planpdx.org: Interview with Penny Allen
Date of Interview: January 2, 2002
Interview By: Ernie Bonner
Location: Penny's home away from Paris in Portland, Oregon
PA = Penny Allen
EB = Ernie Bonner
EB: This is January 2nd in the year 2002, and this is an interview with Penny Allen in Eric Edwards' home in the old battlefield. So why don't you start by telling us a little bit about how you actually got to Portland?
PA: Okay. Well, I was born in Portland, in Emanuel Hospital, and I grew up in Portland, went to grade school and high school, and then I went to University of Oregon.
EB: Where did you go to high school?
PA: Washington, which is gone.
EB: But not forgotten.
PA: No, certainly not forgotten.
I went to graduate school in French studies in New York, and then when I came back to Portland in about 1968, I wanted to get a job teaching at Portland State in the French Department, and I eventually did, and I became a French instructor there until about 1974.
I moved to the Corbett-Terwilliger-Lair Hill neighborhood in 1970. I had always wanted to live in a Victorian house from years before seeing them in San Francisco, and there was an apartment for rent, and I rented it eagerly, and I lived there for quite a while before I became aware of the fact that there was a planning process going on in this neighborhood. It was only when I saw a map posted at the Ross Island Grocery or some other public place, that showed that the central chunk of the neighborhood around the Ross Island Grocery was going to be demolished and made into high-rises. It was part of an urban development plan.
I got riled up immediately and went to the next planning committee meeting, the Corbett-Terwilliger-Lair Hill planning committee meeting, whatever it was called then - or perhaps it was before there was actually a planning committee. That must have been where I met you, Ernie, or where you saw me for the first time, and I spoke about it and I said that I thought that it was amazing that they were planning to demolish what was still a viable neighborhood, and that most of the people who would suffer would be tenants, since nearly all of these old Victorian houses at the time were kind of derelict - kind of derelict is a euphemism; they were falling down, and most of them were occupied by renters.
There was a large cultural history to the neighborhood. It was very mixed, a wonderful mix of whatever was left of the old Jewish South Portland, and lots of Italian families, and hippies, and working class people, and a few artists. It was an interesting neighborhood.
So I spoke at that first meeting, and someone, I don't recall who, said that I didn't really have a voice in the matter because I wasn't a property owner.
EB: I remember that. Right.
PA: Do you remember who it was? I don't.
EB: I don't remember that comment, but I remember that was a big issue.
PA: Right, that was the big issue, and it was during the next two or three weeks that I bought the house I was living in, just in order to be able to speak. I had no intention before that of becoming a homeowner or property owner, and I was even sort of politically opposed to the idea. It was possible because my mother had been encouraging me to buy a house, and she lent me the down payment, and the house also didn't cost very much. In those days those Victorian houses - my house cost $17,500, which was, you know, more then than it is now, but still it wasn't very much.
So I went back to the next Planning Committee meeting and said, "As a property owner in the Corbett neighborhood, this is what I think," and that's basically how I got involved in that process.
EB: Now, that was an urban renewal proposal. As I recall, then they went forward to concoct a group of neighborhood...
PA: Yes. Right, it was probably an informal meeting. It wasn't really the Planning Committee because you're right that it was concocted after that in a very balanced way so that it would be...
EB: Property owners, renters, maybe another group or two...
PA: Right. Businesses, and then absentee property owners. Maybe just those four, or perhaps others. There might have been a more free-floating kind of representative. But anyway, there were basically nine occupants of the neighborhood and nine absentee people; that's the way that was going to be fair. And actually it turned out to be pretty fair all the way down the line.
I ran for office, for one of the property representatives right away.
EB: Do you remember any of the other people that were involved at that time?
PA: Well, Eric Silverstein was a tenant representative, and Georgia Carlo was a property representative. She still lives in the neighborhood, just across the street here. Let's see. Susan Stoner, is that right?
PA: Right. She was, I don't know, maybe a tenant representative. I can't recall. It's hard for me to remember which ones of all of my friends here were actually on the committee and which weren't, you know.
EB: Everybody was at the meetings.
PA: Everybody was at the meetings all the time, right. Esther Berberick was important. But up here in the Corbett neighborhood the people who were really struggling for what eventually became the down-zoning, John Platt was very important, of course. It was pretty significant, as I'm sure you know, that the local television station was created, or existed, because that was really a galvanizing effect.
EB: That was John Platt's cable show that he ran out of Wilson High.
PA: Right. And the reason why that could exist was that all of the Corbett-Terwilliger-Lair Hill neighborhood is in a shadow zone for the television signal, and so early on, you know, pretty much from the beginning of cable television, neighborhood residents were attached to the cable. So John got permission from the owner of the cable company to have a few hours of programming.
It was right about that time, also, that it became a federal mandate, you know, when public access became required. I think John was actually one of the contributors to the idea that public access should occur nationwide.
But here it was really great because we had our own neighborhood television channel that corresponded pretty much to the boundaries of the neighborhood. I have no idea how many people actually watched it or tuned in, programming maybe four or five hours a week, but it had a psychological impact where people really began to see themselves as a unit, and it created a neighborhood identity.
John videotaped all of the Planning Committee meetings, and those were cable-cast live. I think a fair number of people actually did watch that, or sort of leave it on, you know, so that they were aware. People seemed to be very aware in this neighborhood of all of the decisions that were being made in their name, and so they had to have been getting the information from somewhere.
EB: So you had your own network.
