ONE WAY to think of 2016 is as a sort of fast moving glacier: It trudged through our every shred of faith in humanity like so much igneous rock, and left shit and tears in its wake instead of glorious rivers.
But, good news! We checked, and while 2016 was plenty dire in Portland, compared to much of the rest of the world, this town was basically Peanut Acres in Candy Land (which makes Charlie Hales “Gramma Nutt”).
Sure, things blew up (literally and figuratively), we inhaled arsenic, and too many people died in traffic. But the year contained some good, too.
Here, as every year, is our rundown of 2016’s top stories.
A Fucking Oil Train Exploded
In June, 16 cars of a massive oil train passing through the small town of Mosier in the Columbia River Gorge derailed, sparking an explosion that sent fire and smoke into the sky and town residents from their homes. It was bad—really bad—but it could have been much worse; nobody died, and oil was largely kept out of the Columbia River. The feds blamed the incident on Union Pacific Railroad’s “failure to maintain its track and track equipment.” More specifically, bolts had broken on the track, and the railroad failed to detect them.
Also: A Fucking Building Exploded
Then In October, an entire building exploded in Northwest Portland. Amazingly, nobody died thanks to quick-acting Portland firefighters who evacuated everybody after reports of a gas leak. The explosion leveled Portland Bagelworks and damaged other buildings at the corner of NW 23rd and Glisan. A NW Natural subcontractor took responsibility for causing the leak. Portland firefighter Lt. Peter St. John—hospitalized after the blast—was credited with saving untold lives by shooing people away.
Terminal 1 Sizzles, then Fizzles
This summer, the city became briefly obsessed with a gritty, 14.5-acre piece of property just north of the Pearl District. The city’s Bureau of Environmental Services had been prepping to sell off the plot—Terminal 1—to the highest bidder. But with developer Homer Williams’ sudden calls to instead turn the land into a massive homeless campus, all that was put on hold. Portland City Council took the extraordinary step of moving forward with a shelter on the site—over the objections of Commissioner Nick Fish, who runs BES and was trying to offload the land. Although many saw flaws in the plan, the controversy could have marked a point of historic private-sector investment in the city’s homelessness crisis. Instead, it fizzled. Williams and his cohort couldn’t find a shelter operator that met Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s standards, the proposal faltered, and now it looks like Terminal 1 will be sold in the very near future.
A Bad Year for Homeless Camps
Mayor Charlie Hales may forever be remembered as the mayor who “legalized” homeless camping. In February, facing an increase in visible camps around town, Hales introduced a policy that created exceptions to the city’s blanket anti-camping ordinance—spurring outcry. When business groups filed a lawsuit, and camps along the Springwater Corridor exploded in number, Hales was forced to pull back and admit the effort had been a failure. The mayor was also stymied in his efforts to move the respected homeless rest area Right 2 Dream Too to the city’s Central Eastside, when a business coalition prevailed before a state land-use board. Hales considers that defeat among his most bitter failures in office, and as we enter 2017, R2DToo’s future is in question.
Ammon Bundy Got Away with It
Ammon Bundy and his armed crew took over a federal wildlife refuge in Harney County for 41 days at the outset of 2016. It was covered as intensely and thoroughly as possible—yet somehow Bundy will face no consequences. After a trial in downtown Portland this fall, Bundy and six others were acquitted by a jury on all counts. It was a huge blow to the US Attorney’s Office, which was promptly accused of overreaching by prosecuting the group for “conspiracy” instead of potential slam dunks like criminal trespass and destruction of property. Others blamed the jury for favoring the mostly-white defendants. Either way, it was ridiculous.
The Police Chief Shot a Guy
The city’s now-former top cop, Larry O’Dea, accidentally shot a friend in the back during an allegedly drunken camping trip in Eastern Oregon. The shooting was kept secret for nearly a month—including, controversially, from the city’s Independent Police Review. O’Dea retired weeks after the news became public, and was later charged with “negligently wounding another,” which he’s fighting in court by saying it’s an unconstitutionally vague accusation. Mike Marshman, who’s been with the bureau since 1991, is the city’s new chief.
