Queers, Bums, and Kids in the City of Roses

Queers, Bums, and Kids in the City of Roses

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Queers, Bums, and Kids in the City of Roses

Throughout the history of our country it has happened over and over. Development and urbanization come to a small area, city or even an entire region and a new commercial market brings new wealth to a section of people, businesses open up, population increases and everyone is supposedly better off. However, this development and gentrification always seems to alienate a group of society even more than it is already. Portland is a place where that is occurring today, specifically among the queer and homeless communities. However, this does not have to happen; with some changes not only in policy, but in thinking, no one needs to be left behind.

The City of Roses is home to half of Oregon’s citizens as well as one of the economic and cultural centers of the west coast. In the past twenty years the area has grown rapidly due to the shift from lumber and manufacturing to technology. The city has a great reputation, so great that Money magazine named it the most livable city in the country, “Three decades of keen planning have reined in urban sprawl and given rise to a mini-metropolis with short, easy-to-stroll blocks renowned for java joints, brewpubs and bookstores. A superb light rail network and a new streetcar system are helping to make it a cinch to get around. There's loads of culture, from the Portland Art Museum to local rock clubs.” In States of Desire Edmund White gives an amazingly accurate description of the area immediately outside downtown.

Up and up we wound on curving lanes past large, comfortable houses set back from the road, the neighborhood I had dreamed of while I pored over my first-grade reader: safe, suburban, sheltered. At any moment I expected Dick and Jane to race by with Spot, as Father stepped out of his Hudson, a smile on his young face and the evening paper under his arm. (71)

Yes, it is a great place to live, if you are not a part of certain groups. I grew up in all areas of the greater metro area and loved it. I always felt safe, and even though the weather is notoriously horrible it is easily conceded in exchange for the beauty of the region. Amid all this newfound greatness lies a stark contrast. Portland has one of the highest populations of runaway youth in the country.

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As you walk down the street amid all the bars, trees, and trendy stores it is likely you will see a number of kids asking you for money. Congregating in Pioneer Square, a hangout in the center of downtown, or “hippie hill”, a part of the waterfront next to Portland’s Farmer’s Market an outsider cannot help but see there is something wrong. Living here all my life I never thought anything of it. Every city has homeless people, but Portland is unique. The majority are kids. You expect someone panhandling to be as old as your grandparents not looking like they should be in high school or college.

There exists another group of undesirables not unique to Portland, homosexuals. A few blocks west of hippie hill is the Burnside Triangle. A section of about six blocks made up of bars, bookstores, and the best record stores in the entire city with an obviously gay influence. Here along with the obvious clash between mainstream and queer culture exists an internal battle. This battle is between conservative and radical, between young and old, and between rich and poor. This mini Castro definitely does not project the cleanliness and beauty that the city tries to present. It has not yet experienced the gentrification of other famous gay communities like Dupont Circle with chain restaurants and stores. The area is growing and becoming more apparent, so much that the normal method of pretending it does not exist no longer works. Rather, citizens are now trying to get rid of it, though it is impossible to hide this “embarrassing” culture of the city.

In the past two years a bitter fight has ensued over city planning and the development of the West End. The dispute is over zoning and the decision whether to make it commercialgreen- hippie hill blue- pioneer courthouse square black- burnside triangle or residential. Jim Redden of the Portland Tribune says, “Gay owned businesses are like other minority-owned businesses…They are mostly small, don’t own their own buildings and operate on short-term leases. They are vulnerable to change” (Redden) This fear of change for the area is proved in the example of Panorama, a gay nightclub that was recently closed to make way for commercial space. Located right outside of the Burnside Triangle it was in a commercial zone but it shows what could happen if the area is made into a residential neighborhood. “With Panorama gone, the ass end of queersville is all but gone, Ron Mitchell who owns the block says, “The sale of this building is the beginning of a diversified, long-range plan for our future growth” (Beck). What sounds like a good idea is the first step into the gentrification of a culturally rich part of the city. “It would also eliminate much of the low-income housing that exists in the area” ( Redden). The poor would be forced to move so that a new wealthier section of citizens could move in. What looks on the outside as a purely economic move proves to have a mark of homophobic sentiment and class conflict.

The runaway youth and GLBT community that inhabit the area mix in various ways that are hard to see as well as obvious. A large portion of these runaways are gay themselves, “Gary Remafedi (who published a study in Pediatrics) offered what is commonly taken as the most “objective” assessment of teen homelessness, and reported that 26% of homeless youth cited conflict over sexual identity as the motivating factor for running away.”(Ramlow) It would be ideal that these two cultures in such a small space would mix; of course there is some contact but mostly the homeless find themselves shunned by the gay community. In Joining the Tribe a gay youth describes his experience begging for money among some drag queens.

