Tuesday, May 26, 2020


I've been struggling in recent weeks to come up with a good metaphor for social interactions during the pandemic. I'm happy to report I've finally got one: dog shit. If everyone rubbed themselves in dog shit before heading out the door, public interactions would be roughly comparable to what I've experienced under coronavirus: pedestrians crossing the street to avoid me, turning their bodies away from me while passing, face coverings, gloves, no attempt at engagement whatsoever. 

Dog shit or coronavirus, it all amounts to the same thing: isolationism.

Amid the societal wreckage there is one small flicker of hope. My community darkroom in Portland has opened up again, so I've been making regular trips there the past few weeks to print. Before plunging into darkness I usually spend an hour walking around some part of Portland. These are photo outings primarily since I'm looking to make pictures. But I also view them as a quick temperature check. What's the lay of the land? How is Portland faring under the shutdown? The s
hort answer: not well.

My last walk a few days ago was around lower east Burnside between the bridge and Sandy. Before the pandemic this area might've been considered up and coming, or gentrifying, or vibrant, or maybe a more pejorative term depending on your degree of class consciousness. The area was in transition and still a bit gritty, but there were all sorts of interesting shops and people and a feeling of untapped potential in the air. The whiff of optimism? The future in action? Maybe that's why I always found it a good place to photograph. 

After 2 months of pandemic all the polish has worn off of lower Burnside. What's left is just grit. It's still rather interesting from a photographic point of view, maybe even more so. But from an urban studies perspective, I find the changes extremely depressing. The neighborhood has fallen off a cliff. Most stores are closed, many for good. Some are boarded up with plywood, and a lot of that plywood is defaced with graffiti. There are For Lease signs on many buildings. Not many pedestrians or street activity of any kind, and most people out in public seem
 to be living on the streets or down on their luck in some way. Anyone I got close to treated me like I'd rubbed myself in dog shit. Oy vey.

I've visited downtown Portland a few times recently and it isn't much better. Empty. Dead. The main difference between the core and east Burnside is the many small encampments which have sprung up along the sidewalks in old town. Summer weather is here, and there is a moratorium on disbanding the street camps. So parts of downtown have basically become tent cities. It looks like something out of a Dorothea Lange photo.

This description won't come as a surprise to anyone. We know it's bad out there. But I think it's worth eyewitnessing for those who've been sheltered-in-place or unable or unwilling for whatever reason to venture out. Fair warning, when you eventually come out of your bomb shelters, be prepared. Chances are your city is a wreck. Or your suburb or small town or wherever you live. 

Of course, for a lot of places this may not feel too different. For example, downtown Eugene has been hit just as hard as Portland. But it was mostly a ghost town even before the pandemic. So the change there is less noticeable. The same might be said for many other places, perhaps even most of them. If you live in the rust best, for example, or the northeast corridor, or any post-industrial region infected with urban blight the description above will sound familiar. Walk downtown in Springfield, Mass or Augusta, Maine or Detroit or Baltimore. The heart was sucked out of these places long ago. 

But Portland? Holy fuck. Three months ago Portland probably had the most vibrant mid-sized downtown in America. There were no chinks in the armor. I have walked every block in the city and never felt unsafe or weird or lost. Every part of it felt cared for. In just a few weeks, Zap! 
All of that has evaporated, replaced with dog shit. The contrast is dizzying. I'm sure it will recover eventually. But it will be a looooong road, and probably not a very enjoyable one. 

In the meantime, perhaps there's an upside. Artists thrive in low rent wastelands. The more down and out a place gets, the better it sets up for creativity. So maybe this pandemic is the financial bust that will allow Portland a rebirth. We'll see. For now the rapid decline is tough to watch, and I fear the downward cycle is only beginning. So maybe I'll just hole up in the darkroom a while...


Stan B. said...

San Francisco has an officially sanctioned, walled off tent city just one block from city hall, in addition to the plethora of pop up encampments throughout town. Dog shit? I'm tired of seeing people shit in public all over the place, amazed I haven't stepped in it as of yet.

Tech brought in million$ to this town- it's been downhill ever since...

pepeye said...

On the other hand, I went strawberry picking yesterday on Sauvie Island and it was beautiful and everyone was as social as facemasks and at-least-six-feet could be. And the farm folks were clearly glad to have people come out.