Archive for November, 2010

Life and death on the Sandy River

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

River Rats

Life and death on the Sandy River.

BY CHRIS LYDGATE

“Jump!”

“Back flip!”

“Dooooo iiiiit!”

The pressure’s on. Ryan stands on the brow of a sheer rock cliff, 40 vertiginous feet above the rippling green water of the Sandy River. Far below, the beach at Dabney Park is ripe with babes of every description—hotties in bikinis and denim skirts, with glowing tans and luscious curves, bopping to the tunes blasting from a boom box. The guys sport crew cuts and tattoos and torsos ripped from an Abercrombie & Fitch commercial. Every eye is fixed on him. “Juuuump!” they shout. “Come on, brother!”

Ryan brushes his dark hair out of his eyes and hesitates. He’s 15, a couple years younger than the crowd staring up at him. As he pauses at the precipice, Yody Lillie, a 20-year-old contractor, clambers up the face of the rock, elbows Ryan away from the prime spot and promptly launches himself over the edge. With a mighty splash and a crown of spray, Lillie plunges deep into the water and does a lazy crawl back to his cheering friends. He hauls himself onto the beach, beads of water winking from the hair on his chest, and takes a swig of beer.

Ryan steps up to the edge and brushes the hair from his eyes again. A week before, a man drowned diving off this cliff—did a belly flop and died of blunt trauma to the chest. A few days later, another man drowned swimming in the same spot. Bad omens. Down on the beach, a honey babe with big brown eyes and a tiny black bikini is watching Ryan intently. “Do it!” shouts a voice. “He’s just trying to impress people,” mutters another. Ryan gazes down at the river. From up here, the water is hardly inviting. It looks like a slab of concrete. But he can’t back down—not now, not with all these people watching. So he steps forward and jumps into the empty air, his hands fluttering in front of him like tiny, broken wings as he hurtles towards the river’s face….

Every summer, a fascinating transformation takes place along the banks of Portland’s rivers. When the mercury creeps past 90 degrees and the asphalt burns and the sun feels like a furnace, city-dwellers by the thousand descend on rivers like the Sandy, turning them from backcountry brooks into the outdoor equivalent of municipal swimming pools. On a blistering weekend, popular spots like Dabney, a few miles upstream from Troutdale, throng with urban refugees in all their sunburned glory, fleeing the heat and hassle of the concrete jungle in the swift, cool water.

Roughly 180,000 people visit Dabney every year, according to the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department. About a half-million more visit the other parks along the Sandy (Dodge, Oxbow, Lewis & Clark, and Glenn Otto) or just hike down the bank wherever they see an inviting stretch of sand. And that’s just one river. Throw in other local waterways like the Clackamas and the Washougal and you’re talking about a major sociological phenomenon—especially (if our experience is typical) among young people, blue-collar folks, immigrants and eastsiders. They don’t have a cottage on the coast or a yacht at the marina. Hell, they don’t have air conditioning. When it gets hot, they can sweat in their houses with the fan cranked on high and the windows open and listen to the neighbors yell at their kids. Or they can head to the river. Beach culture? That’s for California. Oregon has river culture—a scene you cruise by inner tube, where social status is measured in the height of the rocks you jump off; where Hispanic evangelicals perform baptisms; where steelheaders cast their lines alongside naked sun-worshippers; and where the chirp of birdsong mixes with the hoot of numbskulls chanting, “Show us yer tits!”

The rivers have drawn a lot of attention over the past few weeks, thanks to a tragic surge in drownings (see map, above) and reports of “wild parties,” underage drinking, litter, drug use and public sex. There have been 29 drownings in Oregon since May, an increase from previous summers. Local authorities have turned up the heat, sending officers to patrol the river on jetboats.

Ultimately, however, the conflicts on the water are likely to get worse before they get better. There is something irredeemably wild about the river, wild and lawless and dangerous. Beneath its glittering surface lurk the turbulent currents and opposing forces—law and anarchy, age and youth, civilization and nature—that have characterized America from its earliest days as a republic. They are not going to go away because a few deputies are handing out tickets at a boat launch.

