Portland so progressive that it ignores issues of race?

A sociologist who teaches about race at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon suggests the city is comfortable discussing and dealing with a lot of issues but not so much when it comes to race:

Miller, who is writing a book tentatively titled “Blacklandia” about the racial awkwardness she’s observed in Portland, says the small black population in Multnomah County (5.7 percent) has made it too easy for white people to avoid ever having to mix with blacks, much less become comfortable with them…

Miller’s point isn’t that Portland is a particularly racist city. In fact, she doesn’t think that at all. But people here are so satisfied with their progressive self-images, she says, that they are neglecting issues that affect the black community. As a result, she says, Portland becomes a less livable city for everybody.

Miller says she’s constantly being reminded that whites here have a lot of bottled up feelings about race they’d like to get out of their system. But they don’t know how.

She spends a lot of time alone at local bars. Miller says they are great places to do sociological research. Often, white people in Portland who start chatting with her in bars learn she has a Ph.D. Invariably after that, Miller says, all they want to talk about is race, as if after a lifetime of searching they’ve finally found an educated black person to whom they can talk.

“I feel like Oprah,” Miller says. “I can’t even sit there and have a cocktail.”

I don’t think Portland, Oregon is the only place where it is difficult to have conversations about race. This is an American issue not just limited to places with relatively lower percentages of minorities.

Urban differences: Portland, Oregon has only one doorman

Here is an example of differences between cities: New York City is well known for its doormen but Portland, Oregon has only one.

[Richard] Littledyke, a tall, fair-skinned blonde of 28 years, has held doors open for Burlington residents for eight months. The previous doorman, Auggie Contreras, reluctantly vacated the position for a higher-paying bellhop gig at the Nines Hotel…

The Burlington Tower is Portland’s only residential building with a doorman. Other apartments have concierges and several hotels have bellhops at the front doors, but Littledyke is unique. Visitors to the area often use him as a landmark to find their parked car…

Both men said Portland’s lack of doormen probably comes down to the city’s size, age and housing stock.

In Portland, where far fewer people are cramped into limited space, people with extra money achieve status with a nice house and a well-groomed yard, Bearman says. New York’s cramped real estate requires doormen to serve the same purpose.

“They are tied into how to create elegance and luxury in apartment buildings, where space is limited,” Bearman says. “They also provide a bridge between the outside and the inside of a building that a yard serves to provide in a house.”

The explanation: when you have higher residential densities, more high-rise apartments or condos, and wealthier residents, doormen become more common as residents want to clearly signal their status and keep the outside world beyond the doors of their building. The suggestion here is that certain kinds of buildings lead to having doormen – I wonder if this is necessarily the case. Could there also be regional differences, places where it might be considered gauche to have a doorman? The article suggests several apartment buildings in Portland have concierges – how does this differ in the eyes of residents and others?

In defense of Portland

Mark Hemingway takes aim at Portland, Oregon in a long cover story in the Weekly Standard:

Unlike the New York Times, I write not to praise the place but to note the litany of things that plainly have gone wrong. Also to alert anyone else who’s listening: Right now, America’s civil and social engineers are beavering away trying to turn your city or town into the next Portlandia.

Mark’s piece is a rambling barrage that roughly summarizes as follows:

  1. Portland gets a lot of attention from the media, particularly the New York Times and via the TV show Portlandia (paragraphs 1-14).
  2. Portland is crazy-town (“quietly closing in on San Francisco as the American city that has most conspicuously taken leave of its senses”) (paragraphs 15-20)…
    1. …because of its development policies, particularly light rail (paragraphs 21-37);
    2. …because of its “generally hostile business climate” (paragraphs 38-53); and
    3. …because of its lax sexual mores (paragraphs 54-84).

A few thoughts re: development policies.  Mark suggests “[t]hings began to unravel in 1973, when the Oregon legislature required cities in the state to set development boundaries with the goal of preserving farmland.”  Portland responded by “cancel[ing] a major interstate freeway project” in order to start a light rail system.  Mark objects to this decision because (a) the light rail has low ridership (“It’s called ‘light’ rail not because the trains are less heavy, but because it’s more lightly used by the public than, say, New York’s subway or Washington, D.C.’s Metro”) and (b) it allowed “Oregon’s integrated land use and transportation planning system [to be] manipulated to award [a former-politician-turned-consultant’s] clients hundreds of millions in state and city contracts relating to light rail expansion and the accompanying high-density developments.”

While I’m certainly no expert on either Portland or light rail ridership statistics, a cursory web search turned up this Wikipedia article suggesting that Portland’s system ranks 4th in ridership among similar U.S. systems and ahead of (much larger) cities such as San Diego (5th), Philadelphia (6th), and Dallas (7th).  And as far as the revolving door between local politics, consultancies, and developers goes, it strikes me that this is a problem that has little to do with light rail as such.  The placement of new roads and highways is similarly susceptible to backroom-dealing that favors the wealthy and well-connected.  Mark makes no effort to explain why corruption (whether of the “small-c” or “big-C” variety) poses a bigger or more inherent problem with publicly funded mass transit projects (e.g., light rail) than with publicly funded car-based projects (e.g., highways), and I fail to see an argument so obvious that it needn’t be even implied (let alone spelled out).

A few thoughts re: Portland’s “generally hostile business climate.”  Mark begins by quoting extensively from a 2010 op-ed written by the chairman of Nike, a company started and headquartered in Portland, which opposed an increase being considered in the state income tax.  Whatever the merits or demerits of the tax increase or this two-year-old op-ed, it is hard to understand why Mark cites this as his leading example of Portland’s hostile business climate in particular rather than Oregon’s in general.

