A Celebration of the life of Mary McConnell will be held Saturday, April 28,
at The Newman Center, Portland, Oregon
Mary, a chef, is survived by her parents and two sisters.
On a gray November day, I set out from my parents’ home on the flank of Mount Tabor in Southeast Portland and head west onto the flats, toward the Willamette River and the freeway out of town. Somewhere near my old high school I take a detour, up the winding roads leading away from downtown, past the old-money houses of the West Hills, over the Vista Bridge and up to Council Crest, a concrete-topped grassy mound overlooking the city. Looking east from the viewpoint at the summit, you can see almost all of Portland.
It is a view I have not seen in nearly two decades. Twenty years ago, my sister Mary died on that hilltop, and I haven’t had the courage to return until now. Today, I am driven here by an urge to test the fragile boundaries of my recovery from the loss, the extent to which I had been able to move on. I am driven, also, by an aching need to reconnect with a sister I last saw when she dropped me off at school that day in April, calling out, “I love you” as she pulled away from the curb. It is time for me to face the Portland of my past.
The history of Council Crest is disputed. Local legend claims the lookout received its name after its early use as a meeting place for the local Native American tribal councils, but in truth the name refers to the Triennial Council of Congregational Churches which met there in 1898. Despite this principled beginning, the virtuous days of Council Crest were short-lived. By 1907 it was the site of an amusement park and dance hall open every night except Sunday and billed as “Pleasure Park—The Dreamland of the Pacific Northwest.” Its popularity persisted for decades; a 1925 newspaper ad for the hall still encouraged Portlanders to “Get that healthy, happy Crest feeling!” Council Crest was the place to be, especially if you were looking for a good time.
Not a lot has changed over the years.
By the time I was in high school in the early 1990s, Council Crest was well known as a popular place for kids to party at night, away from the prying eyes of parents. The low, circular stone wall surrounding the lookout made a perfect place for us to hang out, drink beer, behave badly, and break rules, especially after dark. Most weekends and many weeknights, you could find at least one group of kids hanging around, smoking pot in the secluded corners and forested nooks that ring the viewpoint, playing music from their cars, and getting into harmless trouble.
We were not alone. Regardless of time or day, we had company, and not just joggers, bird watchers, and families. Mixed among us were couples playing out illicit affairs, prostitutes with their johns, and the proprietors and clients of Portland’s robust and obvious drug trade. There were cars that sat idling until speeding off after a quick exchange, junkies napping on benches, the occasional needle. We never really thought about it. It seemed normal. The view from Council Crest seemed to demand intoxication.
At 1,073 feet above sea level, Council Crest is the highest point in Portland. It is a comparatively small park, occupying just forty-three steep acres of land, but it has persisted for over a century as one of the most popular green spaces in the city on the weight of the view alone. On a clear day when the sun is shining you have a 360-degree view of five Cascade peaks and more than three thousand square miles of Northwest territory. You can look down onto the crowded almost-skyscrapers of Portland’s business district, across the river to the squat brown-box buildings of the eastside industrial area and the boutique and brewpub-lined blocks of Hawthorne Boulevard that lead up to Mount Tabor, the small volcano that sits squarely opposite Council Crest, my parent’s house perched on one side, the reservoirs that once held the city’s drinking water on the other. On a clear day, Portland shines a glimmering green and the light reflects off the Willamette River towards Council Crest, resting above the city like a pristine jewel.
It was a clear day, a sunny Easter-week morning, when Mary dropped me off at school, drove up into the hills, walked into the park at Council Crest, wrote a suicide note, and overdosed on heroin. Her body was found two days later, on Sunday morning, by a little girl on an Easter egg hunt. For us, my family, it was the end of a long personal tragedy of detox, treatment and rehabilitation programs, halfway houses, and arrests. For Portland, it was one more sad addition to the city’s thirty-year overdose epidemic.
Looking down from Council Crest in the 1990s, it was hard to imagine that Portland had a drug problem. The city projected the image of a hip, artsy, and educated metropolis in the trees, a clean and well-planned place inhabited by healthy, attractive people, known for their harmless eccentricities, eclectic restaurants, and taste for craft beers. But the drugs were there. Portland’s addictions were rarely discussed with any frankness, and never with respect to the high-end habits of the city’s upper class.
Though I walked through downtown to school every day, I was never approached by a single drug dealer. When I made the same walk with my sister, we were offered drugs three times in a single block of Broadway. Mary shrugged it off as dealers being able to spot an addict a mile away, but it opened my eyes. In Portland, heroin was as easy to buy as lattes, if you knew where to look.
My sister, like most addicts, was part of two worlds, two Portlands. A well-known chef in the ever-trendy northwest neighborhood that sits at the base of the West Hills, she was at the center of the proto-hipster scene of the eighties and nineties. She described the time as being heady and laden with drugs; it was common for her to be tipped with cocaine on a Saturday night. A week after her arrival home from a job in New York to detox for the first time, I opened the paper to a column celebrating her return to the Portland restaurant scene. She was at the forefront of the celebrity-chef movement, and the phone had been ringing for days with restaurants eager to offer her a job. In those conversations the reasons for her return and the conditions of her rehabilitation were never discussed.