Standing on the rustic, double-decker back porch of his house, Michael Drais gazes out at a postcard view of the Sandy River, which sweeps cool and green through stands of cottonwood, alder and maple, forming a quiet beach known as Big Bend. High above, an osprey patrols the sky while a great blue heron stands on a boulder liked a taciturn, feathery Minuteman.

Drais, a 61-year-old retired lawyer, and his wife, Deborah, a nurse, bought this waterfront property a few hundred yards below Dabney Park for its languorous beauty. But when the temperature hits 85 degrees, this tranquil spot becomes the staging ground for a parade of numbskulls.

On rafts and drift boats, inner tubes and air mattresses, the great blue-collar tide washes up onto the beach (or hikes in from the Columbia River Highway). They come equipped with boom boxes, cell phones, coolers, deck chairs, beer, chips, dogs and barbecues—and leave behind a swath of broken bottles, plastic bags, cigarette butts and human waste.

Last month, when temperatures spiked above 100 degrees, hundreds of people converged onto this beach. “The place was an absolute madhouse,” says state trooper Ken Poggi, who was called in to deal with the crowd. “Wall-to-wall people. More people than gravel and sand—the worst I’ve ever seen.” He even busted a teenager for selling pot out of a cooler.

“Since 2003, this nice seductive area has been the party place for all the kids,” says Drais. “They can drink, they can smoke dope, they can have sex. The word’s out.”

From his back porch, Drais and his wife have ringside seats to a show whose cast is always changing but whose script is pretty much the same. “It’s become an insoluble and frightening problem,” he says.

There is no small irony in Drais’ situation. For many years, he fought for the public’s right to enjoy this river and its beaches, a battle he waged on behalf of local anglers. In Oregon, the bed and banks of navigable waterways are considered public property up to the ordinary high waterline.

But the definition of “navigable” turns out to be both contentious and extraordinarily complicated.

Steelheaders, alarmed that property owners along the Sandy might try to prevent them from fishing, pressed the Oregon State Land Board to officially declare the river navigable—which in turn would ensure that anglers, boaters, rafters and everyone else would have the right to enjoy it. Drais, a lifelong angler, drafted their legal briefs. The board voted to declare the lower 37.5 miles of the Sandy River navigable on Feb. 7, 2002—the same day, as it happened, that Drais and his wife bought their property at Big Bend.

That ruling, Drais says, “became a door to anybody who wanted to use the river.”

Now Drais has to live with the practical consequences of his own philosophy—a situation he finds extremely unpleasant. “The problem is not to keep people out, but to keep the rowdies out,” Drais sighs. “The rowdy kids and drunks have chased out the families. Now families don’t come here.”

As he speaks to a reporter, a couple of teenagers amble along the shore and set up camp on the beach. “That’s a case of trespassing right there,” mutters Deborah, peering over her glasses at a dude carrying a cooler.

“Come on, the beach is open to everyone,” Drais replies.

“But he’s walking above the vegetation line.” she says. “Is he underage? Is that thing filled with beer?”

Drais shrugs and shakes his head. When they first moved here, they used to go down to the beach every night and pick up the trash. Now they don’t bother, unless Deborah happens to spot a broken bottle. The thought of shards of glass slicing up bare feet is more than she can bear. “There’s no 911 out here,” she says. “You take the heat, the water, the alcohol…. This river is like an accident waiting to happen.”

The atmosphere along the Sandy is vaguely reminiscent of a rock show. To float it is to feel like a co-conspirator in some cosmic, subversive enterprise. People wave and shout hello, trade beer for cigarettes or a dry book of matches. Alongside the echo of Harleys blatting down the gorge and the splash of jumping salmon is the unmistakable pulse of sexual energy.

Kicked back on the beach at Dabney, Jesse and Alec relax in a pair of camping chairs. They’re both 23, live in Gresham, and work in the construction trades. This afternoon, they have brought a backpack of Bud and a couple of guitars—Jesse plays classical, Alec plays steel string. “We just need the girls now,” Jesse grins. As they debate the merits of various spots along the river, their attention is diverted by a group of teenagers slowly floating past them in inner tubes.