They stick their noses in the air and go, ‘No!’ I go ‘Well I’m gay too!’ One of them goes, ‘I doubt it, or you wouldn’t be asking people for change.’ I said, ‘Have you ever heard of gay street kids?’ She goes, ‘There’s no such thing.’ That right there pissed me off. You’re not supposed to hit women, and drag queens like being treated like women. But I get right in her face, say, ‘Yes, there is such a thing as gay street kids, and if you don’t know that, you haven’t been paying attention.’ (20)

The city attempts to pretend they do not exist. In a place where acceptance should be easy to find these kids are again ignored by all. Many of them have left home in search of the acceptance not present at home or shoved into foster care that has no consideration for their unique needs, forcing them to run. This lack of acceptance is something often seen in the gay community of today. The main conflict inside the group itself is that between conservative assimilationists and radical liberationists. Conservatives seek to be accepted through presenting homosexual life as normal, and only being different from straight culture because it involves relationships of the same sex. Radicals do not necessarily want acceptance, and have no desire to be like the mainstream. Any group outside mainstream society experiences this issue. The civil rights movement and feminist movement are just a couple of examples where the same disagreement exists among those treated unfairly by society.

Author Erving Goffman coined names for these two poles of tension: he referred to the “stigmaphile” space of the stigmatized among themselves, and the “stigmaphobe” world of the normals. The stigmaphile space is where we find a commonality with those who suffer from stigma, and in this alternative realm learn to value the very things the rest of the world despises- not just because the world despises them, but because the world’s pseudo-morality is a phobic and inauthentic way of life. The stigmaphobe world is the dominant culture, where conformity is ensured through fear of stigma. (Warner 43)

Stark Street is a world of the stigmaphobe; trying so hard to be accepted by the city that is trying to push them out. The community does not really care about dirty kids. Many see it as an issue entirely different from their own. The inhabitants have a hard enough time preserving their own space to worry about acceptance among themselves. There is no attempt to seek a common ground that is obviously there. Runaways and queers are two big things the city would like to forget, two groups that overlap and are being pushed out not only by the city but by society in general.

This apparent attempt at hiding the abnormal is even manifested in the physical makeup of the city. “Jake’s Famous Crawfish,” one of Portland’s oldest and best restaurants, “tries to shield its view of the gay bar across the street by stringing green curtains on fancy brass rods, but almost all the customers have pulled open the drapes so they can gawk at the street scene outside”(Due 6). This seems to be the way Portlanders deal with the uncomfortable aspects of life. They ignore them because they are ashamed, but at the same time are drawn to the fascination. This ambivalence is also seen in regards to the runaways. Most people walk down the street and pretend not to see the dirty couple sitting on a bench with a dog (for some reason all the homeless in Portland have a dog. I think it’s a prerequisite). Directly opposing this ignorance is a radical local law that reveals an acceptance of the issue. The high homeless population brings with it a drug problem. The American Journal of Public Health reported that 54.7% of street youth use drugs; this does not count alcohol, tobacco, marijuana or cocaine, compared to only 15.7% of teens that live at home. Portland has one of the highest rates of heroin use per capita in the country. Instead of ignoring this problem Portland has legalized the distribution of needles. It seems somewhat odd that the city would take such a progressive position, but it makes some sense. If the city is going to ignore a large aspect of its population, queers and runaways, this is somewhat a form of appeasement. Instead of acknowledging the problem and finding ways to help homeless youth, such as shelters or programs to help these kids get jobs, (which do exist but could definitely be improved especially because of how large the problem is) the government is saying, “Okay were not going to directly acknowledge the issue instead we will just prevent it from becoming larger.” Distribution of needles is definitely a good thing, it keeps the rate of AIDS and other diseases low, but doesn’t it seem more logical to directly help this group which would in turn decrease drug use? This seems a common aspect of the entire region, White writes, “what seems characteristic of the Northwest is this unexpected blend of conservative style and liberal conflict, of conventional decorum and progressive thinking”. (White 82)

The fear and disgust towards these groups is deeply imbedded throughout Portland culture. My friends and I always viewed Stark Street, another name for the Burnside Triangle, as a dirty place where there were kinky sex shops and strange things that no one should participate in. Even as a queer youth I found myself deeply afraid of the area but fascinated at the same time. When I had a job in the city I would always drive out of my way so I could see the older men sitting outside the Silverado or wondering what was inside all the stores along the street. I did this somewhat to see gay people out in the open and maybe get up enough courage to go down and see what actually went on there. It is the same thing with “Hippie Hill”. When a friend and I would go there part of me wanted to talk to these kids, hear their stories, find out what brought them to the situation, but I was always too afraid. Although the blend of fear and fascination I experienced was somewhat unique, the fear itself is common to many Portlanders. Why take a chance when you can read about them in a book? I had always been told that these people were dirty and bad, homosexuals are evil, homeless people are just gross and that’s it. This is the core of Portland’s problem, if there is no attempt to actually understand the situation there will never be acceptance. If people knew that the Roxy is not a dirty bar but one of the best cafes in town or that the kids downtown begging for change are not there because they are “fuck ups” but because they were put into a situation so far out of their control and horrible that they would rather live on the street, the situation could be much more different.

