I went for a walk yesterday in downtown Portland, Oregon. It was hard to tell that there had been protests and riots here just two days earlier. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know about the incident until I saw it on the news when we returned to our hotel; I had been in transit the day before, dealing with my fear of heights while flying.
Well, this morning I have traded the view out my window from my desk at home to that of a hotel wall, but there’s still coffee. My wife and I have travelled to Portland to visit our daughter, and I have found the city an interesting place; “interesting” sincerely not being a euphemism, because while the city is beautiful and full of things to do, it is also sometimes dismal and sad. Often, it seems the more life or energy there is in a place, the more loss and degeneration there is. I wonder if it is an unavoidable balance.
Just two days ago, I was driving down the one way streets of our little town of Corbin, wondering if I might be going a little too fast on Kentucky Street while passing an old blue pickup. Now I hold tightly to the safety strap in the back of our daughter’s car as she navigates adeptly through traffic to take us to a public train system that will eventually glide us down through town.
“Oh the places you go and the people you will meet!” Once downtown, we began by walking several blocks through a park in the middle of an avenue lined with old churches, their stone facade and stained glass windows looking like they came out of the sixteenth century. The actual park held trees of an age unknown in their winding limbs, and the middle square was filled with enormous statues of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and, well, some abstract thing.
It truly is a beautiful city with its random cobblestone streets, brick sidewalks and elegant architecture. There are also art museums, several theatres, amazing cuisine, and more coffee shops than you can count. As well, the people are a wonderful and unique blend.
However, I have found in many of the major cities I have visited, if there are more people and cultural features, there are also more social problems. My wife and I were slightly in awe of the homeless population. Our walk was fretted with sidewalk homes of boxes and tents. The most heart-wrenching sight was the mattresses and blanket-beds blatantly laid across the beautiful brick sidewalks, surrounded by cigarette buds and trash: the remnants of someone living there ingrained into the pavement. In some instances, they lined the streets like people waiting for a parade. It was truly astonishing.
As my amazement mounted, so did my curiosity, and uneducated questions began to run through my robot brain: Why do these people live like this? Whose fault is it? What causes this social brutality?
After self-reflection, I answered part: There have been times in my life, that if I did not have family, I do not know what I would have done. I had someone then, and my children have me now. Some people have no one. And a detrimental loss of a job, among other things, can be life changing.
Also, there is apparently (I found after reading) a strong absence of affordable housing versus meaningful wage jobs in Portland. One of the main factors regarding this homelessness is simply low-income poverty. There are obviously other factors such as mental disorders and substance abuse that this brief editorial will not touch on, but the research is enlightening.
Later, we are going out into the city again as there are more aesthetic places to explore. On the way, we are going to pass a little make-shift bed on the sidewalk. We passed it last night on the way to the hotel. As I look past this inadequate dwelling and possible occupant, and into the stunning bay area and gigantic architectural masterpiece of a bridge that lay beyond, I wonder at the truth of my theme. I have seen this same scene, if not to this extent, in Atlanta, New York, and Washington D.C. Does there have to be an adversative cost to cultural beauty and expansion? There is a dark undertone to the splendor here, but I guess that could sometimes be an adage for life.
I wonder what my bobble-head Batman would say. I miss him.
Brian Theodore is a language arts teacher at Corbin High School and lives in Corbin with his wife, who is also a teacher at CHS. He can be contacted at Theteachersdesk.email@example.com.