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Whose Streets?

Excitable boys and girls marched merrily along Broadway, destination unknown. They could have slipped under the radar but some hapless cop found a bullhorn thrust into his hand: Please stay on the sidewalk. A simple request, asked with all the defeat and fatigue of a broken father left alone with the kids for the weekend. The malcontents must have obeyed if the absence of scuffling and breaking glass was any indication. I couldn’t be bothered to leave the couch I was calling a bed for the week to peer out any windows.

Another first of May and another May Day march. Vegan anarchists used to invite me along. What do you do on May Day? Dance around the maypole and smash the state, they would reply. I always declined graciously, the same way I would whenever babysitting Food Not Bombs who, at the halfway mark of their meeting, would run through a rousing rendition of the Hokey Pokey.

Anarchists love to dance.

Participation is one thing, gawking another. Gawking affords you all the joys of a shared experience without the perils of associating with the masses or being arrested in a state where you’re living on a couch. Helicopters had taken to the skies by the time I hit the streets, camera in pocket and the spirit of adventure in my heart. I followed their hovering through the thick of downtown; this year’s festivities promised photogenic greatness. The ranks of die-hard radicals would surely be swollen with Occupy Everything acolytes whose fervent activism is reminiscent of ecstasy-popping office drones home from their first trip to Burning Man. Communal filth in a contrived approximation of nature—sharing food, supplies and possibly bodily fluids with rank strangers—gently lobotomizes the impressionable and repressed.

Truants playing runaway and junkies killing time choked the square where I had hoped to find riot shields squared off against black clad reactionaries and nostalgic hippies. Business suits and contented tourists trudged through the paces of normalcy while traffic chased its tail unfettered by die-ins. No banners flying in the wind, no slogans echoing off the buildings, no shouts, no curses, no sound of running feet. Helicopters continued to hover over some vague distance, urging me on. I detoured.

Downtown is where the money is. Downtown is where the power is. Naturally downtown draws political manifestations as it’s the center of all that is corrupting and corrupted. But Portland’s meager handful of high-rises defies the standard set by many cities. Outposts of corporate greed exist for a newly energized generation of rabble-rousers to confront, but lacks the global headquarters or financial exchanges where policies are shaped and promulgated. Downtown Portland nearly lacks bank branches and national chains. Despite an active after-hours bloodline of restaurants and bars, hotels and theaters, the commercial vacancy rate remains appalling. There’s Starbucks and there’s Nordstrom, sure, but they rub shoulders with gutted ground-floor properties and local enterprise has been quick to fill the void. Indie kids staff cafes and coffee shops, free to play their rock and roll and leave tattoos uncovered. Independent boutiques cater to a monied patronage beside recognizable brands. It seems suspiciously like the kind of economic environment favored by people playing Duck Duck Goose under lax police supervision.

Clean lines and tasteful design, a store proffers space-age shaving supplies to an elite clientele of none. Not a wood-paneled, cigar smoking social hub, all hot foam and straight razors and I used to cut your dad’s hair, from the days of black and white, but a place to drop perfectly good dollars on imported European electric shavers. Independently owned and operated or not someone needs to toss a molotov through the window.

Blocks north modernism fell from the heavens and created the Pearl District. Fifteen years in the past, when Amtrack spat me out to conduct my maiden voyage of this town, the neighborhood was an open wound of broken concrete and abandoned warehouses. Half of the shadowlands wanted to buy drugs from me. Half the shadowlands wanted to sell drugs to me. Burger King employed security guards who couldn’t keep patrons from stabbing each another. Today converted lofts and freshly minted towers sing a siren song to the newly arrived recruits of Intel, Nike and Genentech. Stores sell designer clothes for babies and lapdogs while restaurants serve gourmet hot-chocolate topped with truffle shavings. But all is not well in this plastic paradise. Every other storefront is a real estate office and bored agents are standing by, customized golf-carts at the ready. The streets are dead by dusk.

Who populates this prefabricated vision of urban America in the 21st century? People who somehow misplace their Great Danes and respond to tragedy by investing hours in an expertly designed flyer. There are few folks walking along to see these sad notifications of anxiety and despair, unheard cries for help in the stillborn ambitions of developers, banks and investors.

Somewhere downtown excitable boys and girls collected to rally against what financial advisers call progress, chanting their parents’ slogans. Whose streets? Our streets! And our streets too, the hapless drivers think, steering wheel cradling their aching heads. True, true, it’s all very true, but truth does not apply to the streets of the Pearl District. These streets are the exclusive playland of spreadsheets, hedge funds and risks calculated under the safety net of the FDIC. These streets were paved with the reckless disregard that tore the blindfolds from slumbering babes and sent them to sleep in parks across the country.

If this great awakening swelled the ranks of an annual march unknown to many and ignored by most, it didn’t spill into designer baby boutiques. It didn’t spill into gourmet hot-chocolate emporiums. Helicopters continued to hover so distant they could not be heard. No cops got on the bullhorn to ask everyone to stay on the sidewalk. The only noise was of traffic heading home after just another day.

Photo by Bruce Ely for The Oregonian, from the article May Day 2012 in Oregon (Photo Essay). I call it fair use.

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