How to handle when your neighborhood changes


Portland is known as a hotbed of urban progressiveness, but it’s surrounded by some fairly rural and conservative areas. Drive out toward the edge of the urban growth boundary, and the Subarus and Priuses (Priii?) will be replaced by muddy pickup trucks.

The urban/rural divide here is very pronounced. But everyone lives in their own space, with the rural folk having their farms and empty roads and sweeping views of Mt. Hood, while the city has its bike lanes and buses and small apartments without parking.

The problem with this standoff is that cities change. And unless you’re a stagnating urban area, your city is likely to grow. And this means that the city is going to encroach on the rural areas.

This makes some people upset. Is this justified? Yes and no.

Portland Creep

It’s easy for me to say that rural folks are going to have to just deal with encroaching development, because I’m firmly on the side of the team that’s doing the encroaching. The sympathy is self-serving.

But even so, I admit that my sympathy tends to lag when you hear the reasoning behind the desire to keep the rural areas wild.

Clackamas County is primarily rural county to the Southeast of Portland, containing farms and forests leading all the way up toward Mt. Hood.

Two years ago, this billboard went up around town:

It's okay, you can say what you really think.
It’s okay, don’t hold back. You can say what you really think.

I love this billboard, because it’s so nakedly honest in its biases. Whereas sometimes people mask their biases in more socially acceptable contexts (“Gay people shouldn’t be able to marry because God forbids it” sounds slightly less awful than “Gay people shouldn’t be able to marry because I don’t like gay people.“) it’s always nice when the truth comes out.

Look at what this billboard, and the people behind it, are saying:

Welcome to my nightmare

Congestion. A photo showing a street full of cars, in black and white. Apparently, this is scary to folks. Actually, it’s kind of scary to me too. Luckily, with all the road diets going on around town, this is coming less of a reality every day. Division St. used to be a four-lane speedway, full of traffic and swerving. Now it’s a two lane road where cars actually drive the speed limit, and there are sidewalk bulbs that make it easy to cross the street.

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Density. I love how density is slipped in under congestion and crime as being a priori a bad thing. I like density. Density means that I am close to things. Density means that I can walk to the store instead of having to drive there. Density means that I am more likely to interact with a wide variety of people. In actuality, density can reduce congestion, as congestion is more likely to happen when everyone is driving from point A to B.

Crime. There is a pernicious bias that cities are less safe than rural areas.. I think at one point, this was certainly true, back in the bad-old days of leaded gasoline. But not today.

To take just one example, Vermont is almost entirely rural, so you’d expect it to be a bastion of moral rectitude. Now read the transcript of the 2013 State of the State address and see how much of it is devoted to heroin and the ensuing criminal activities perpetrated by some very sick individuals.

And as the suburbs age and start to decay (which will happen unless something drastic changes, as the tax base isn’t enough to support the infrastructure) I would expect the crime in those areas to increase, as poverty and desperation takes over. Believe me, crime and cities don’t correlate.

A reality check

Look, I understand. Your neighborhood is changing. And you don’t want to change with it.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not all for unrestricted development. I think if Portland had been less of backwater, we would probably have mowed down Ladd’s Addition and much of the old 1900’s housing stock and replaced it with split-level housing and strip malls. And freeways. I think some areas should definitely be preserved.

The irony, of course, is that Portland is likely to grow outward at a much lower rate than almost any other city in the country. This is due to our “urban growth boundary” that puts a check on sprawl by allowing only certain areas to be “built up”, in effect forcing a fictitious “moat” around the metropolitan area, but a moat that can be moved over time (sorry Manhattan).

This will affect city folk too

This isn’t just a lament for the rural folks. One day, there’s a good chance that Portland may become upscale, yuppified, sterile, and thoroughly unaffordable to most. What we all loved about this city may evaporate, as the artists and the bohemian types no longer can afford to put birds on things or be in the place where young people go to retire.

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Portland wouldn’t be alone. Remember when you could turn on and drop out in San Francisco? Well, it’s been at least 30 years since anyone could afford to do that. Now all the artists and young people are in Oakland.

And if this happens here, my response will be one of two:

  • I myself may have become yuppified and boring as well, so it won’t matter to me
  • I myself will move to the “Portland of thirty years from now”.

Where would it be? Oregon City? Tacoma? Detroit? It’s far too early to tell. I can say that no one really predicted Portland would become what it is today.

What can you do?

There are certain battles that can be won. We won a battle against the building of the Mt. Hood Freeway a half-centruy ago. And I don’t believe that we should turn all of our rural areas into urban areas. There is a space for everyone.

But we need to pick our battles. Everyone can’t play NIMBY. You can’t say that your neighborhood should be “protected” without qualifying it. And you certainly can’t scare people into fearing the “congestion, density, and crime” or the city.

Ultimately, places change. Most of Manhattan was once farmland. Should it have remained that way?

There will always be rural areas. There will always be urban areas. There will always be farmland. There will always be cities. There will always be suburbs (well, maybe not). It’s just that the locations of these areas are likely to change.

And if the place you live in no longer resonates with you, you can move to the type of place that does. Or you can adapt with it. The creep will continue.

But enough about me. Are you affected by a changing place?


  1. saulofhearts

    Interesting stuff. So was Division St. formerly like Powell is now? I’ve basically stopped going to Trader Joe’s because Powell is such a pain to cross when I’m on my bike.

    • Mike @ Unlikely Radical

      Sort of. Division used to be a four lane, undivided arterial all the way out to 82nd, but it wasn’t nearly as built-up as Powell. A lot of that may have to do with different ownership: Powell is US 26, and so is under the control of ODOT, while Division is city-owned. I’m sure the zoning is a bit different as well.

      Due to bureaucracy and different organizational cultures, it’s a rule of thumb these days that if a road has a number associated with it, it’s generally pedestrian/bike unfriendly. Examples: Powell (US 26), 82nd Ave (OR 213), Barbur Blvd (OR 99W), etc. Very interesting stuff.

  2. cd

    Great article!

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