The Leviathan Reaches the Pacific Northwest


Oregon has a complicated history. Perhaps it is its distance from DC, or its proximity to the wildlands of the Pacific Northwest that has defined its rugged and unpredictable history. It was a stronghold of “radically-led” unions—in particular the ILWU—but at the same time deeply segregated. Even the Portland longshore local was segregated well into the 1960s, a sign that “class rebelliousness” often went hand-in-hand with “intransigent racism,” noted ILWU stalwart F. Ray Marshall.

Amidst the emergence of the New Left, aligned as much with race equality and environmental protection as class solidarity, the State of Oregon, in general, took a unique path. There was still something to the rustic, homegrown anti-capitalism of Oregonians that resisted development and inspired luminaries like Ken Kesey. Portland native and planning wonk Jordan Fink tells one story that encapsulates the era: “At a Junior Chamber of Commerce Convention in 1971, Oregon Governor Tom McCall (1967-1975) told the delegates: ‘We want you to visit our State of Excitement often. Come again and again. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t move here to live.’”

In the 1960s, author and journalist Stewart Holbrook founded the James G. Blaine Society with the specific intention of discouraging immigration to Oregon. It was named in honor of a senator from Maine who never visited Oregon. Such attitudes continued through the 1980s. Fink tells stories of his youth, when Girl Scout troupes used to get in trouble for throwing rocks at California plates. Now it seems like things are the other way around. It began, perhaps, when Nike extracted a sugarcoated tax deal from the Oregon legislature in a rushed special session, and Intel followed suit. But it has elevated to cacophonous proportions with Google’s entry into the scene.

Google has been instructing Portlanders to “do cool things that matter” as they gradually trickle into town like slow water torture. Executive Kevin Rose, who has the honor of being personally protested by San Francisco’s anti-tech movement, just bought an 1892 house in Northwest Portland, and plans to demolish it to make way for a millionaire mansion. On Google Careers, the company (if you can still call it that) is advertising for Engineering & Design as well as Sales & Account Management positions. Their Google Fiber project has pinpointed Portland as a target city. And last month, the leviathan struck a franchise agreement with City Council to have Fiber installed.

Urban Planning Bonanza

The catch is, Google Fiber is not for everyone. Google will pick and choose which “fiberhoods” gat to participate. The hundreds of thousands of dollars investments that Google will be making will likely transform the character of some neighborhoods, and provide new routes of gentrification. It is easy enough to imagine the already-gentrifying neighborhoods of Mississippi and Alberta, along with Kenton and Tabor, being threaded with Google Fiber. These are neighborhoods of rapidly up-and-coming urban professionals largely moving to Portland from California and the Mid-West in order to exploit less competitive business environments, the small town charm of some of Portland’s older residents and mores, and the readily accessible outdoorsy attractions of the Pacific Northwest. They consist of homes that will enjoy the prospect both of Google’s promised $300, 7-year bulk package for slower internet, and the $70 per month gigabit service.

As exhibited by recent projects like Albina Burning and the forthcoming documentary, Whitelandia, Jim Crow never stopped looming over this area. Gentrification has displaced the POC populations in Northeast Portland, which has a peculiar layout specific to old, traditionally segregated ghettos—there is only one through-street going into Northeast Portland from the Southeast. It’s name: Martin Luther King, Jr. Google will be fanning the flames, for sure, and raking in the money from the outskirts with plans to expand out to the suburbs and exburbs of Hillsboro, Gresham, Lake Oswego, and Tigard. Along with the expansion of the light rail in Portland, Google’s high-speed internet will lay the groundwork for a Portland’s mega-development schema, the Southeast Quadrant Plan. Lost in these new networks are not only scores of houseless people in Southeast Portland, along with small businesses, parks, and gathering places being destroyed for the almighty presence of mid-sized condominiums.

The character of the outlying areas, some of which have resisted new infrastructure as useless and expensive, will be transformed not only by the imposition of mega-corporations like Google, but also by the growing number of Portlanders being displaced by rising rents and property values. In my neighborhood, a studio apartment that would have cost $500 ten years ago has doubled in value, and two 7-story apartment developments shot up at the same time over the span of about seven months to lap up the high-tide rentier economy.

With Her Own Wings

Hiding behind Google’s massive makeover are the politicians looking to expand resource extraction around every corner. Eastern Oregon is currently the site of 16,000-acre timber sales. That is unprecedented. Through the long-time, heroic efforts of Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project (BMBP), which works to monitor these whopping swaths of land on a shoe string budget with the help of volunteers, timber sales upwards of 6 or 8 thousand acres have been scrapped. But BMBP founder and head, Karen Coulter remains distressed. BMBP are able to stop an eight thousand acre timber sale that is completely illegal, notes Coulter, but have to stand by and watch timber sales of more than 10,000 acres get drafted and cut. It would almost be a compromise if the timber companies weren’t crazy enough to cut down everything. Sure enough, however, the politicians and Forest Service bureaucrats have declared a 50 percent increase in “aggressive thinning” in Eastern Oregon. That means we could be seeing timber sales of upwards of 20,000 acres, and/or many more 10,000-acre timber sales in beautiful, vital endangered species habitat. This is a stunning development. Forestry activist Stephen Quirke notes that the powers that be in Eastern Oregon have adopted Senator Ron Wyden’s defeated proposal to clearcut O&C lands, and grafted it onto a regional forest plan. This after even the Bureau of Land Management that controls O&C lands testified against the Wyden plan in Congress. There is strong support for the forecast that the “aggressive thinning” in Eastern Oregon will seep West of the Cascades as well.

Wyden has also been making cheeky gestures towards offshore drilling off the Oregon coast. As starfish literally melt in the seas from some bizarre disease, and radiation levels continue to send grave warnings to seafood markets, Wyden wants a game plan for the future of oil production financing. His plan integrates forestry, such that tax revenues from offshore oilrigs would feed into the Forest Service. One hand washes the other. Extraction, extraction everywhere, but only for exports, not for the local coffers.

As Google sets its perch high on the gateway to the future of the metropolis, Oregon politicians are headed towards the carcass that was once the State’s thriving natural splendor. Whether it’s coal and oil trains, export terminals, offshore drilling, or clearcutting, the vultures are circling. There is a reason the city’s nickname is PDX—the abbreviation of the airport. It is because the character of Portland is being uprooted and transformed into an international hub for the business and tech elite. Alis volat propriis, as they say, “She flies with her own wings,” but whither Oregon?

Alexander Reid Ross is co-moderator of the Earth First! Newswire and editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014). He can be reached at areidross(at)gmail.com

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.

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