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Planning our Portland: Equity and the new comprehensive Portland Plan by Polo Catalani - August 11, 2010
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Talking Story
by Polo
 

Planning our Portland: Equity and the new comprehensive Portland Plan

 

There’s this fluttery feeling you get, right under your navel. Kids know what I’m talking about.

 

I first got this feeling when our familia first came to America. It was at Bush’s Pasture Park — a reserve of grassy expanse, ancient oak, and a giggling mill stream, smack in the middle of Salem, Oregon. Ninety acres set aside by visionary city leaders about a hundred years ago.

 

That feeling first took ahold of me on a Bush Park swing. A thick rubbery seat suspended from 15 long-long feet of linked iron chains. Their mass in motion, a kid’s sweep through cool park air, took my breath away. Then, a moment from your upswing’s apex, right in your tummy’s pit: there’s that feeling. A thrilling instant of zero gravity. Of total release. A second of absolute suspense. Suka’an. Joy.

 

Our present moment in Portland history might well be one of those too. We could all be one of those kids — biting our bottom lips. Thrilled-belly feel. But it’s up to us. Tentu. Sure it is.

 

Please give me 500 words to explain this grand possibility.

 

Then let me have another 500 to talk about what’s actually up to us. Not up to kids on swings, but the possibility that’s up to us big people. Us adults shoving city swings.

 

It’s about equity

Right now, Portland’s elected leaders are machining their respective bureaus to put "equity" square into the delivery of our city’s services. It’s as important, it’s as central, as that park around which the rest of Salem got laid down. Okay-okay, equity means many different things, to all kinds of Portlanders. But that’s so much a part of this moment’s potential too. And that’s also why, right now, our communities’ push matters so much.

 

Mayor Adams, city commissioners Fritz and Fish, commissioners Saltzman and Leonard, are all developing their own management policies and service practices for delivering equity — but in short, here’s a working definition: An equitable society considers carefully how our city’s benefits and public burdens are distributed among us.

 

On the public benefits side, for example: Are Portland’s splendid parks and lively recreation centers equitably spread across our city? Are publicly paid afterschool and summer kid programs equitably addressing all our families’ needs? Some of our families are inequitably bearing the mistakes of Portland’s past. Some not.

 

Here’s an example of equity on the public burdens side: Which communities are currently inequitably burdened by Portland’s intense city-core development? Can we prevent their expulsion to less pretty parts of our city, can we mitigate against their social and cultural disintegration by better sharing the benefits of urban renewal?

 

An equitable society — a city developing in ways more just, more safe, and more fun than the bitterness old-school public policies have locked America into — must continuously and carefully consider: Are neighborhood associations and police precincts and home builders mindful of Portland’s unkind past when we distribute current resources and current burdens?

 

We can no longer squander public money. We cannot continue our awful history. That’s equity. And that’s getting woven into the new comprehensive Portland Plan.

 

It’s about participating

Don’t be embarrassed if you’ve not heard of The Portland Plan. All in caps. Many of our city’s ethnic streams have not yet contributed to this federally mandated 25-year development plan. Most of our families haven’t heard about it. It’s that old equity thing. Over and over again.

 

So let’s start talking this up. Because, I tell you true: It’s up to us to get Portland out of this well-rutted American roadway. Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t have nearly the number of Asian or Islander, African or African American, Middle Eastern or East European, Latino or Native American, numbers we’re enjoying today. Portland is now 28 percent foreign born and ethnic minority. We’re 45 percent of those vigorous kids filling Portland Public Schools’ hallways. You can be sure that our city will change just as much over our next 25 years together.

 

It’s time to participate in planning Portland. A New Portland.

 

Substantial time in all Portland planning sessions, convened all the time, all over town, Mayor Adams commits to explaining equity. To telling why equity needs to be figured into our shared city. Into our shared future.

 

And if you listen quietly, here’s a common response you’ll hear from anxious east Portlanders, white ones — the same thing we hear from skeptical north Portlanders (black ones) and from agitated southeast Portlanders (brown ones): Folks of every color perceive the currency of "equity" as a makeover of 1960s Affirmative Action, an effort to recoin the "quotas" of 1980s hiring and contracting requirements. All of it, many see as failed social engineering. Rehabilitative strategies that have increased public cynicism among those households feeling abandoned by America’s political leaders. And a truckload of apathy too.

 

Pero mira. But look, here’s what’s cool about new Americans, here’s why we’re compelled to act, to participate in the Portland Plan process.

 

Since the 1965 congressional rewrite of federal immigration policies favoring only the movement of northern European families, U.S. newcomers have predominately been people of color. Since 1975, Portland’s Asians, Africans, Arabs, Latinos, and Russian-speakers have been reshaping the social, cultural, and spiritual potential of our city. We’re the upswing.

 

Although our newly arrived elders, parents, and school kids are undoubtedly daily dented by a century and a half of racialized Oregon history — we are not conditioned by it. We are not locked into its negative feedback loop of guilt from the top, resentment from the bottom. Bitterness all over. We cannot become that.

 

It’s about us leading

Newcomers are the optimism America needs. We are ambition unabashed. Moreover — and I’m seeing your faces right now, right here, very near that lovely memory of my big brother and me on those Bush Park swings so new to us — you are all about civic engagement. You’ve always taken care of our communities’ energetic business. I’m seeing our elegant aunties and stubborn sisters in our church and temple basements, in our ummah Islamia. I’m looking at our muscular uncles and our ice-tea brothers on red-hot street corners and around raucous kitchen tables.

 

We are our city’s afterhour heavy lifters.

 

Our City Hall leaders’ duty is envisioning. We delegate them to dream. And they have. And they want to do equity. Our duty is shoving that rubbery seated swing. Shoving it full shouldered. Pushing it with all our hearts.

 

Of course we will stumble, short of our vision. Naturally our hearts can be broken. All of them. All of us. Again.

But recall, if we fall, that we are built tough and tender precisely for these possibilities. Al’hamdulillaah. Remember, then be humbled by how long African and native America have endured, how long they’ve danced to music of their own making. And recall, we have persisted for those same several centuries under the same imperial attitudes. Notice how broad shouldered and big hearted we all remain.

 

Now, imagine my daughter, your grandson, our nieces and nephews, thrilling that joyful moment, just below his belly button, at the top of her swing’s apex. One day she’ll recall our leaders’ vision, same day he’ll remember your shove.

 

There are many-many moving parts to the developing Portland Plan. To check out the parts of Portland life you know well or are interested in shoving and shaping, please visit the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability website at <www.portlandonline.com/portlandplan> or call our city planners at (503) 823-7700.

 

From The Asian Reporter, V20, #21 (August 2, 2010), page 7


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