Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Clean And Safe

So here's an issue I've been mulling over for a while -- basically since I started frequenting downtown, but I've been aware of it since before I arrived in Portland. This city is an interesting one in that there are a lot of different kinds of people here. It isn't diversity in the way I'm most immediately accustomed to -- in Memphis, "diversity" meant a black majority, a white minority, and a growing population of Latinos who mostly just kept their heads down. Portland, on the other hand, is solidly white, so diversity means something a bit different. Here, it's mostly about class, economic status, and cultural identification. Since Portland is such a hipster fairyland and still reasonably cheap for the west coast (the two points are not unrelated), it draws a lot of lost souls -- vagrants, train hoppers, street kids, and so on. There are more homeless people of widely varying kinds here than I've seen anywhere since London.

The problem, then, as with any city with a significant homeless and itinerant population, is the tension between the weirdos encamped in the city center and the people who want the city to be "nice." To that end, a bunch of businesses downtown (Fnorders included) have banded together and installed a street-level patrol of glorified security guards, called "Clean and Safe" officers, who serve a number of purposes -- the primary one of which is to manage the street folks who congregate downtown.

I don't want to de-emphasize how prevalent the homeless population is here. There's a lot of begging going on, and I'm sure a bit of other, less innocuous activity, though I've yet to see any of that. I'm aware that where you have homeless teens, you also have hard drugs, theft, prostitution, and any number of other petty crimes. But having lived in London, where the street kids would sleep in business doorways inches from the endless crowds of passing pedestrians, and junkies would hike up a trouser leg and shoot up into a vein behind their knee right there in front of you without even pausing to look around at who might see, the groups of kids hanging out and asking passerby for cigarettes and spare change just don't bother me. The very few I've talked to since arriving have actually been very sweet and polite -- I don't doubt that they can be ugly when they need to be (you'd have to have a capacity for ugliness to survive on the street for long), but many of them are clearly smart kids who've made some questionable choices, though far be it for me to judge them. In any case, so far I've never felt remotely threatened, and I don't have a problem with sharing the street with them. And the same, of course, goes for the grizzled old guys with their pocket flasks of hooch and their cardboard signs. As long as they don't do anything weird directed at me personally, then we're all just neighbors as far as I'm concerned.

Unfortunately, not everyone feels that way, including my new employers. They've already called the Clean and Safe officers twice since I've been there to clear off groups of street kids who weren't doing much more than hanging around acting like teenagers. And I just feel really conflicted about the whole thing. I am, of course, not the only person who feels that way.

Portland's a little funny this way. Not that the city is without its supply of the usual urban problems, but compared to most cities they're so laughably mild that it's hard to take the complainers seriously. A certain type of Portlander tries to scare us newcomers about the "bad" parts of the city, trying to come across all ghetto, but you learn pretty quickly that the typical Portlander sees three black people together and assumes they've arrived in Compton. For my part, I've stood on a street corner mere feet away from a screaming, mad wino, his scabby, flaccid penis hanging out of his trousers, who spontaneously erupted a torrent of smelly, fluorescent green liquid from his mouth onto his shoes. I've been accosted by a seven-year-old street urchin, literally dressed in rags, asking me in some Slavic language for my french fries. I've stepped over addicts passed out on the sidewalk with needles still hanging out of their veins. I've been grasped at by toothless old Gypsy women, for crying out loud. If some old dude with a shopping cart napping under a tree scares you so much that you need to organize a private militia, you really need to get out and see some more of the world. Because it gets so, so much worse than that.

I don't want to live in a sanitized city. I don't need everything around me to be perfectly Clean and Safe. There are risks involved, but there are risks involved in everything, and while nobody wants bad things to happen to them, you can't let that small possibility stop you from living among other people. I really like that I come into contact with so many people here -- and no, I don't always come into contact with only the people I might choose, but that's part of the experience. Day before yesterday I rode the bus sitting next to a very round woman with a goatee who kept her head tucked behind a large purse, having a very animated conversation with an invisible friend. She smelled kind of funny, in a stale-lotion kind of way. But I don't have a problem with sitting next to her -- it's sort of like a mental vaccine, inoculating me against fear of the other. Being too clean and safe can make you even sicker in the long run.
8:49 PM ::
Amy :: permalink