Worse, this op-ed is the closest Mark comes to criticizing Portland directly.  In the subsequent paragraphs, he (a) tells the story of his own grandparents as an example of the “upwardly mobile, working-class life now seems out of reach for much of the city,” (b) notes that income is unevenly distributed in Portland (“Don’t tell Portland’s scabies-infested Occupy camp, but between 1980 and 2007, the share of wealth earned by Portland’s middle quintile declined by about 20 percent, while the top 1 percent’s share doubled”), and (c) rises to defend “the traditional working class” from “the new hipsters.”

  • (A), the fact that the WWII generation could be both “upwardly mobile” and “working-class” is well documented, as is the fact that similar opportunities are vanishingly scarce for younger America today.  While I am certainly happy for Mark’s grandparents, it’s hard to imagine that today’s public school teacher and bus driver will, in 35 years, “retire to a farm…[and] rais[e] quarter horses.”  And it’s not likely that choosing to live in Peoria rather than Portland will make any difference.
  • (B), the fact that income is unevenly distributed in Portland only proves that Portland is normal relative to the rest of the U.S., not that it is a statistical outlier.  Moreover, without further explanation, it is unclear why Mark thinks uneven wealth distribution contributes to a “generally hostile business climate.”
  • (C), as his sole example of hipster-on-working-class attacks, Mark cites a five-year-old Willamette Week article which makes reference to “drunken red-neck[s].”  Apparently, Mark did not read the prologue to the article, which clarified that it was a humorous “series of bitter, petty, pessimistic rants that generally s**t on everything—and hopefully poke holes in the Portland hype” in order to “persuade prospective Portlanders not to crowd out our way of life for a little longer.”  Whatever one thinks of this brand of humor, it’s as surprising as it is clear that Mark missed this context and tone.

One final note.  Mark does begrudge respect to Portland’s small businesses, though he apparently can’t resist a few barbs:

While it’s hard not to root for entrepreneurial initiative wherever you find it, in Portland it carries a whiff of desperation. I submit that the real reason Portland has a thriving artisanal economy is that the regular economy is in the dumps. Portland’s hipsters are starting craft businesses in their garages and opening restaurants not merely because they “reject passive consumption” but because they can’t find jobs, the kind that offer upward mobility.

Perhaps Mark should re-read that 2010 op-ed he cited.  Before Phil Knight was a multi-billionaire and the chairman of a Fortune 500 corporation, he was just another small business owner with “a whiff of desperation” about him:

Forty-six years ago [as of 2010], when Mark Hatfield was governor, I started a small business in Oregon. In our first year, sales totaled $8,000. I am proud that [Nike] eventually became a major employer in the state.

It has been my hope that other entrepreneurs would similarly pursue their dreams in Oregon.

Today, across the U.S. and not just in Portland, “the regular economy is in the dumps” and people “can’t find jobs, the kind that offer upward mobility.”  If “a small city like Portland” has enough entrepreneurs to open “671 food trucks”, I say we should encourage them.  The last thing we need is for the supposedly conservative Weekly Standard to ape the Willamette Week in its quest to publish “series of bitter, petty, pessimistic rants that generally s**t on everything.”

The return of electric streetcars to American cities

USA Today reports that electric streetcars may be on the comeback in American cities. Because of a successful line introduced in Portland in the early 2000s, other cities, such as Dallas, Cincinnati, and Charlotte, are looking to build new streetcar lines with the help of federal dollars.

The irony of these new streetcar lines is that many American cities had effective electric streetcar systems in the past. The article provides a little of the history:

Horse-drawn streetcars appeared on urban streets in the early 1800s and were replaced by electric versions in the 1880s and 1890s, says Jerry Kelly of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. In the 1930s, when the Great Depression put many people out of work, ridership fell. After a brief revival during World War II, affordable automobiles and cheap gas prompted many cities to pave over streetcar tracks, he says.

According to Kenneth Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier, the streetcars declined rapidly for several reasons:

1. The rise of the automobile, particularly in the 1920s. Millions of Americans bought cars.

2. Many streetcar lines were locked into cheap fares. Because many of the lines had been granted government licenses to operate, the fares were locked in for long periods. By the 1920s, many lines could only charge five cent fares when the costs of operating had risen. This led to less profit for the streetcar operators.

3. Public opposition to public subsidies for electric streetcar lines. While roads were viewed as a public good and deserving of government money, electric streetcars were viewed as private enterprises.

4. General Motors bought up a number of bankrupt or near bankrupt lines in the 1930s-1940s and replaced the streetcars with buses. While some see this as a conspiracy against mass transit, Jackson suggests streetcar lines were already in serious trouble and GM hastened their demise.

Overall, Jackson suggests the declining ridership plus the low fares and lack of government money meant that streetcar lines could not keep up: less riders meant less profit which meant fewer modernization efforts which lowered ridership further and so on.

Hotbed for exports is…Wichita?

The Financial Times reports that according to a Brookings Institution study, Wichita has the highest percentage of exports of any metropolitan region in the country:

Thanks to a cluster of aircraft manufacturers such as Learjet, Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft, the economic focus of Wichita – population 366,000 – is very different from the emphasis on services and consumer demand typical of 21st century America. According to a study published late last month by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, nearly 28 per cent of the city’s gross metropolitan product is sold abroad. That makes it the most export-oriented in the country, just ahead of Portland, Oregon – noted for its computer and electronics companies – and San Jose in California’s Silicon Valley.

Wichita is not who I would think is leading this list. But the article goes on to say that Wichita and some other places have figured out how to move beyond two lagging sectors of the economy, consumer goods and housing, to move forward. For the rest of the country’s economy to move forward, they may have to follow Wichita’s model.