By: Ben PricePublished: October 22, 2022

Portland and the Sunset of Common Sense

Why face problems when you can look at the sunset?

At the height of French starvation, Marie Antoinette is said to have remarked, “Let them eat cake." A revealing bit of dark humor, or an irony proving just how far from circumstance those in power can be? At a remove of more than 220 years and 5000 miles, the people of Portland, Oregon understand such sentiments are not the sole provenance of the privileged at Versailles. It turns out all you need is a detachment from reality.

Portland Isn’t a Dumpster Fire. It’s Watching a Sunset Together,” read the headline of a piece by Brianna Wheeler in the September 25 issue of alt-weekly Willamette Week. The timing could not have been better, by which I mean worse: As Wheeler waxed on about an evening of picnicking and bird watching in a northwest Portland park, several yards away a woman was being murdered. Did I mention that the city is on its way to breaking last year's record for homicides?

It's rare a platitude proves so accurate, an exemplar of the Portlandia cliché: simultaneously naïve and preachy, a lamentation that Portland’s outfacing image is a horrible distortion, whereas insiders appreciate that Portland is pacific and beautiful. Such a position would be sophomoric if it were not in fact dangerous, an attempt to say, "Look over here, not there!" Like flashing something shiny at a bird before you shoot it.

This isn’t the first amateur attempt at the handling of state business. In 2020, Oregon had a health official announce the state's COVID deaths while wearing clown makeup. More recently, Oregon's chief justice, unaccustomed to accountability and its accompanying ass-chewings, fired the entire Public Defense Services committee and rehired only the members she perceived would fire an associate who'd called out her catastrophic mismanagement of Oregon’s public defenders.

The serious botching of serious business is something one might expect Oregon journalists to draw attention to and, when appropriate, expose. That has not been the case. Homelessness in Oregon, especially in the cities of Portland and Eugene, it a painfully obvious issue, one that deserves attention. Instead, we are given the equivalent of clown make-up, in the form of a veteran reporter dressed up for a day at the fair.

Two months ago, Oregon Public Broadcasting released Growing Oregon, a podcast series dealing with the state's land use laws. In lieu of a conversation about intelligent and needed growth, Jeff Mapes, in the twilight of a near 32-year career as a political reporter for the Oregonian, delivered the sort of superficial and insufferable insights one expects from a barista, ideas so empty of content I was ready to drive an SUV to a Chick-fil-A out of spite.

("Oregon has a Chick-Fil-A?" you ask. Why yes, after the requisite protests.)

Instead of playing all folksy the Oregon Country Fair, Mapes could have talked turkey, could have pointed to why the state cannot fix the homeless situation. Want to build a shelter? Land use review ® neighbor files lawsuit. Want to renovate an old hotel to become a shelter? Land use review ® change of usage ® neighbor files lawsuit. Want to add a subdivision expanding the urban growth boundary in urban Portland? That’s maybe a decade in court. Meanwhile the homeless encampments stretch from Portland to the Pacific Ocean.

You might expect local journalists to root out these problems. Instead, it's country fairs and the umpteenth article about the blamelessness of protesters fending off Trump's goons in summer 2020, this one two-plus years after the fact, stories meant to assure locals they are still on the right path. Don't mention that the protests started around 2012, uprisings that featured politically motivated violence that continues to this day, instead, focus on the sunsets, dismiss bad news with a microbrew, ignore the dumpster fires at your back, the ones lighted by the publications that paper over the problems.

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