STATE REPRESENTATIVE Jefferson Smith stood on the sun-drenched Gateway Station MAX platform on the afternoon of Sunday, April 18, surveying what serves as the welcome mat to his district: a vast parking lot for the Oregon Clinic, two shopping carts marooned in mud, a vacant lot, an abandoned home, and a stone sculpture cordoned off with caution tape. "My district has precious little to inspire," noted Smith.
East Portland, including Smith's House District 47, is poor and getting poorer. Annexed from the city 20 years ago in a process a court later declared unconstitutional, the neighborhoods east of 82nd Avenue account for 26 percent of Portland's population and 44 percent of its school kids. However, while Portland prides itself on livability and smart development, East Portland is deficient in parks, sidewalks, and funding. Projects in East Portland received less than 10 percent of citywide federal stimulus money. Now East Portland neighbors are demanding more.
Representative Smith, who owns a seafoam green ranch house in the Hazelwood neighborhood ("Within walking distance of two Targets!" he observes), caused a dustup at city hall during a public hearing on the East Portland Action Plan (EPAP) last week. The EPAP is a list of 268 priorities for the area, which city council approved last year and gave $500,000 in funding.
"Last year I came merely to say thank you and please," Smith told city council. "Now I am truly angry."
Smith and others say a one-time amount of $500,000 isn't enough. They want a fair share of the Portland city budget.
There has been some progress. For the first time in the city's history, the budget will be broken down by geographic spending. Before this year, there was no way to track exactly how much city money was spent in any specific part of the city. But it's obvious how much city money has been spent in East Portland in the past 20 years: not enough.
Rich Rodgers was a policy advisor to former Commissioner Erik Sten, who worked on a deal to spend downtown urban renewal money in East Portland (the plan is now embroiled in a lawsuit). In Rodgers' view, the lack of parks and sidewalks leads to serious problems like crime and dangerous roads.
"All the stuff that goes on in the center of the city is very visible—it gets written up in the New York Times," says Rodgers. "But once you get east of 82nd, it's 'out of sight, out of mind.'"
Neighborhood leaders say people who are gentrified out of inner Portland have moved en masse into the numerous new cheap apartments in East Portland. David Douglas School District has increased enrollment 30 percent since 1995, according to school board member Annette Mattson, and the number of kids in school who qualify for free or reduced lunch has risen to 75 percent. Even Street Roots, the downtown-based homeless newspaper, has opened up a branch office in East Portland to be closer to its numerous vendors who live beyond sight of Portland's skyline.
"The rest of the city is still learning that ground zero for social justice is 82nd Avenue," says Representative Smith as he drives parallel to the MAX Blue Line past strips of drab apartment complexes with names like El-Ti-Kee and Beavercrest. There are about 5,400 people who live in this neighborhood near 162nd Avenue, says Smith, and the police responded to a whopping 3,300 calls here last year.
As for the amount of money East Portland received from President Obama's stimulus plan—well, that depends on whom you ask. An initial review of projects by Rose Community Development Executive Director Nick Sauvie showed just .6 percent of the stimulus was spent east of 82nd Avenue. The mayor's office responded with its own analysis showing 10 percent—but Sauvie quickly pointed out that they reached that number by including a housing project in Troutdale.
Mayor Sam Adams now admits the inclusion of the Troutdale project was a mistake, but says it's wrong to blame his office for the lack of stimulus spending in East Portland. The kind of shovel-ready projects that qualified for federal funds needed years of backend planning work which East Portland was lacking.
"Every part of the city has improved in terms of the rate of poverty, except for East Portland," says Adams, who says that the city is doing its best to play catch-up. "The county did not invest in basic infrastructure."