There's a street corner in Portland's Old Town where you can buy or sell crack, smoke it, play Zorro with broom handles, and even have sex in the street without much fear of arrest—but all that could change if Portland police follow through with a planned zero-tolerance clean-up mission.
"The entire environment went from being a normal city street to a carnival, with no one following the rules," says downtown Crime Prevention Coordinator Walter Garcia. "There were assaults, crack smoking and dealing, and several reported open sex acts." Many of the incidents center around NW Glisan and 6th.
Police spent most of the summer focusing on violence in the entertainment district— meaning that lawlessness has gone largely unchecked on the bus mall between Burnside and NW Glisan on 5th and 6th. But Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese now plans to deploy extra resources there for "several weeks," and enlist the help of Old Town businesses to focus on drug reduction and public safety.
"We're able to do these sweeps for a short amount of time, but once we're done the dealers come back. We need citizens and businesses to be onboard," he says.
Garcia, for his part, says the sweep could have a huge impact on how the bus mall is perceived.
"If Reese and his officers run repeat arrests on the worst offenders, we'll be able get them into treatment," he says. "Ninety percent of the crime is committed by 10 percent of the population—and it's these people that we need to focus on."
The Portland Business Alliance (PBA) has welcomed the planned cleanup—which will be supported by its security firm, Portland Patrol, Inc. Some of its members, however, are worried that the problems will move south two blocks when TriMet relocates the bus mall between 3rd and 4th next January. And local business owners say they hope the crackdown will be focused on illegal activity—instead of shooing Old Town's legitimate homeless into the Willamette River. With the recent loss of numerous homeless services in the city, many of them have no place left to go.
"The corner was packed this summer, but I've never had a problem with anyone," says Tracy Oseran, who set up her kitchen business—producing small-batch granola from a converted garage on the southwest corner of Glisan and 5th—at the end of June. "Most of these people just want to be treated like human beings."
Oseran, whose garage door is often open, has had nothing stolen since moving in, and says the biggest problem she's faced is from homeless people using her parking lot as a bathroom. "But where else are they supposed to go?" she asks. She's not seen any sex on the street, or any fighting—but concedes she's never there at night.
Oseran leases her corner of the three-story Enterprise Building from Lindley Morton, president of Green Gables Construction firm, which occupies the top floor.
"Maybe there needs to be some kind of pressure from the police, but shooing people on isn't a solution," Morton says.
But the sweep is welcomed by Patrick Daley, who feeds many of the area's homeless at the Blanchet House kitchen on the corner of 4th and Glisan.
"People eating here can't drink, deal drugs, or use the bathrooms as a shooting gallery," he says. "But it'd be naive to say some of those in here aren't involved in illegal activity on the bus mall. The police sweeps always seem to work, and it's nice to be able to leave the building without being asked, 'Hey buddy—what do you need?'"