When I first arrived in the States, in Portland, I observed an unquestioned worship of property: “my own little patch of grass,” the American Dream. American property worship plays out in a number of ways: aspiration to homeownership, xenophobic rhetoric about people “not from here moving here,” attachment to single-family homes, and proprietary protectionism and paranoia even around curb space. I’ve seen residents call police, thump on doors, storm through yards and yell across the tops of cars regarding parking spaces. I’ve seen front-porch vigilantes stand to attention when a bumper crosses into a driveway, even for a moment. And we have all seen makeshift signs policing people’s driving.
When you hear about nationalism, you may think of Trumpism, of anti-immigrant sentiment, but I bet you never think of yourself, of Portland. I wonder often about the pro-nature dogma, the cedar and mountain pride, the shoe-and-backpack consumerism entwined with suiting up for a thirty-minute “hike,” or swallowing nature like a fusion chimichanga sushi burrito. The regionalism so many people in Oregon espouse sounds a lot like localized nationalism to me. Its rhetoric can be easily weaponized to promote exclusion.
When I first moved here, I heard punk bands and news articles and radio announcements spouting “Don’t Move Here.” I still hear people sport the title of “Portland Native” like a huge, shiny badge, with no thought for how claiming this status makes people who are actually Native invisible. I usually respond with, “Ahh, your family is indigenous to this region?”, to which I receive a scoff or an eye roll.
This anti-outsider vibe and the erasure of the rightful owners of the land our city occupies are reminiscent of the blatant, glistening white supremacy I grew up around in Australia. In Portland, it’s cool to be pro-immigrant but hate people moving here. It’s hip to protest a border wall but definitely not want more people visiting the Gorge than already are. We all know cultural appropriation isn’t cool, but we will twerk around our white friends. We brag about our tolerance or liberalism while simultaneously shaming a Thai restaurant for its “tacky” (read: traditional) décor and rewarding the same cuisine packaged in the white upper-class aesthetics of hardwoods and Mason jar light fixtures. Portland is built upon and continues its legacy of exclusion, classism, and racism, thinly cloaked by declarations of good intention and the mantra of “I’m a nice person.”
One way to lessen the exclusionary harm of Portland’s obsession with single-family dwellings, spacious yards, and parking room is to move toward social acceptance of ecological, high density living. The acreage chase and materialism so unique to this city and this nation has resulted in a quick rejection of what many populous cities have embraced to accommodate for growing numbers of inhabitants: high and medium density housing. The lack of analysis and high-density criteria in Portland’s regulation of development and construction is mind-boggling. Minimum ecological requirements are not included with most new development proposals. High statistics of unsheltered houseless individuals—including children, even during snowy nights—matter less than building more single-family dwellings. It is no coincidence that tall apartment buildings that do get built in Portland are openly mocked—it is inherent in the proprietary nature of the city’s consumers to oppose density.
If we look to other cities, countries, cultures, and continents for cues, we see a normalization of smaller dwellings, studio apartments, shared facilities. Less of what North Americans might call personal property or privacy. More of a collectivist cohabitation. There is a shared understanding in parts of South East Asian cities that this is how inhabitants live so everyone can have a home. When I think about what it means to be “American” I relate it to generating unnecessary waste, owning at least one vehicle, and having a five thousand square-foot house. As a Southeast Asian person, my cultural personal space is elbows and knees touching, multiple people to a room, intergenerational and multifamily dwellings.
We can wax lyrical about equity in so many ways, but as a city and as individuals if we don’t adapt culturally, if we don’t shift toward a more international model of living alongside each other, then we can no longer look externally for scapegoats for the city’s housing crisis. We must reframe the complaints about Californians moving to Oregon and the terrible traffic. We have the opportunity to rethink the potential of the tracts of space we already have and the models we currently use to move, transport and house ourselves: one tiny human per large car, truck, or house. How do we use those “Old Portland” ideals—the communalism and ride-sharing I encountered organizing with anarchists and DIY punks in North Portland fifteen years ago—to reconsider how we think of housing, land, and living?
9 comments have been posted.
Thank you for writing this article! We need more pieces like this that shine light on the dissonance in the NW between "all are welcome here" yard signs and opposition to smaller-scale and larger-scale multi-family housing. Of course densification on its own doesn't always improve affordability (and this article doesn't suggest it does), but single-family detached residential zoning began as a tool of racial and economic exclusion and it continues to be one of the most powerful drivers of racial and economic oppression in the country--and of housing scarcity and inflated home prices and rents. For commentators who criticize this article, it doesn't have to be wrong for your points to be right. There are ways to promote affordable multifamily rental and ownership options in traditionally exclusive neighborhoods (which will usually mean increased density), while at the same time preventing affordable older homes (do these exist in Portland?!) from being torn down and turned into higher end condos and short term rentals.
Sarah Adams-Schoen | December 2020 | Eugene, OR
Brilliant! According to this author, pride in our hometown is now thoughtcrime. This is exactly the kind of flimsy neoliberal extremist "logic" that will drive moderates to the right in 2020.
Alejandra | August 2019 | Portland, Oregon
If you care about the city's carbon emissions, look at the layout of buildings. Transportation is 40% of our emissions, and people who live in denser areas contribute a lot less than those in more spread-out areas. Plus, people want to live close to downtown and inner city areas. Why not let them do so, and reduce their carbon footprint as well?
Doug Klotz | August 2019 |
Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is a message that is urgently needed, and I'm deeply grateful that you wrote this.