“Don’t you do that, Matthew Fucking Anderson, I’m not kidding you!” shrieks a girl in a bikini as a young man, presumably Matthew Fucking Anderson himself, attempts to overturn her inner tube. Now another girl from her group swims over and grabs hold of the tube, and the two girls wrestle for possession, squeaking and squirming, a riot of wet hair, tanned legs and pert bottoms.

Sitting on the shore, the two guitarists admire the show. Jesse busts out a minor scale and Alec takes a deep slug off his Bud. “Oregon is the best part of the country,” he sighs, as the spectacle floats downstream. “We got the forests, we got the ocean, we got the desert, and we got the river.”

A few miles downstream, at the “Cool Pool,” a group of eight young people wade into the river with bottles of beer in hand and try to explain the river’s allure. “It’s close and convenient,” says 19-year-old Grant Ottoway of Gresham. “If you don’t have air conditioning, and it gets hot—that’s when people come out to the river. We come down to cool off, find some cute girls, smoke a little weed, and chill.”

He puts his arm around a girl standing next to him, and gives her a grin and a squeeze. The group talks about how the media have blown the dangers out of proportion. “I can float down any rapid on this river and not drown,” Ottoway continues, brandishing a bottle of Blue Boar in one hand and a can of Bud in the other. “This river isn’t dangerous.”

“I’ll go different on that,” says Amanda, 19. “The currents can be strong.”

“For girls, sure,” says Grant.

“For girls!?” she exclaims. “For anyone. A lot of people panic in the water. The current is extremely strong.”

“You gotta know what you’re doing,” he replies. “If you’re jumping off a bridge into 8-foot water…”

The debate veers into other subjects, as riverside debates are wont to do, such as the practicality of tubing and smoking, and whether most drowning victims are Mexican (in fact, the high proportion of blue-collar and immigrant families on the Sandy means that a lot of drowning victims don’t have Anglo surnames.)

Just upstream, a guy with long dreadlocks and cool shades caresses a blond girl in a stripey string bikini who is obviously stoned (she compares a passing cloud to a plate of breadsticks.) His hands wander down her back, tickling her spine, and come to rest on her bikini bottom. It doesn’t take a Dr. Kinsey to predict what’s going to happen later.

It would be unfair to portray the river as a carnival of sin. Many of the folks on the water seek nothing more depraved than a swim and a chance to do the crossword puzzle. You are almost as likely to encounter Vietnamese Americans catching squawfish as knots of teenagers getting stoned. If you float down the Sandy on a Sunday, you might even see pastor Obdulia Chavarria of the Iglesia Cristiana Camino de Santidad performing a full-immersion baptism. Standing waist-deep in the water, he holds the repentant sinner’s hands above his head and intones a fervent prayer. “En el nombre de Jesus, Aleluia!” he cries, plunging the worshipper into the river.

Nonetheless, there is an air of lawlessness, a whiff of the Wild West, hovering over the Sandy River that comes from many factors. First, there is a tangle of different agencies responsible for establishing and enforcing regulations, including the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, the Troutdale City Police, Oregon State Parks, Metro, Oregon State Police, the Division of State Lands, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Forest Service.

In Dabney Park, for example, park rangers until recently did not have jurisdiction over a sandy island that was a favorite hangout for teenage parties, because technically it belonged to the Division of State Lands. “The kids used to stand on the island and thumb their noses at us,” says Kevin Price, the assistant area manager for the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department. (This spring, an interagency agreement finally gave rangers the authority to enforce park rules on the island and other public lands adjacent to Dabney.)

Second, long stretches of the river are difficult or impossible to access from the road, unless deputies want to clamber down a steep bank, which is both time-consuming and difficult to accomplish silently. Multnomah County does have a river patrol on a jetboat, but you can hear it coming a long way away. Worse, by August stretches of the river are just too shallow for a patrol boat.

