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PDXpensive: The high cost of high standards

Portland, Ore.

Portland, Ore. (Wikipedia)

What do Portlanders want? Simple: All the good things about a city, none of the bad.

OK, that’s a little harsh. After all, who doesn’t want green parks, low crime rates, cheap housing, nonexistent gridlock, vanishing potholes, excellent schools, and a happenin’ cultural life? The problem here is that Portland’s had many of those things for a long time, and seeing them slip away makes folks panic. Knowing that urbanites elsewhere would kill for half of the goodies Portland still enjoys doesn’t make us feel better.

This whole notion of lessening livability is on our minds right now, thanks to a talker of a piece by The Oregonian‘s Andy Dworkin, reporting on the city’s annual audit of residents’ opinions about life here. The survey findings Dworkin highlighted include these points:

Some 79 percent of Portlanders say the city has good or very good livability; 82 percent give their own neighborhood those marks. Yet only 40 percent of city residents give their neighborhood a positive rating on affordability.

More than half (58 percent) of business owners here say this is a good/very good place to do business, up from 48 percent four years ago. Unemployment is at a six-year low (5.2 percent); crime rates are near all-time lows. Bike ridership is up, but so is the hefty backlog of street-maintenance requests.

The dissatisfaction that surfaces isn’t idle whining. Housing is cheaper in Portland than Seattle, but the cost of renting and buying homes is still on the rise, and wages in the Portland area just don’t cut it. The joke in P-Town has always been that everyone is three things, such as a barista, rock musician, and dog walker. That used to be a way of bragging about the many artsy types pursuing dreams without selling out. Now it’s a statement on what many people must do to keep the home fires burning.

That said, as the audit results and other news coverage hint, there is some staring into gift horses’ mouths around here. Another recent Oregonian story reports on protests by some residents of outlying ‘burbs who don’t want a planned light rail route brought to their door. They blame transit stations for breeding crime, pointing to a recent run of assaults, including a stabbing. That station-as-crime-cause logic isn’t sound–but worries about transit-related crime here are absolutely justified, as are citizen demands for better security and calls for new, clear-eyed strategies to reduce opportunities for trouble. But where else in the country do you hear people vowing to lie down on the tracks rather than put up with clean, affordable, environmentally responsible and reliable public transportation that links them to the economic and cultural core of the region?

The up side of all this is that so many locals care deeply about any erosion of quality of life. We may be seem a little ungrateful to outsiders, but apathetic we ain’t.

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