time.
But actually, I don't know anything. I'm on the street almost every day, taking the quickest and flattest bike route to Northeast. But I'm one of "those people": the twentysomething, middle-class, white girl who just moved here a few years ago, whose destination on Williams usually involves either a latte or alcohol.
I have rights on Williams (namely, the right to use the street on bike, foot, or bus without risking death), but the best thing I can do is admit that I'm personally clueless when it comes the weighty, personal issues of racial discrimination and gentrification in North Portland.
Instead, I called up Debora Leopold Hutchins, an African American, avid cyclist, and chair of the North Williams project stakeholder committee, and asked her to tell it to me straight.
Hutchins leads a women's cycling group, but personally she doesn't feel safe biking on Williams, due to all the traffic and wide-swinging car doors.
"When I got into this project, I saw this as a safety issue," says Hutchins. "When I talked to people from the community, I realized it was a much deeper issue."
Hutchins was one of the strongest voices asking the city to slow down the Williams revamp (they were scheduled to choose a design by this June), feeling that the process, like numerous projects historically in the area, was moving so fast that neighbors didn't have time to get involved.
The Portland Bureau of Transportation made the right move: They put the process on hold and took Hutchins' advice to solicit more input from the neighborhood, especially from people of color.
"The community wants to be heard, the community wants to be part of the process," says Hutchins.
Basically, as far as I see it, the city put in more than the usual ounce of effort into incorporating public input. And cracking open the discussion just a bit wound up opening a big can of worms—long-festering-issue "worms," some of which have little to do with bikes, cars, or parking, and everything to do with discrimination.
This isn't the ideal project for laying gentrification concerns on the table, but what is? There should have been intensive public discussions around developments like the urban renewal-subsidized Albert Apartments on Williams. But there weren't. So now we're opening up these issues with bike lanes.
If Hutchins is happy with the process, and we both feel safe enough to bike on Williams in the future, then this will all have been good. Even the angry parts.