Third, the rules themselves are often arbitrary. Rafts, for example, are supposed to carry whistles and life vests for each passenger. But nothing is required if you float the river in a flimsy pool toy or air mattress—unless you strap it to another pool toy, in which case you can be fined $247 for not carrying a life vest.

The biggest obstacle in policing the river, however, is the fact that it’s 50 miles long. Every time authorities crack down on one trouble spot, people simply find another a few miles upstream. “It reminds me of when I was a kid,” says Lt. Jason Gates of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. “We used to cruise 82nd Avenue. Then the police cracked down, so we went to 122nd Avenue. Then they cracked down there, so people started cruising on Broadway.”

The same process is going on along the Sandy. Several years ago, the most notorious trouble spot was Gordon Creek. Years before that, it was Buck Creek Flats. A few weeks ago, it was Big Bend. By the time this article is published, it will probably be somewhere else.

“If they think they’ve got it under control, they’re sticking their heads in the sand,” says fishing guide Bob Plympton. “I’ve lived here since 1962, and I’ve watched it go from never seeing anyone but your neighbors to complete chaos.”

Some riverside owners, frustrated with what they see as official bungling, are taking matters into their own hands. Plympton’s favorite technique is simple but effective—a 130-pound Rottweiler.

Even if, in some Orwellian alternate reality, you could police the Sandy, you could never make it safe. The river is swift, cold and unpredictable. Currents form. Rocks lurk beneath the surface. “This is not a city park,” says Lt. Gates. “This is a not a swimming pool. This is a wild river.”

That wildness, in fact, is what we really crave when we float the river—otherwise we could just as well go to Dishman Pool or take a beach towel to Jamison Square. We want to get away from the noise and madness of the city, to escape from our bills and our chores and our appointments and disappointments. We want to slip away for a few hours and go where no one can bother us. We know there’s a risk—there’s always a risk—but we trust our common sense. We want to plunge into our destiny. And if you’ll lend us your pump, we’ll give you a light.

[Originally published in Willamette Week on 7/19/2006]

Railroad War on the Deschutes River

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

A barefaced battle for rail rights

Sunday, December 17, 2006

CHRIS LYDGATE

Snaking its way north through the high desert of Central Oregon, the Deschutes River has long beckoned adventurous souls with its monumental landscape and voracious rapids. A century ago, however, the ancient fragrance of sagebrush and juniper was joined by an ominous new scent — the tang of gunpowder.

In “The Deschutes River Railroad War,” Leon Speroff recounts the astonishing story of two rival railroads that fought their way from The Dalles to Bend with pickax, spike and gavel.

On one side was the Oregon Trunk Railway, bankrolled by railroad mogul James J. Hill, who owned the Great Northern and Northern Pacific and dominated access to Seattle and Spokane. Sniffing profits to be reaped from transporting lumber and grain from Central Oregon, and hungry for trunk lines to generate traffic for his transcontinental link, Hill bought up options on the west bank of the Deschutes.

Hill’s move was a barefaced challenge to his great rival, Wall Street tycoon Edward H. Harriman, whose Union Pacific line and its various offshoots held a stranglehold on Oregon rail. Not to be outdone, Harriman snapped up rights to the east bank of the Deschutes. By the summer of 1909, it became clear that neither man was going to back down. “It looks like war,” opined the Bend Bulletin. “And we hope it is.”

The two lines hired hordes of workers, more than 9,000 altogether, and proceeded to race up the canyon, grading beds, building trestles, blasting tunnels and laying track. It was dirty, brutal work, made more perilous by the dastardly tricks they played on one another. Workers set grass fires near their rivals’ camps, stampeded their cattle, stole their gunpowder and freed their mules. At night, they consoled themselves with bootleg whiskey or flocked to the come-hither twinkle of such boomtowns as Shaniko and Madras.

After Herculean efforts — among them a spectacular truss bridge constructed 320 feet above the Crooked River — Hill’s crew reached Bend first. On Oct. 5, 1911, before a jubilant crowd, Hill drove home the golden spike. It was the end of the race and also, in a way, the end of an era: The contest along the Deschutes was the last great railroad war of the Old West, before the rise of the automobile forever changed the economics of rail. Today, only Hill’s track survives. Sections of Harriman’s line have been turned into roads or trails — the rest has been abandoned to the dust and the rattlesnakes.

