The Springwater Corridor Trailside Story

If you follow Portland’s bike and transit news, you know that conflicts on the Springwater multi-use path have been in the news. It’s a pretty big story for some who live in the area, as well as for some who profit by the area (see #19). But I find some of the smaller details around this story betray the roots of a much larger problem.

One such detail: I noticed Bikeportland.org reported, complete with the source quote, that it was “local residents,” presumably homeowners along the trail, who’d started calling the path, “Avenue of Terror,” while in this Koin 6 news video, Dan Tilkin said it was bicyclists who’d dubbed the path “Avenue of Terror.”

Journalism aside, why does that distinction matter? Because it’s too tempting for local news reporters and viewers—particularly those in somewhat wealthier demographics whose big transportation gripe is that their demanded “congestion solution” of wider roads isn’t implemented fast enough—to write this off as a conflict just between the people who bike for transportation and those who have no homes or money.

You’ve seen drivers look away from people holding cardboard signs at freeway off-ramps. It’s tempting for wealthier demographics to also shake their heads at this arm of the struggle, perhaps pity Springwater trail homeowners, maybe mock the bicyclists a little, or even, in all their privilege, pay no attention whatsoever, ignorant of their own complicity.

Maybe it’s my background as a university professor of theater, but I can’t help but think of West Side Story. Not the oft made-light-of, so-called “cheesy” fight scene. Rather, the socio-cultural, economic and political issues the play/film simultaneously depicts and covers up.

In Alberto Sandoval Sanchez’s analysis he writes, “West Side Story depicts a fight for urban space, a space that has already been impregnated with cultural symbols and political significations for the relations, interactions, and social actions according to the ‘American Way of Life.'” He says, “My interest on decentering, demythifying, and deconstructing ethnic, social, and racial stereotypes of Latinos inscribed in the musical film was the result of witnessing the reaction of an Anglo-American audience that applauded euphorically after the number America. Only then did I understand the power and vitality of the musical, not just as pure entertainment.”

With these contrasting takes of the West Side Story in mind, Koin 6 (which no doubt reaches more car-commuters than bike-commuters) unmistakably—even if unwittingly—signals to the casual viewer that the Springwater Corridor Trail fight is “just” between these two rival “gangs”: the marginalized campers living along the path and the marginalized bicyclists who depend on it for commuting.

As if on cue, on social media, advocates for those in critical need of housing attacked Bikeportland’s story for what was apparently perceived as insensitivity to houseless individuals. But these two groups surely have more in common with each other than with, say, daily car-commuters of the I-5, 217 or 26. Maybe even more than with Bikeportland commenter Craig Giffen, who writes his house is near the trail & says (sarcastically, I’ll guess): “I really think the best solution is for us all to go down there and have a big healing energy circle with the drug users and folks running the bike chop shops. Then….the problem will magically go away via the power of positive thinking. Oh, we need to be sure to “have a dialogue” with the folks chopping up our bikes, can’t forget that.”

I actually think Craig’s idea of a healing energy circle is not bad, but his scope is too small. Instead of holding the healing circle at the trail, have it in the lobby of the Portland ODOT building. That’s where I recently attended a “listening meeting” around street safety and was appalled to learn ODOT’s safety advisory committee doesn’t even include a member from a bike-specific organization, much less do they recognize VisionZero. Their definition of neighborhood “livability” doesn’t include addressing car noise or car exhaust in yards. For their purposes, “livability” just means short-term survivability. When I asked about reducing speed limits of streets to lesson both danger and noise, I was told “no,” that ODOT believes drivers aren’t “on board” (their words!) with slower, safer, healthier streets. They believe implementing more frequent driving license exams to keep drivers apprised of new laws and infrastructure is too expensive. But their policies do pass along the costs of traffic enforcement of deadly streets, emergency vehicles, and the destruction of livable neighborhoods to citizens, who know only that their roads are too dangerous and full. Some of these citizens obediently complain about trash on a trail while engine noise and fumes emit from their own driveways. They’re so used to car violence they can’t see it.

What else do fast, wide roads have to do with homelessness and the Springwater Trail problems? Visibility, for one thing. Out in Washington County where I live in a zero-car household, people commuting to work in cars are demanding wider, faster roads—and they’re getting them. But from the freeway and five-lane roads, it’s impossible to see there are neighborhoods trying to live alongside these giant rivers of cars. It’s impossible to understand from the car how active commuters and renters are affected by wider streets. In this way, driving promotes narcissism. All some car-commuters care about is having to spend less time driving (the irony of that is lost on them). They are oblivious or don’t care that their car’s noise and exhaust worsens neighborhoods, especially those on lower ends of the economic spectrum. I have a hard time imagining the average Washington County resident has even heard of the Springwater Corridor Trail, much less their complicity in the conflict. Sure, they’re a whole county away. But also, how could they know of it, from their vantage? Who has told them? Like America buying chocolate that shows up in stores thanks to slave labor, suburban Americans aren’t cued to think about bicyclists—read people—and our houseless population trying to negotiate our streeted land.

Advocates, though, should be—and are—thinking of suburban Americans. Let’s “open up” the plot of West Side Story (which, incidentally, was originally going to be titled East Side Story). In our story, let’s include the voices of the car-commuters (carists?) who demand more general taxes be spent on wider roads; let’s zoom this picture out. I want a more complete picture of Springwater Corridor Trail Story.

“Automobile in America,
Chromium steel in America,
Wire-spoke wheel in America,
Very big deal in America”

West Side Story

Ghost Bike at ODOT
Ghost Bike at Portland ODOT Office (click photo for story)
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