THE NORTHEAST CORNER of SW Morrison and Broadway stands as a monument to one of my favorite things about urban life. A motley rainbow of newspaper boxes—clumped around a lone utility pole—firmly occupies the bedraggled sidewalk, reminding every passerby of the chaos and small wonders that await you downtown.
But under a plan scheduled for approval by Portland City Council on Wednesday, July 11, that gritty little clump of character would be rooted out in the name of an apparently higher power: order.
Working with the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), the city's transportation bureau will remove every single odd-shaped, crusty newsbox around Pioneer Courthouse Square and pack nearly two-dozen orphaned publications into banks of pleasantly homogenous boxes carefully placed by the PBA. Then, if no one complains much after a year, the idea will spread.
The idea is to clear away some of the perceived clutter choking downtown's sidewalks—making the place look more like the affluent (and suburbanite-friendly) ersatz mall community of Bridgeport Village. Doing so would put Portland on the same footing as places like Berkeley, San Francisco, and Chicago.
"We get a lot of complaints from businesses and downtown property owners who want things to look a little bit nicer and neater," explains PBA spokeswoman Megan Doern, painting a picture of disused boxes either filled with trash or slathered in stickers, ink, and spray-paint. "It's the 'broken windows' philosophy. If you keep the smallest things looking nice, it keeps downtown as a whole looking nice."
That sounds reasonable. But this issue also goes a bit deeper than sidewalk aesthetics.
In a big way, it's about sanitization. The project is tucked deep inside the city's 2010 "sidewalk management plan," and it feels like a consolation prize after the city made it slightly more difficult for the business community to work on its other de-cluttering project: keeping homeless people away from tourists.
And, if we're not careful, this could also be about censorship. Spots in the new boxes will be allotted on a first-come, first-serve basis. And although the ordinance says no outlet will be refused over content or constitutional grounds—it makes no mention of other factors, like circulation. So will the small-run anarchist paper the Portland Radicle, which just cropped up at SW 6th and Yamhill, really be treated as decorously as the Oregonian?
Doern says the boxes have enough space for everyone who already has a box—with room for any newcomers, too. If space is tight, new boxes might also be erected. "It's not the intent to limit publications," she says.
The city, which has final say over the program, is making the same promise. But with some wiggle room.
"Right now," says Dan Anderson, a spokesman for the transportation bureau, "the plans are to accommodate everyone who wants to be in."
Good. But let's hope those "plans" don't change.