This is a fascinating and handsome book — lucidly written, meticulously researched and profusely illustrated. Its only flaw is that Speroff has organized his material in such a way that the narrative is almost stifled by the maddening preliminaries of geology, economics and engineering. But this is a minor quibble. When Speroff finally grants himself permission to tell the story, the book is as deep and hypnotic as the river itself.

Author Leon Speroff signs copies of “The Deschutes River Railroad War” at 11 a.m. Saturday at Kaufmann’s Streamborn, 8861 S.W. Commercial St., Tigard.

Dose of realism on vaccines

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

A dose of realism on vaccines

Sunday, February 18, 2007

CHRIS LYDGATE

The Oregonian

O ver the past two decades, the debate on vaccination has become steadily more rancorous, which is puzzling. After all, vaccines have wiped smallpox from the face of the planet and reduced polio to a ghastly memory. Diseases that once struck fear into every parent’s heart — diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles — have become, for most Americans, medical asterisks. But, as Arthur Allen shows in “Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver,” vaccines are not miracles: They are imperfect drugs with risks and benefits. What’s more, he argues, vaccination raises fundamental issues about life, death, illness and the individual’s duty to society.

Misgivings about vaccines stretch back to 1721, when Cotton Mather, a Boston minister, promoted inoculation (a primitive forerunner to vaccination) to forestall a smallpox epidemic. Opponents denounced Mather as a misguided crackpot who sought to evade God’s judgment through unnatural practices. They also articulated the parental dilemma at the heart of every shot: “I should have less distress in burying many children by the absolute acts of God’s providence,” wrote one opponent, “than in being the means of burying one by my own act and deed.”

The smallpox vaccine proved remarkably successful, so successful it hatched a swarm of imitators. It is somewhat unsettling to read about the haphazard development of these early vaccines, many produced by “guts and guesswork,” and tested on soldiers or schoolchildren. In 1942, for example, the U.S. Army, acting on intelligence that the Axis powers might wage biological warfare, injected millions of GIs with a vaccine against yellow fever that was contaminated with hepatitis B. Some 100 soldiers died and 50,000 others were hospitalized. (Sadly, their sacrifice was meaningless; the intelligence was wrong.)

In a similar vein, the polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk in 1952 was heralded as a triumph of American know-how. Salk described it as “safe, and you can’t get safer than safe.” Unfortunately, shoddy manufacturing and inept federal oversight allowed contaminated shots to reach the marketplace, crippling hundreds of children before the vaccine was withdrawn.

As the last century wound to a close, vaccines were safer and more effective than ever, but the political and moral calculus surrounding them had changed. The diseases they protected against were largely abstract. Cases of severe reaction, though exceedingly unusual, were dramatic and easy to demonize. And the era of trusting experts was long gone. These trends converged in 1982, when NBC aired an expose on the diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccine, complete with footage of quadriplegic and brain-damaged children. Overnight, the modern anti-vaccine movement was born.

It turns out that the whole-cell pertussis vaccine used in the old DPT shots did indeed cause brain damage in extremely rare instances, and that drug companies had known this for decades but never bothered to introduce a safer alternative. Although the pertussis vaccine has since been replaced, the revelations inflicted tremendous damage to the public trust. Many parents now oppose vaccination in principle and blame shots for a horde of maladies from autism to asthma.

“Vaccine” is at least 100 pages too long, and some chapters meander. But Allen really shines with his perceptive analysis of the anti-vaccine movement and his calm examination of the evidence linking vaccines and autism (he is a skeptic). His greatest achievement is to inject a dose of reality into a debate that has become distressingly doctrinaire.

Allen reads from “Vaccine” at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St.

Chris Lydgate is a Portland writer.

