This post is part of our SW Portland Week.
Though you can’t truly understand any community from numbers alone, you can’t fully understand it without them, either. As we get into our week in this quadrant, we wanted to ground ourselves in the hard facts behind the photos we’re taking and the people we’re meeting.
Fortunately, the City of Portland does a project every year that goes a long way to understanding the culture of each quadrant.
Here are some excerpts from Portland’s 2014 Community Survey, gathered by mail from 3,297 surveys in July and August of last year. The margin of error for Southwest is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.
Yes, it’s the whitest, the oldest and the second-richest – but not by a lot
Portland is a segregated city in the sense that it’s disproportionately white throughout (a snowballed result of, among other things, Oregon’s horrific decision in 1844 to outlaw dark skin). But (maybe for related reasons) it’s actually fairly well integrated internally by race and income. No quadrant falls outside the margin of error for race, though Southwest’s estimate of 0 percent black population does make it unique.
(Note: the Portland Community Survey dramatically undercounts young people: 21 percent of Portlanders are in their 20s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but they’re just 6 percent of those surveyed. Same with people of color: the survey says 2 percent of Portlanders are Latino, while the Census Bureau says 10 percent. However, there’s no reason to think that this undersampling varies by quadrant, so Southwest is likely to actually be the whitest and oldest.)
On income, Southwest trails Northwest and Downtown very slightly in its share of people earning $75,000 a year or more. But it’s flat wrong to assume that a Southwest resident is well-off: 8 percent make less than $20,000, 18 percent less than $35,000.
It’s the least safe part of Portland to bike and walk
That’s what residents say, anyway. This question is about “streets in your neighborhood”:
To look at incident reports, Southwest actually has very few fatalities of people biking and walking. But that’s largely because people are far less likely to do either, because they feel so unsafe doing so. Even East Portland, which for all its problems has more sidewalks than Southwest, falls a bit behind the 34 percent of Southwest residents who call walking safety “bad” or “very bad” and the 29 percent who say the same about biking.
It has almost as little biking and walking as East Portland
An inner Northeast Portland resident (defined here as west of Cesar Chavez Boulevard) is 13 times likelier to ride a bike for a trip than the average American.
Southwest and East Portlanders, meanwhile, are average Americans.
That’s a colossal cultural divide in transportation. Another detail to note with Southwest: there’s an unusually large gap between the percentage of work trips by bike (3 percent) and the percentage of all trips by bike (1 percent). In Southwest, biking is rarely something to be done casually.
It’s getting almost as little development as East Portland
In part, this is probably because connected street grids with good walking, biking and transit have become popular places to live. But in part it’s a conscious choice. Here’s a passage from Oregonian reporter Brad Schmidt’s excellent 2013 series about East Portland:
The housing explosion never struck Southwest Portland. Residents refused to let it happen.
In September 1996, just eight months after the City Council approved the Outer Southeast plan, officials breezed into the West Hills looking to equitably spread their vision of housing growth to all corners of the city.
They presented a proposal with new zoning that would ensure “likely development” of 7,500 new housing units over 20 years. It included high-density apartments and mixed-use buildings along Barbur Boulevard, the area’s main commercial drag.
Residents were furious.
Judges, attorneys and doctors flooded City Hall with angry letters. Liz Kaufman, a political consultant who lived in South Burlingame, called the Southwest Community Plan “fundamentally dangerous.”
The proposed new zoning “dramatically and perhaps devastatingly alters the character” of neighborhoods, warned Kaufman, who went on to advise [then-Commissioner Charlie] Hales during his successful 2012 mayoral campaign.
The pushback was too much. Within a month, Hales, who at the time lived in Southwest’s Hayhurst neighborhood, announced changes “to ensure that we don’t sacrifice the very thing community plans are designed to protect – neighborhood livability.”
The Planning Commission suspended work in August 1998 after two years of limited progress. When the City Council finally approved the Southwest plan in 2000, all references to adding 6,500 to 7,500 housing units had been eliminated. Zoning changes that followed were minimal.
Even so, the stripped-down plan continued to evoke anger.
Amanda Fritz, then a planning commissioner who today serves on the City Council, fired off an indignant email to the manager of the Southwest plan in 2001. Fritz, a resident of West Portland Park neighborhood, was upset about an area that planners wanted to zone for townhomes. She thought larger lots would better serve families with children.
“I’ve decided I can’t continue to participate in a process where those who complain bitterly are more successful than those who attempt to participate constructively,” she wrote.
While city leaders eliminated growth targets for Southwest Portland, new zoning in east Portland ushered a massive influx of homes and people.
Residents rate it both affordable and livable
Here’s the final fact about Southwest: people like it.
A whopping 0 percent of Southwest residents rated the “livability” of their neighborhood as “bad” or “very bad,” the city’s lowest rate. Ninety-five percent call it “good” or “very good,” the city’s highest rate by an inch.
On the city’s east side, the more people are satisfied with their area, the less likely they are to say they can afford their homes. Not so in Southwest. The only more “affordable” areas to live are East and North Portland — which are presumably cheaper in part because they’re the lowest-performing quadrants for livability.
Both these ratings, of course, probably reflect Southwest’s greater wealth; generally speaking, people who make more money report more happiness with every aspect of their lives. But another reason is probably that in Portland, Southwest is weird: it’s a place that, unlike most of the city, looks and feels like much of the rest of the United States. Portland zigs; Southwest Portland zags. That’s how it’s built a brand and a niche.
And if Portland’s last two decades are proof of anything, it’s that weird works. Southwest Portland is Portland’s Portland.
We’ll be here in Southwest all week! And join us Friday afternoon for a BikePortland Get Together and social hour at the Lucky Labrador Public House in Multnomah Village (7675 SW Capitol Hwy) from 4:00 – 6:30pm.