I went up to Portland last month to visit friends from when I went to college and grad school, and took stock of the city where I lived a big chunk of my young life. Walking with my college best friend around the Pearl District, which used to be an industrial area by the Willamette River, we saw a fair number of businesses boarded up.
Matt told me that downtown Portland had been hit by a trifecta of adverse conditions. The pandemic had pushed a large number of office people into working from home. Thus the restaurants where they went to lunch and the other shops where they bought clothes and gifts lost a big chunk of business.
Then there were demonstrations against the police that in Portland, pretty famously, went on and on, day after day, week upon week, for 100 days. Tough for a business to stay open when its windows are busted.
Lastly, there was and is the enduring issue of a large group of homeless men who live and hang out in the city. On a morning walk, we saw a group of two Black men and one white woman drinking 16 oz. cans of Budweiser beneath a bridge where the city had placed large rocks to make it harder to pitch a tent.
On my way up there from Pasadena, I had flown out of the nearby airport in Burbank and booked my trip on Alaska Airlines, which has a lot of flights to the Northwest. But at the airport on my way back from Portland, Air Alaska flights going north were canceled because of snow and those going south were canceled because omicron was grounding crews.
I was lucky, however, and my flight took off, packed. Next to me was a woman who directed a nonprofit dedicated to lupus research. Her offices in southeast Portland were unluckily located in the same building as a business that clears homeless camps, and thus, during the 100 days, her building was attacked relentlessly.
There was also a homeless camp nearby. She told me that her charity had planned a wine tasting and had stored cases of wine as well as a supply of mittens and knit caps in the office. Forgot to ask how lupus and the mittens were connected, but I think they distributed the clothes to homeless people.
She came to the office one day, she told me, to find a hole in the ceiling and all the wine and all the mittens and caps gone. A day or two later, she received a call from the owner of a business that redeveloped buildings into apartments in the area. He had checked on the server room in one of the buildings, and found cases of wine and bags of mittens, and an invoice.
She was told by the police that it is common practice among the homeless to find a place to stash what is stolen for later sale on the street. Between the demonstrators and the homeless, the charity moved away.
After I got back home, I went to see my sister in Del Mar to discuss family matters and, as I often do, talked with the Lyft driver on the way back to Carlsbad where I have a beach shack. He was a young, Black high school teacher, son of a Navy officer. He told me that the pandemic had changed his students.
They were much less social, he reported, living largely through their phones. While he allowed the use of phones in class if they were used to aid their study, he had lately been forced to crack down. He taught English and, in the car’s dark interior, lit by lights of cars passing on the freeway, he told me the papers he now received — maybe he taught "Hamlet" — were “a blood bath.”
But more troubling, I thought, he reported an epidemic of apathy among his students. They did not seem to care about anything. That included the study of English, which seems particularly scary to me.
And then, today, walking on Saturday afternoon in Pasadena, with a highly prosperous and well-visited Old Town district, I saw a lot of businesses closed. Even in an area bustling with visitors, the shops had failed.
I counted as I walked along the main street, passing a pair of Swedish tourists eating cones of handmade ice cream while walking slowly along sidewalks busy with shoppers. Along three blocks, I counted 24 businesses closed, some with padlocks on the door handles.
Two years ago, when the pandemic hit like a hurricane, folks here went home. When the vaccines became available, I was quick to get vaccinated and boosted, and I have asked all Courthouse News employees to be vaccinated because, among other reasons, many of them go into courthouses to do their reporting. But omicron is lightweight and the bureaucratic reaction to it has, in my view, an overreaction.
It is now time to put two years of altered social and work life behind us and end all the restrictions.
Last week in England, Boris Johnson lifted all Covid restrictions and the government dropped its advice to work from home. Today on our news page is a story about other parts of Europe moving in the same direction. Hear, hear. It is time for California to do the same.
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