You wake up to the boom of a car stereo or the smell of cigarette smoke wafting through the back bedroom window. Aggressive drivers rev their engines and honk their horns. It sounds like rush hour, but it’s 6 AM, and this is the destination.
All-day long, looking outside is like playing bingo. Across, the headings are categories like violence, drugs, sex, vandalism, and driving.
Down, the squares are qualified by whether the act is happening on the street, on private property, or with a weapon. A man walks down the street toting a club, a group of people get high on your neighbor’s porch, a woman squats on your car’s bumper to relieve herself, and traffic spasms as it backs up for a deal in the middle of the street, then a sports car races away. It’s an easy five in a row, yet nobody wins.
None of this is a secret. Civic leaders and police are aware. It is in the plain sight of any passerby, churchgoer, or child playing at the Montessori, ironically in the shade of trees the city won’t permit to be cut down.
Pleasure ends where business begins. You see it in the age-worn faces selling narcotics and their bodies in front of your home every day. It’s just like my touring musician friends say: sex, drugs, and rock & roll aren’t everything.
The business has been hard on your neighbors, too. Many plan their comings and goings around not being caught in the middle, if not the outright targets, of the harassment and violence near Dawson Park that has taken at least two lives since December. Their properties are dumping grounds for condoms, drug paraphernalia like syringes, and human waste. Polite requests for quiet at decent hours lead to physical confrontation. Some are intimidated out of looking through open blinds. Their basic liberties are challenged every day and into the night.
Compassion and empathy have their place. For one person, it’s because you know they’re being exploited. For another, it’s because they disappear for months, then turn up elsewhere in town living on the street. I’m haunted by cries of “pull the trigger, I don’t give a fuck.” Every day is like watching people drown.
Compassion and empathy also have limits. You can’t say people don’t know better: they’ll tell you they do. You can’t say there’s nowhere else to go: sometimes the park is empty, or pushers complain about having to deliver on foot in icy weather. If people aren’t comfortable in Dawson Park anymore, then fix the park! Gathering a block away from its public comforts and facilities isn’t the answer for anybody. We all deserve better.
These issues didn’t start with COVID; that’s just when they got out of hand. It shows in the turnover, where a once stable group of residents has become an exodus: from the nine homes nearest the park and facing the street; seven households moved out in the last year. The following is a collection of quotes from people who recently left Eliot for good and were willing to talk about it:
“[B]eing away has been very nice. I go on walks with my dog at night now… [living on Stanton] was one of the toughest years.”
“It’s definitely been a life-changing experience living in relative peace and solitude [in inner SE Portland]. Anyone that lives on Stanton and [in] Eliot neighborhood is getting a raw deal.”
“[I’m] currently in a [nearby rental]… I don’t walk south of Fremont anymore, with the exception of New Seasons. Just a little too traumatized by our experiences….”
Defund, and other schools of thought believe that incarceration and violent police action won’t fundamentally solve anything. I, with a family involved in criminal justice reform, am inclined to agree. However, citizen interventions like basic cleanup prove dangerous and ineffective. The city’s new Street Response Team neither serves Eliot nor responds to incidents with weapons. Community reinvestment, if successful, will take longer than some of your neighbors have to live. Long-term solutions are important, but your past and present neighbors—Black and other POC, LGBT, children, elderly, economically displaced, and immigrants—need relief with the methods available today.
Alas, nobody knows what those methods are. We can’t talk about them until the press, law enforcement, or leaders—at any level—listen and understand. Your neighborhood paper is the first to even start this long-overdue conversation. We pray it won’t be the last.