Aaron Brown | August 2019 | Portland
This article uses xenophobia (which does exist here) to say we need high-density housing. It's a flawed and kind of bizarre argument. As Jacquie wrote above, higher density does not make anything better -- not the way it's being constructed here anyway. Developers are having a field day -- they're tearing down affordable smaller homes and duplexes and putting up large, modern, ridiculously priced ($700 - $900 K) duplexes or quads. How on earth does this help anyone except wealthy outsiders? I'm disappointed that Oregon Humanities would publish this piece. Are the author and site editors happy with what they see happening in Portland, development-wise? Do they not see that lower-cost homes and rentals are being torn down or turned into full-time Airbnb units? That's the larger issue at play in Portland right now.
Mary | August 2019 |
Your article is so important and meaningful to this 12 year Bendite. I too am in love with the idea of a home and large lot for gardening and all kinds of domestic activities. And I agree wholeheartedly that using the term Native Oregonian or anything like it is culturally insensitive and contributes to the social frustrations felt by so many as our cities grow in population. We cannot put ourselves in league with the actual Indigenous Peoples, no matter how our social circumstances or income level has affected our quality of life. I am a very average American and I'm also 1/8 Pit River (enrolled and knowledgeable of my heritage), this is a hidden tribe of Warm Springs and other Oregon tribes. Our tribal family is from far Northern California and is known here in Oregon as one of the "slave" peoples, captured near Mt. Shasta and then traded along with salmon as part of the great Columbia River (N'Chi Wana) economic trade sphere. And yet, I am not Native Oregonian and would not presume to call myself this. I don't consider myself Native Californian either, I'm just a human being inhabiting earth for a short time. High density housing may or may not cure our housing issues, but smart growth that limits impact on especially sensitive and important ecological systems (like rivers and water ways) should be at the top of our concerns. We have only one mother earth.
Justine Lowry | August 2019 | Bend, OR
Portland has always had a huge problem with classism. From the wealthy white folks who live in the hills. I’ve lived in Portland since I was 8 months old and we moved from Baker, Oregon to Portland in 1966. That’s over 50 years. I’ve dealt with the classism of these people my entire life. And I call myself a Native Portlander, yes, I do. Why? To distinguish myself from the many out of staters who move here, and act like I am not important or that I have no history in my own hometown. Does this mean I’m taking power away from Native American populations? Not at all. Should I be made to feel guilty because of my identification as a “Portland Native” for any reason? No, I shouldn’t. Because sharing that I’m a Portland Native is in no means an attempt to shame, control or displace any persons from the Native American populations in Portland. I grew up with them in NW Portland, and one thing we had in common was that if you were a Native American, or a poor white, in Portland in the late 60s or early 70s? You were regarded as equally worthless, and equally invisible. These are things many people with limited history in Portland will ever truly understand. Because they didn’t grow up here. That’s the point. As to space and learning to live together with less, I remember times when families, including Native American families had good size houses, with enough space, and people weren’t fighting over someone walking on your driveway or pulling into your driveway. That kind of hostile territorial attitude didn’t come about until housing became hard to come by in only the last few years. And the congestion and condensed living spaces ( lack of space) also brings with it all kinds of other issues, like more mental illness, depression, gentrification for lower income folks of all color, crime, and drug addiction. This is a good article with many good points, but it’s also making some rather large presumptions too. This is a far more complex issue. And people who identify as Native Portlanders are NOT using that moniker yo dehumanize or silence the Native Americans in this state, but merely to hold onto their own lifelong history in their own beloved state. There is nothing inherently wrong or immoral about doing that, particularly if it harms no one. No one gets this better than a Native Portlander. When you’re made to feel less than by the white rich who live in the hills. The Portlanders with the real power, when you’ve lived in Portland your entire life, as a poor white person, there’s really nothing morally wrong with this tiny part of personal identification, and when you’re attacked for it, it just becomes another way someone else can say, “You know what? You don’t belong here either.” Would have been great if the author of this article or opinion piece had talked to some people about their views, including Native Americans and white people, who have lived here their whole lives.
Theresa Kennedy DuPay | August 2019 |
Increasing density doesn’t magically increase affordability. Where I live in NE Portland, increasing density has accelerated both gentrification and the displacement of lower-income renters. In this area, two houses and ADUs are already allowed on every 5,000 square foot lot — the zoning is R2.5. Developers are currently demolishing the most affordable houses here, which are typically rentals, and replacing them with market-rate duplexes, often with built in ADUs (which realtors describe as “perfect for AirBnb”). Each side of these new duplexes is selling for well over $700K, sometimes much higher.
Jacquie | July 2019 | Portland, Oregon
Anna, I applaud your article. I live in southeast Portland, near Providence Hospital. The attitude in my neighborhood toward building "shotgun" houses and other homes that contribute to greater density has been difficult to listen to sometimes. I often hear the word "renter" said in a disparaging tone of voice, which is difficult to listen to, given that many of us will never be able to be homeowners (including me). Renters are typified as somehow less responsible, less successful and more likely to despoil the property they occupy. Even though I observe some pretty eccentric owners that seem to live in an untidy and inconsiderate manner. Thank you for calling attention to these attitudes in such an uncompromising way. I would not have had the guts, nor could I have said it as well. And thank you, Oregon Humanities Magazine, for publishing this frank and honest essay that calls out the elitism that is also Portland.
Josephine Cooper | July 2019 | Portland, OR