• Allan Classen

A time to scrap failed ideas

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

For the first time ever, the NW Examiner does not have a Community Events section this month. No one is holding public events or neighborhood meetings.

Our world has changed. Time from now may be denoted as “before the virus” or “after the virus.”

Realities we have relied upon for years on may be things of the past. What will happen to old norms that were fragile even before the pandemic?

The neighborhoods of Northwest and inner Southwest Portland have been known for their walkability and livability, but those qualities are closely tied to vibrant restaurants, shops and gathering places.

The decline of retailing is a national phenomenon. Amazon and other online services are taking an ever-larger share of the market as brick-and-mortar shops struggle. Weeks or months of closure or drastically reduced activity due to the coronavirus will destroy many businesses and discourage new ones from forming.

Before the virus hit, I was already collecting photos of vacant storefronts on Northwest 23rd Avenue and other retail streets. As more closures of existing businesses are certainly coming, recently completed buildings and others under construction add new spaces to compete for a dwindling number of commercial tenants.

That pattern threatens an assumption Portland has embraced in policy and code for most of our lives. Our zoning codes require commercial or “active uses” in new development in most of the central city. The city can’t work the way planners, politicians and community members envisioned without successful shops on the ground level. That’s what makes possible the 15-minute neighborhood, in which one can carry out most daily chores, and necessities can be obtained within easy walking distance. It’s also what keeps streets safe and sociable day or evening.

Commercial trade has been the essential reason that cities have formed since the beginning of civilization. How will our city thrive as the community-building function of commerce wanes?

Poverty and income disparity can only be heightened in the world the virus will leave behind. Lower-end jobs in businesses that fail will be lost. For years we’ve been aware that robotics and artificial intelligence are replacing employment opportunities, so even a bounced-back economy may produce fewer jobs than in the past.

Homelessness was Portland’s biggest challenge at the beginning of the year, and it will only accelerate with the spike in unemployment brought on by the pandemic. Only government is big enough to provide the income support and housing facilities that will be needed. Still, I have no confidence in Metro’s ability to manage the 10-year, $3-billion homeless services measure planned to go on the May ballot.

To hold expanded government programs accountable, independent journalism is more essential than ever. However, newspapers and broadcasters suffer from dwindling advertising revenues from the private sector, which has found efficiencies in the targeted messaging made possible by the internet. And the internet is based on giving economic and political interests control over the “news,” which leads to messages that factionalize voters, undermining political compromise and science-based solutions.

These trends were well-documented before the coronavirus hit. The downward spiral can only be hastened by the crisis.

Our best hope is that the faulty assumptions and failed ideas we have been living under can more readily be diagnosed as our social norms come apart. Four of the five Portland City Council seats are in play, which suggests new thinking could be on the horizon. But few of the 50-plus candidates vying for those positions have demonstrated a capacity to question the path that got us here or promise to bring fresh thinking. That could be expected. All decided to run “before the virus.”

Now is a perfect time for breakthroughs and novel ideas we have not considered because we thought we had too much to lose. As I came to appreciate by watching British documentarian James Burke’s 1985 series, “The Day the Universe Changed,” necessity is often the parent of our greatest advances.

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