Heartbreak Hotel

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Heartbreak hotel

BACK STORY • Grove future in doubt; today’s no picnic

(news photo)

L.E. BASKOW / PORTLAND TRIBUNE

Grove Hotel resident Sharon Hren (with her dog, Katie) shows a room that’s no longer occupied after it was emptied of garbage that was piled as high as the sink.

“This place is filthy.” Standing in her pajamas, shivering with cold, Sharon Hren runs a hand through her dark, shoulder-length hair, fires up a Pall Mall and surveys the wreckage of her life. To put it kindly, Room 227 is a shambles.

The mattress is a jumble of bedding, the floor littered with dirty clothes, towels, coats, books, boxes of crackers and candy-bar wrappers. Blankets hang over the grimy windows, smothering the daylight.

The closet is a length of pipe nailed to the corner. The walls are covered with butcher paper, affixed with dabs of toothpaste, on which Hren has scrawled a cacophony of reminders and reflections. One reads simply CHAOS.

Down the hall, in Room 212, Matt Van Alstyne sits on his bed, wrapped in a thick overcoat. A bitter January wind blows through the broken window, but Van Alstyne doesn’t seem to care. Holding a packet of Jell-O cubes, he stares at the wall as if tuning in to an imaginary TV.

The ragged carpet is sodden with filth; scores of dead insects lie entombed in spider webs. Mice scrabble amid the chicken bones and tubs of teriyaki sauce that have piled up behind the radiator.

Van Alstyne’s wrists and ankles are swollen with bedbug bites, and he has no socks. The room stinks of cigarettes and despair.

As he trudges down the dark, gloomy corridor to the communal bathroom, the sound of a neighbor’s hacking cough mingles with the moronic beep of an ineffective alarm clock and the skunky whiff of marijuana.

Welcome to the Grove Hotel.

Forget about bellhops or valet parking — the Grove Hotel is a lodger’s nightmare.

Located at 421 W. Burnside St., it long has been one of the most notorious addresses on Skid Row, a haven for drug-dealing and prostitution, where the front desk is fortified by security wire and the concierge is a broken vending machine.

But the Grove is more than a catalog of social problems. It also is, tragically, a home to some of the city’s poorest and most disabled citizens.

One or two stay on by choice, but most are trapped in the Grove by a combination of bad luck, their own mistakes and bureaucratic complacency on the part of the institutions supposed to help them.

“They don’t have the wherewithal to complain, and no one would listen if they did,” says Portland police officer Jeff Myers, who has become the Grove’s unofficial guardian angel. “They’re prisoners.”

Despite its problems, the future of the Grove is uncertain. In November, the city purchased the building from its former owner, Morris I. Hasson, whose family had owned it since 1950.

At the time, the city intended to clamp down on the criminal activity, rehabilitate the aging structure and preserve its 70 rooms of low-income housing — then have it torn down after building replacement housing.

But after the sale of the Grove to the Housing Authority of Portland, some city officials now are having second thoughts about its future.

Commissioner Erik Sten, the City Council’s low-income housing expert, recently used the Grove as a bargaining chip in his efforts to expand homeless services in the Old Town-Chinatown area. Unless he gets his way, Sten said the Grove might never be torn down.

Once upon a time, Hren sold real estate. Then, in 1992, she was the victim of a brutal mugging in downtown Seattle. Her assailant fractured her jaw and skull, shattering her ability to think.

“I can’t remember what I’m doing from one moment to the next,” she says, spritzing the room with hair spray and petting her faithful companion, a blue Doberman named Katie.

Living on a $569 monthly check from Social Security, Hren, 52, has racked up an impressive string of evictions over the years. That background makes it almost impossible for her to find a decent apartment, which is how she wound up at the Grove.

“It’s so oppressive and depressing and confusing. But I don’t have anywhere else to go,” she said.

Hren moved into the pitiful room at the end of the corridor in May, paying $520 a month in rent. The sink was broken, the bathrooms vile, the floor so filthy that she covered it with butcher paper to avoid touching it, but at least she had a roof over her head.