In 1990s Portland, drugs and money ran downhill like water, toward the Willamette. Like Mary, most people who could afford to didn’t buy drugs on the street. She usually got her drugs at bars and restaurants through an open network of people in the scene fueled by salon dealers based out of their houses in the hills. One cocaine ring operated for years, delivering drugs on demand out of expensive cars in the parking lot of a high-end grocery store, before being busted in a sting operation. The farther you got from the hills, the less glamorous the scene became. When Mary was finally arrested for possession, it was one mile away, on lower Burnside Street, one block from the river. Burnside was, and still is, where people go to hit bottom when they have run out of fancy friends and money. Their desperation makes them the easiest pickings for law enforcement.
Mary was thirty years old when she died, statistically average for a heroin user in Portland. And she wasn’t alone. Heroin-related deaths in Portland rose six hundred percent in the ’90s and have spiked to those levels again in the past decade. Part of this is due to geography. Black-tar heroin moves quickly up the I-5 corridor from Mexico, and Portland serves as a primary distribution point for the rest of the country. This matters to heroin addicts, because it makes for a lot of variation in potency. You never know what you are going to get, so it is easy to accidentally overdose on Portland heroin. For other addicts, like Mary, overdose is not accidental. Portland’s suicide rate is among the highest in the nation.
A lot of those suicides happen in the West Hills, many of them from the Vista Bridge, which I crossed on my way to Council Crest. Perhaps this is because of the area’s combination of beauty and solitude, the same reasons people go there to drink and get high in the first place. So, Council Crest closes at midnight, when a city worker arrives and shuts the big metal gate that swings across the access road. Ironically, it is exactly this security precaution that makes it such a great place to party. The closed road forces you to park in the neighborhood, blending your car into the mix on the surrounding residential streets, and arriving on foot makes you all but invisible once you walk past the gate. With the road blocked, the beat cops can’t drive in either, and they are disinclined to walk the quarter mile uphill. Once the gate closes, there is no one to see you. And in Portland, what isn’t seen, doesn’t need to change.
On the day I finally return to Council Crest, the mountains are obscured and a bracing east wind drives the rain into the windshield. I arrive mid-morning on a weekday in the hopes of having the place to myself. When I first pull up there is one young family making an effort at a picnic. I walk the long way around the road and by the time I reach the summit the family has retreated to the car, the heat from their bodies already covering the windows with steam. The water tower looms above me. When I reach the viewing platform, I look down at the plaque pointing out the peaks. I stand with my feet pointing to Mount St. Helens and peer into the rain. I see nothing but a wall of gray clouds. I try to imagine the view as it was when Mary ended her life. It must have been breathtaking—the trees leafing out and trillium blooming along the trails. She would have been able to see the mountains. There must have been others in the park on that day, people walking dogs, joggers passing through. I wonder if they saw her there, if she was a part of their view from the crest, if to them she looked like a chef or a junkie. I imagine that either way, they were all minding their own business. In Portland, in the hills, it is assumed that people will mind their business.
I pace the lookout in a slow circle, framing the scene. To one side of the grassy rise is a bronze statue commissioned by the city in 1956, a scant ten years before Mary was born. I stand looking up at it from its base. It depicts a mother and child, suspended in a moment of joy and play, the mother floating the child in the air above her head, his arms and legs outstretched as if in flight. It reminds me intensely of innocence.
But everything at Council Crest has a dark history. In 1990, after thirty-four years of flying above the city, the statue was stolen, the mother’s legs cut below the knees and the whole piece hauled off in a long and laborious late-night caper. It was recovered two days later, found in the basement of a Northeast Portland house by police responding to an anonymous tip, and returned to the park. I inspect the mother’s legs, looking for signs of her ordeal, but there is nothing, and no mention of the incident on the plaque, the past erased, sanded smooth. You would never know to look at it.
Behind me, a car with tinted windows pulls into the parking strip and sits in idle; maybe a chef, maybe a junkie. I stare out at the view for a moment, the gray clouds sitting low enough to hide any changes made to the skyline in the intervening years. But things have changed. Now, the opioid crisis is everywhere. Unconfined to back alleys and city parks, it fills the streets with homelessness, the hospitals with overdoses, and quietly dozes in middle-class living rooms. I squint into the gray, trying to envision a future under sunnier skies, a paradise unpaved, where public art is brightly colored, children play undisturbed in the long grass, and food flows downhill like water from a community garden atop Council Crest to the people below. But the vision fades and I turn and walk away from the present tableau; leaving all of them: the family at its picnic, the crippled mother and her flying child, the junkie and the chef, behind me on the hill. Perhaps in another twenty years I will finally get a different view from Council Crest.
3 comments have been posted.
I loved your sister. Each April I relive that Easter morning weeding the cul-de-sac of our home when the police car drove up and asked if we knew the person in the photo. I was devastated. We had been so worried about her because she had been missing a few days but never expected such a tragic outcome. Or maybe we did, having experienced an earlier attempt with her ending up at Legacy Good Sam. She could burst with life and have you laughing one minute and then worried the next. She was a remarkable human being who lost the fight with her demons.
Earlene Holmstrom | May 2020 | VANCOUVER
Julia Park Tracey | May 2020 | Grass Valley
Hi Ruby( i knew you as siobhan) This is an amazing essay- I think about Mary alot with deep love and miss her so much. I just happened to find this article and wanted to thank you. We are friends on social media but wanted to reach out in a more personal way. thank you again and much love, Felipa
felipa lopez | April 2020 |