Monday, August 19, 2013

Who Owns the Land?

Congress Square Park during First Friday Art Walk.

On Wednesday, Aug. 21, the Portland City Council will vote on whether or not to sell off most of the downtown area known as Congress Square Park to a private, out-of-state corporation. All indications suggest a majority of the councilors will vote for the sale, much to the dismay of Portland residents who wish to keep the park open for public use.

The Ohio-based company, Rockbridge Capital, which bought the adjoining Eastland Park Hotel in 2011, will purchase the area--which the local media insist on calling "Congress Square Plaza"--for approximately $524,000, according to The Portland Press Herald ("Agreement Outlines Plan to Buy Congress Square Plaza," 08/17/2013). The company plans to build an events center in the area. Opposition to the sale is a key part of my campaign for the City Council.

Since the city began talks of "revitalizing" the park nearly two years ago, members of the public have been systematically shut-out of the debate. The proposal to sell off the area was never put to a vote. Opponents of the plan have voiced their disapproval at numerous City Council and Housing & Development Committee meetings, only to be ignored. Members of the group Friends of Congress Square Park, a diverse coalition of activists intent on preserving the park for public use, have been consistently derided as a "vocal minority," who simply do not understand how this "sweetheart deal" will benefit Portland economically.

I actually think Rockbridge is unrealistic about how economically successful this "events center" will be--though, for the city's sake, I hope I am wrong. But whether or not the soon-to-be-renamed Eastland Park Hotel rakes in a ton of money for Portland is not the point. (The city would have more money if it did not routinely throw it all away on TIFs, subsidies, tax-breaks and handouts to corporations. See: Portland Waterfront.)

Portland lawmakers seem hell-bent on privatizing, commercializing and "revitalizing" every square inch of the city. When they are through arbitrarily auctioning off large pieces of the city will there be anything left for residents to enjoy? At what point do we say, "enough is enough"? As my friend and Portland School Board member, Holly Seeliger noted in a recent blog post, this fight to maintain public land is not unique to Portland. A very similar confrontation led to the uprisings in Turkey earlier this summer.

This is all a symptom of the disease that is capitalism.

Unfettered, unregulated capitalism, with its singular obsession on maximizing profits at all costs, turns everything--including public space, the environment, and even human lives--into a commodity. And for Portland's City Councilors, that is all Congress Square Park is--a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.

Ironically, in their zeal to draw more tourists to Portland, city officials are driving year-round, working-class residents out. Rising costs of rent and the lack of jobs have made Portland almost as expensive to live in as Boston. Soon only the wealthy will be able to afford to live here.

Indeed, it is the wealthy and business elite that have clamored loudest for Rockbridge's events center. Surrounding shops like Emerald City, Queen of Hats, Cross Jewelers and Coffee by Design believe the events center will mean more patrons for their stores. This will undoubtedly be great for these businesses, but it is difficult to tell how the events center will benefit the rest of us.

Profit-obsessed members of the local business community, including the Portland Chamber of Commerce, denounce Congress Square Park as a "failed space"--"failed" because the park is not contributing to their personal finances. In the myopic mindset of the capitalist--a rapacious worldview that divides citizens into "producers" and "takers"--a thing's only value is its economic worth. The notion of intrinsic beauty or worth is completely foreign to them.

There is, furthermore, an additional class element to this controversy. Congress Square Park, for those unfamiliar with it, has long been a frequent hangout for the city's poor, homeless, and destitute. Again, when business owners call the park a "blight" this is bourgeoisie code for the fact that it attracts Portland's "less desirable" residents. And just as the City Council, last month, banned desperate panhandlers from standing in busy median strips, it is now looking to remove them from Congress Square as well.

Let's just call this what it is: a war on the poor.

Many of those that congregate in the park suffer from mental disabilities. Others are alcoholics or drug addicts. Most of them are simply looking for a place to rest for a while. They lack the family or social support systems the rest of us take for granted. These are the people society has turned its back on. Since these individuals have no money to spend, as far as the business elite are concerned, they are worthless.

"There is always more misery among the lower classes," Victor Hugo observes in Les Miserables, "than there is humanity in the higher." Given the recent resurgence in popularity of Hugo's classic novel-turned-musical, it is unfortunate audiences still have not grasped his central message concerning poverty and class-warfare.

Even members of Portland's arts community, like blues-guitar virtuoso, Samuel James, support the Congress Square auction. "I'm sick of being called nigger every time I walk by there," James, who is black, told me during a recent conversation.

The fact that James confronts such deplorable racism on a daily basis is, to be certain, a travesty--one that belies the constant assertion that we now inhabit a "post-racial" America. As a white person, I cannot, truthfully, ever fully understand the emotional impact of racism.

That being said, I find James' gross oversimplification of this issue into cheap identity politics disappointing. The poor and disenfranchised, most of whom do not have the benefit of a proper education and upbringing often speak in the baser, crude language of hate and prejudice because they do not know any better. Seeking any sliver of solace from their own miserable plight, the disenfranchised will lash out at anyone else they perceive to be "The Other." That is not to excuse the use of the "N-word" by anybody. But a compassionate understanding of class-struggle acknowledges this fact.

Then again, maybe the critically lauded songwriter figures the events center will give him another musical venue to book shows in. His reaction is, if anything, further evidence of how the withdrawal into identity politics has destroyed the Left.

We do not need Rockbridge's events center. What we do need, though, is more public space free and open to residents. This is about more than one park. It is about the very idea of who owns Portland--the taxpaying citizens, out-of-state corporations or the moneyed elite that run our local government.

Even if Congress Square's fate is already sealed, the fight to maintain and protect public space is far from over.

Business owners and Samuel James can send hate mail to Citizens who care about public space should send me to the Portland City Council this November. And if you just enjoyed this article and think it was worth the 1100-some-odd words it takes up, feel free to make a donation via the button on the right. Any amount is greatly appreciated.

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