The Notorious Water Toss Incident
The March 30 meeting of the Citizen Review Committee (CRC)—which hears appeals from people unhappy with how the Portland cops handled their complaints—was particularly raucous and nutty. After some in the crowd mocked the police continually, an activist walked on stage and tossed a full glass of water in the face of one CRC member who sided with the cops that night. The dousing led the police bureau to temporarily boycott future meetings, citing “workplace harassment,” “disrespect,” and security concerns. The CRC eventually voted to legally force the cops to show up. The water tosser, Charles Johnson, was convicted of harassment and spent a few days in jail.
Bullseye in the Crosshairs
Portland learned more than it ever wanted to about how stained glass is created, when the Mercury broke news that officials had found alarming levels of heavy metals in the air near Southeast Portland’s Bullseye Glass. The ensuing outcry—from concerned neighbors, parents whose kids attended a nearby day care, and lots of other people—was made worse, when it turned out the state had allowed Bullseye to melt arsenic, cadmium, and other dangerous metals for years without a robust filtration system. Eventually officials acknowledged those filters were required by federal regulations. The scandal led to new safeguards on glass furnaces in the state—rules that were partly responsible for the announcement in September that North Portland’s Uroboros Glass would be closing next year. Bullseye continues to operate.
PPS Has a Health Crisis of Its Own
As if glass factory emissions weren’t enough, Portland discovered this summer that many of its schoolchildren had been exposed to lead-tinged water for years. The crisis started relatively small, with a May report in the Oregonian that water tests in two Portland Public Schools had come back showing unsafe levels of lead. Several months and a bunch of tests later, it turned out pretty much every PPS facility had similar problems, and that officials were also concerned about high radon levels. Today, drinking fountains and sinks in PPS facilities have been either shut off or flagged with a warning sign, kids are instead drinking bottled water, and former Superintendent Carole Smith has been sent packing.
See Ya, Staton
With scandal upon scandal piling up, and increasingly loud calls for him to go, Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton finally called it quits in May. All it took were tort claims by high-ranking employees alleging retaliation and a terrible work environment, threats of violence against staff, a criminal probe by the Oregon Department of Justice, news that he bought yet another expensive personal car with taxpayer money, and a no-confidence vote from the largest county employee union. Former Portland Police Chief Mike Reese took over this summer, and was formally elected to the position in November. He’s kept a lower profile so far.
When snow and ice crippled Portland earlier this month, an enterprising few found a convenient mode of transport on snarled roads. They hopped on the wide-tired, speed-averse rental bikes available all through the center city, and made their way home. Biketown, Portland’s much-awaited, Nike-bankrolled bike share system, finally came online in July. The fleet of 1,000 highlighter-orange tanks quickly saw widespread use—and some very persistent gripes from folks who didn’t want to see parking spaces given over to bicycles. Today, the novelty and rage have probably dimmed for most people (even if that glaring orange paint hasn’t), which is how it should be. Biketown is a transportation option meant to open up this city in ways too many people haven’t considered, and it seems to be doing just fine—even if the occasional bike does end up getting locked in a tree.
New Council Takes Shape
Portland voters anointed two new members of the city council this year—though their paths to office could hardly have been more different. First we elected millionare Ted Wheeler—former Multnomah County chair, current state treasurer, and acquaintance to many of the moneyed power players that help bankroll elections in this city. Wheeler had been a frontrunner for the mayor’s office ever since his candidacy sent Mayor Charlie Hales packing in October 2015. A robust slate of candidates in the primary—including a seasoned politician in County Commissioner Jules Bailey—didn’t change that dynamic. Wheeler dominated on the campaign trail and took the race easily. Then there was Chloe Eudaly, the bookstore owner and renters’ rights activist who almost didn’t even make it to the November runoff against Commissioner Steve Novick (another candidate, Stuart Emmons, nearly secured that spot). Eudaly looked like an underdog the whole race—particularly since she was at a massive fundraising disadvantage. But Novick’s past perceived transgressions commingled with the country’s overwhelming demands for change, and Eudaly won by a comfortable margin. It’s the first time an incumbent commissioner has lost since 1992.