The entire conflict of what to do with unmentionable aspects of a city and what happens to them if they do not fit into development is something every city has to grapple with. A good way to view the situation is presented in Out of Place by Talmadge Wright. In the book he classifies the types of space within a city. There is Producing/Consuming space, basically where the mainstream part of society exists. These are places such as malls or commercial centers, parks, beaches any area that exists to serve the consumer and majority. Another type of space is Refuse space, “derelict landscapes, empty spaces, or ‘lost spaces’ can be defined as space that is excluded from development, held in reserve for future development, or residual space from a particular development” (106). Refuse space is where the homeless usually inhabit so the rest of the citizens can go on without seeing them. In Portland there is no real Refuse space. Of course there are underpasses and parts of town that are worse off than others, but there is no real ghetto. North Portland traditionally the most unsafe section is experiencing new commercial success. The Industrial district at the north end of downtown, which had previously been abandoned warehouses, has now turned into what can be compared to a small version of SoHo. Underneath one of the many bridges in the city a common place for homeless habitation is a world famous skate park. This cleanliness and high standard of living is taken as a good thing and it is in many ways and for many people but it creates a clash of culture. The stigmaphile and stigmaphobe are forced to mix.

Displacement cannot occur because there is nowhere to go. So what should happen when these groups outside cannot be pushed out to some place so they do not have to be viewed by the majority. White presents a solution in the example of Pike Place Market, a commercial section in Seattle. Instead of the normal move of kicking out what is in the area of desired development seen in situations like the New Times Square and currently being battled in the Burnside Triangle, Seattle decided to accept the poor as an important part of the area sponsoring three hundred subsidized apartments, only allowing independent businesses to rent and providing low rental rates so old businesses could stay in the area. Everything that was present before is still there and has now been blended successfully. “It is a policy of “containment” rather than “exclusion.”” This is a perfect way to develop the Burnside Triangle or make the large population of youth a part of society. It appears as though Portland and many other cities have it all backwards. Solving this is definitely easier said than done. The difficulty does not lie in the actual development. The actual implementation of a program like the one used for the development of Pike Place is not difficult in itself, the problem is getting the government and people to not only acknowledge the aspect of society but also decide not to drive them away. If I can grow up in the city priding myself on my knowledge of the area and not realize that Portland has a very unique homeless youth problem, that heroin use is huge, and that there is actually a gay area there is a problem. The physical space does not need change as much as the mindset of the majority does. More than anything else education needs to be provided.

As we have seen in the analysis of exclusive city redevelopment strategies, providing housing and jobs in and of themselves might not be enough. What is also required is to change the priorities of city and regional government, to discourage exclusive redevelopment plans, and to encourage inclusive redevelopment plans that treat all class and racial segments of a city equally. (Wright 306)

This change in priorities will never happen without pressure on the government from the outside. Anything from protests by organizations that help the homeless, the homeless themselves, or gay rights groups, to funding and campaign support by human rights groups would bring the city a step closer to this goal. In Portland and other cities, where redevelopment and exclusion is occurring whether it be homosexuals, homeless, immigrants, etc. awareness is the key. Not only education, but in the right way. An environment of complete acceptance will create a city better for everyone not just the mainstream. Without this, nothing will ever change. The Burnside Triangle will become like the numerous commercial areas of the city, queer and straight youth will continue to be shunned from their homes and subjected to a life on the streets filled with drugs, violence, and prostitution. Feminism and the Civil Rights movement have come and gone and even though there is still change needed in those forums there is a defined place for women and minorities of race. Queers and homeless are still searching, no one knows where they fit and it seems that sometimes the group does not even know where they want to be. This does not change the fact that inclusion needs to happen or Portland might end up a beautiful place to live but without any sort of character, culture, or uniqueness.

Works Cited:

Pachetti, Nick; Mirabella, Alan. “The Best Places to Live.” Money Dec. 2000: 148.

“I miss knowing I could never be homeless”: Queer Kids, Citizenship and the Streets. By Ramlow, Todd. (This document was emailed to me by the author and I don’t have any other info about it.)

Redden Jim. “Stark Street and the West End,” The Portland Tribune May 2001.

Due, Linnea. Joining the Tribe; Growing Up Gay and Lesbian in the ‘90’s. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Beck, Byron. “The Party’s Over. Willamette Week 23 May 2001.

Greene, Jody; Ennett, Susan; Ringwalt, Christopher. “Substance Use Among Runaway and Homeless Youth in Three National Samples.” American Journal of Public Health v87 Feb 1997: 229-235.

White, Edmund. States of Desire: Travels in Gay America. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1980.

Wright, Talmadge. Out of Place: Homeless Mobilizations, Subcities, and Contested Landscapes. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Warner, Michael. The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.

Portland Maps, 04/02/02
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