‘It was a hellhole’

Unknown to Hren, at that time the Grove was just coming into the cross hairs of city Commissioner Randy Leonard’s Housing Interdiction Team, or HIT. The unit is spearheaded by Myers, which focuses on run-down lodgings that have become hot zones of crime and squalor.

When Leonard ventured into the Grove for the first time, he was stunned by the conditions. “In my career as a firefighter and a fire inspector, I’ve been through some bad buildings,” he says. “This was worse than anything I’d ever seen. It was a hellhole.”

Mentally ill residents lived amid jugs of urine and trash piled to the ceiling. The halls were covered with debris. Mice, cockroaches and bedbugs roamed the halls and rooms. The building had no sprinklers and no fire alarm. Batteries in the smoke detectors were dead. And the stench was indescribable.

That night, Leonard says, he had a nightmare. The Grove was burning, and firefighters were trapped in the narrow corridors with no escape.

Two weeks after Leonard’s dream, the fire marshal declared the building “an inimical threat to human life” and ordered that a fire patrol walk through the building every hour, day and night.

The HIT stepped up the pressure on Hasson, the Grove’s owner. Fire inspectors, building inspectors and police officers visited the hotel every day. Every time a room became vacant, the fire marshal slapped a red tag on its door, condemning it for human habitation.

For his part, Hasson insists that he is not responsible for the hotel’s problems. “The fact of the matter is that the residents were damaging the rooms and not letting us inspect them,” he told the Portland Tribune. “Anytime we found things wrong, we corrected them.”

The city is disputing Hasson’s claims, citing the numerous problems documented in the inspection reports. Whatever the case, after the city began condemning the rooms, Hasson raised the rent for the remaining tenants but still couldn’t — or wouldn’t — pay for improvements.

Instead, he hired a lawyer and accused Leonard of targeting the Grove for unfair treatment. In response, Leonard pulled out the photographs taken by Myers and pushed them across the table.

In November, Hasson finally gave in and agreed to sell the Grove to the city for $1.8 million. When she heard the news, Hren scrawled a sign on a scrap of cardboard and hung it in her window: “God Bless Commissioner Leonard.”

City officials quickly reduced the residents’ rent to $320 and began to haul out the accumulated junk of decades of neglect, and embarked on a $3.2 million plan to bring the building up to minimal standards.

But they soon discovered that the structural problems were a cakewalk compared with the human problems.

Vermin live here, too

Clutching a box of frozen burritos, Van Alstyne, 47, sits on his bed and stares at his new microwave, purchased at a secondhand store for $15.

Hunger gnaws at his guts — it’s late afternoon and he hasn’t eaten yet — but he can’t figure out how to turn it on. Laboriously, he punches the buttons, hoping to hit on the correct combination.

Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1992, Van Alstyne has lived at the Grove for almost two years. His room is choked with broken appliances, infested with vermin and smells like a rathole.

Today, however, he is beaming because, as he shyly confides, he won the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes — all he has to do now is collect the money.

A few doors down, in Room 204, Scotty Whitten, 46, sleeps on a mattress disfigured by a giant, blackened hole with naked springs pushing out of it like tendons, eaten away by his own urine.

“I get drunk and pass out and go in the bed,” he says with a shrug. “I just ignore it.”

In Room 205, Tina Moore, 39, is mentally handicapped; she can’t read a newspaper or find a street address. She also is a junkie who lives from one $15 drug buy to the next. She has lived in this jumbled, squalid room since August 2006, paying as much as $460 a month for the privilege.

“I can’t take it no more,” she sobs, tears smudging her mascara. “I got bug bites all over my back, my arms, my face. I got mice, I got roaches, I got lice. I want to leave. I want to get out of here. It needs to be closed down. I’m begging you. This place is a dump. I can’t take it no more. Please. I want to get out of here. Nobody will help me.”

Ironically, residents like these are, on paper, success stories. They receive a steady (if meager) disability check from the Social Security Administration; their income is overseen by professional money managers such as Integrity Plus and Safety-Net of Oregon, which are supposed to act as their financial guardians.