Paving at the Pump
One consolation for Novick as he moves onto his next pursuit: He accomplished something scads of Portland officials found impossible. In May, Novick led a diverse coalition urging Portlanders to pass a 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax that will help dig us out of the massive backlog of maintenance projects and safety improvements needed on city streets. The victory meant Novick had succeeded where politicos like Charlie Hales (during his time as a city commissioner) and former Mayor Sam Adams had failed. Both men had floated proposals to wrangle transportation money, only to be rebuffed. But for Novick, the funding push might have been something of a pyrrhic victory. His early, aggressive push for a “street fee” made him a heel in the eyes of some voters, and no doubt played a role in the loss of his city council seat.
Portlanders dumped pretty much whatever they pleased into the Willamette River for more than a century, so it wasn’t too big a shock earlier this millennium when federal officials named the Portland Harbor a massively polluted Superfund site. It’s not the water that’s the problem so much as the highly toxic sediment at the bottom lying in wait to be Hoovered up by unsuspecting fish species. And this year, as the feds finally released a proposal to clean up the Portland Harbor, environmental activists and river polluters both found a reason to gripe. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled a scheme that would leave 87 percent of the polluted area untouched, enraging environmentalists. Even so, its plan included provisions that the polluters think went too far, ratcheting up costs. Of course, it’s possible none of this will matter. The EPA under Donald Trump might soon morph into an unrecognizable monstrosity (not unlike those Willamette River fish, we assume).
Portland made history this year when a Multnomah County judge apparently became the first in the country to approve a transgender Portlander’s official gender designation as “non-binary.” The request for the change came from Jamie Shupe, an Army veteran who began transitioning from male to female in 2013. At some point during that process, Shupe decided to instead request “non-binary” as a legal gender designation, as opposed to “female.” And in June, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Amy Holmes approved the switch, in what Shupe’s attorney described as a quick hearing. The ruling comes as transgender citizens around the country are pushing for more inclusive laws and policies that are reflective of their needs. And it’s already got the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles mulling whether to allow designations besides male and female on state-issued IDs.
“He’s Got a Gun”
Screams of “He’s got a gun!” erupted in July as a local right-wing troll/videographer pulled out a loaded handgun and aimed it at protesters who had gathered downtown in the wake of high-profile police killings in Louisiana and Minnesota. Michael Strickland—who shows up to “liberal” events around town to mock people for his “Laughing at Liberals” YouTube page—said at the time he felt threatened by the crowd. The 36-year-old was charged with 10 counts of unlawful use of a weapon, 10 counts of menacing, and disorderly conduct. He has yet to stand trial on those charges.
A Hate Crime in Gresham
Gresham was the scene of an alleged murderous hate crime in August, as a white supremacist named Russell Courtier and his girlfriend ran over and killed a fleeing a 19-year-old African American man named Larnell Bruce, after an altercation at a nearby 7-Eleven. Courtier is a career criminal and a documented member of the European Kindred (EK), a white supremacist prison gang. He was re-indicted for murder with additional hate crime counts after the Mercury obtained and revealed Oregon prison records showing he’s been an EK member for at least 12 years.
Cops Get a Raise!
Staffing troubles plague the Portland Police Bureau. More cops are quitting or retiring than the city’s able to hire, leading the bureau to shift officers from gang patrol and traffic duty just so there’s enough cops to respond to 911 calls. A new contract for the Portland Police Association—the rank-and-file police union—aims to reverse the trend: Among other incentives, it offers members a 9 percent raise over three years and ratchets up starting pay for new hires. The contract, however, was passed under a cloud of controversy, as City Council voted behind closed doors and away from a crowd there to rally against the deal. Mayhem ensued.
Portlanders Don’t Like Donald Trump All That Much
In the days after voters in swing states elected a racist and sexist demagogue with no political experience, thousands of people flocked to the streets of Portland to march, chant, hold signs, and protest the president-elect. It was heated enough that Portland became the “epicenter” of anti-Trump protests around the country, according to the AP. Things got uncomfortable at times—a few people bashed windows in the Pearl District and windshields at a car dealership in the Lloyd District, leading to an official “riot” designation. More than 100 people were arrested over several protests. Mostly, though, this was good old-fashioned resistance. Expect more of the same in 2017.