In addition, they each have caseworkers at social-service agencies such as Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare or Multnomah County’s Developmental Disability Services, who are supposed to look out for them.

Unfortunately, residents say, their money managers show no interest in their living situation, and their caseworkers do not seem to comprehend the conditions at the Grove.

Moreover, the sad truth is that many of the residents are extremely undesirable tenants. Van Alstyne hoards food. Whitten passes out drunk. Moore turns tricks.

In a city with an acute shortage of affordable housing — the central city has just approximately 3,330 such units today, down 33 percent since 1978 — few landlords are willing to take a chance on the denizens of the Grove.

So where will they go?

Repairs would cost millions

Many decaying structures are candidates for renovation; unfortunately, the Grove is not one of them.

Built in 1907, the Grove suffered an unusual architectural insult in the 1930s, when it was sliced down the middle to make way for the widening of Burnside, resulting in an awkward, narrow structure with a single staircase.

Thanks to decades of neglect, a full, down-to-the-studs rehab would cost tens of millions of dollars and be “like putting lipstick on a pig,” according to Mike Andrews, director of development and community revitalization at the Housing Authority of Portland, which now owns the building.

Instead, the housing authority plans to spend $3.2 million to bring the Grove up to basic standards. The building will get a new fire-safety system and new toilets, sinks, mattresses and bed frames. The windows will be repaired, the carpet replaced, the walls patched and painted. Exterminators will do their best to control what Andrews terms an “epidemic” of vermin.

Boarded-up retail space will be converted into a common room, and a washer and dryer will be installed on the ground floor.

The housing authority intends to complete the renovation by June, just in time to make room for the Bridgeview Community, a group of mentally ill residents run by Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare that is losing its lease at the Golden West Hotel on Northwest Everett Street.

A few years after that — no one knows exactly how many — the housing authority hopes to find better homes for all those residents and tear down the Grove.

That’s welcome news to property owner Dave Gold, who owns the other two-thirds of the block on which the Grove stands, together with a neighboring block to the north.

Gold would like to see a major redevelopment on the so-called Goldsmith Blocks, including a grocery store, a hotel and condos. Unfortunately, he says, his plans don’t make sense unless the Grove is demolished.

At least, that was the plan. Now, however, the Grove has become an unlikely pawn in the political struggle over the proposed homeless access center in Old Town.

Social-service agencies and housing advocates have been pushing for a new center to replace the worn-out homeless shelter run by Transition Projects Inc. on Northwest Glisan Street. Current plans call for a shelter, dining room, enclosed courtyard and day room, topped by several floors of low-income housing.

The proposed center raised hackles among some Old Town business interests and property owners, many of whom insist that the area already shoulders more than its fair share of shelters and low-income housing.

At a public meeting two weeks ago, Sten — the main political force driving the homeless center — sketched out a none-too-subtle threat.

Unless the center finds a home, he warned, the area might miss out on hundreds of millions of dollars in urban renewal money that ultimately will be directed by a committee that he chairs.

In addition, he suggested that the city might just keep the Grove Hotel standing in perpetuity.

After that meeting, Gold sounded cautiously optimistic. “I’ve been wondering, was that the stick or was it the carrot?” he says. “I guess I’m going to wait and see.”

With the building’s fate still in the air, life at the Grove goes on much as it did, although at considerably less risk of conflagration. Retired stationery clerk Calvin Thomas, 82, dresses up in a button-down shirt, creased slacks, dark blazer and brown derby and heads down to Dugo’s, where he usually can be found perched at the end of the bar or playing boogie-woogie on the upright piano.

Matt Van Alstyne marches off to the library in search of a recipe for a special sauce for dipping sushi. He thinks he can prepare it in his microwave, now that a visitor has shown him how to operate the buttons.

Sharon Hren paces back and forth in her tiny room, trying to piece together the jagged shards of her life, while Katie curls up under the blankets. Hren is wearing a pair of pajamas her mother gave her for Christmas. She also got a set of towels, but she hasn’t unwrapped them yet.

“I want to keep them,” Hren says, “until I get into a good place.”

chrislydgate@portlandtribune.com


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