PA: So it was a happy coincidence, you know, and John Platt immediately saw the political connotations of that and exploited it, and he asked me really early on to do a program. So with him, and Eric Edwards, and Tom Bown, and also Norio Saito, and Jeannie McNab, I did a program called Urban Free Delivery. So we were on every week, and we did lots of documentaries about the neighborhood, about, for instance, the creeks that flow out of the west hills and travel down through the neighborhood - many of which are now gone because they're in a pipe somewhere, but at the time there were two or three of them that were free flowing. Things like that. But also stories about people, all the interesting people. We were a really strong presence in the neighborhood. That was about 1975-76.
EB: Is any of that material available?
PA: Yes, some of it is.
EB: Where is it?
PA: Eric Edwards has a lot of it, and I think John Platt has a lot of it. It's all reel-to-reel, you know. You have to have the right equipment to even play it. But yes, I know that Eric has a lot of it.
EB: Well, I'll get in touch with Eric because I'd love to have some of that maybe to put on the website or something. It would be interesting.
PA: Yeah. But also John probably has some of it, too.
So I remember thinking during that period of time how interesting it was that I hardly ever left the neighborhood, because I didn't leave the neighborhood very often. All of my friends were here. My work was here. I was actually at that time writing for a newspaper called Portland Today, and so I wrote about land use planning a lot, too. I also was a theater critic, and I did features.
I also worked as a waitress at the time at the Bonne Crepe which was down in Johns Landing, so once again, I never left the neighborhood, you know.
EB: Did you use your French there?
PA: A little bit, but not too much.
EB: Explaining the menu?
PA: Right. Exactly.
So that was the background.
EB: Do you remember anything about the adoption of the Corbett-Terwilliger-Lair Hill Plan?
PA: Well, I remember how intense it was, and it went on and on, too, and it was just an endless effort to get that down-zoning measure passed. But what ultimately happened was that this central part of the neighborhood was down-zoned, and when it became clear that it was going to pass, I think even before it did, then the landlords put up their houses for sale. The block, the famous block, which my movie Property was about, is between Corbett and Water and Whittaker and Curry. The entire block was owned by a single person, so he basically wanted to sell the whole block as a unit.
EB: Oh, I didn't know that. Now, was your house in the block?
PA: No, my house was not in the block. It was on Kelly. I still own it. I'm now an absentee property owner. It was on Kelly, between Curry and Gaines, a little bit further down.
I remember the intensity of all of those meetings, and I spent an awful lot of time lobbying personally the votes that might not necessarily have been in our favor. I can't remember the name of the guy who owned - I think it was Cascade Construction, which was down on Macadam, right in the area that's probably now built up with apartment houses or something, but all those businesses were represented, and also another man, whose name was Auggie something-or-other - I'm sorry, I can't think of it, but he owned a pipe and pump company down there, and both of those people were very sympathetic to our position, and I think that they were actually the swing votes that got it past the Planning Committee. Otherwise it would have just been eternally trapped at nine-to-nine, you know, and I think that was how it got past the Planning Committee. But it took a long, long time.
Then of course it went to the Planning Commission, right? - is that what the next process was? - and then after that the City Council, and it took years, it seems like. But it was a tremendous victory when it finally happened. And it was a good idea, I think, because this neighborhood's still here.
EB: Right. You can imagine what it would be like without some kind of a down-zoning. I mean, it would have been towers of this, that or the other thing, kind of set here, there and elsewhere.
EB: It wouldn't have developed into any kind of an organized community, I don't think.
PA: Well, it would have been something else, you know. I mean, that's all you can say. But the block itself in that first plan was supposed to be a 12-story building with offices and apartments and a parking structure going down several stories. So if we had had a business operation, a huge business building in the middle of the neighborhood, it would have gone completely differently. I'm sure that many of these marginal kind of houses around here would have long ago been torn down and used for something else.
EB: The neighborhood has not really changed a lot because the I-5 freeway, Front Avenue, Barbur, cut up this long thin area into three pieces.
PA: Well, the new traffic plan just passed. I mean, I realize we're jumping ahead here 30 years, but it did just pass, and it would - you know, hopefully it doesn't change the neighborhood for the worse, but that would take out Front, or it would make it into a regular city street, and the grid would cross Front, you know, this street that we're sitting on right here, Whittaker would go all the way across to Lair Hill.
EB: But what I'm saying is that I think if that plan actually goes forward and is implemented, in the next 30 years I think you'll see quite a bit of change here. I don't think they're going to get rid a lot of the housing here, but I'll bet you the prices and the values and the renovations are going to go up like crazy here because that's the last remaining impediment to this becoming a valuable community.
PA: Well, in terms of property value, right. Well, the property values are already pretty high. They're higher than they actually should be for the condition of many of the houses, but it's the property that's valuable, you know, because now if it's torn down or if it burns down they can even build a duplex, and that certainly increases the value of the property. Just this year, for 2002, when I paid my taxes, the value of my house for the first time ever dropped from the year before, but the value of my land went way up.
EB: The land, right.
PA: Yes, the value of the land went way up, and that's the first time that's happened. The house had been creeping up, and now all of a sudden it went down. Interesting. Well, that must be in anticipation of that plan, I would guess.
EB: Probably people are still looking for some big change in this area.
PA: Right. Well, it will be interesting to see what happens, and I hope that it doesn't completely end the mix that is still here, because there is a wonderful mix still here, and it's nice that it exists.
EB: Certainly the down-zoning is the only thing really that preserved a lot of these Victorian houses.
EB: So at any rate, all of this arguing was going on between members of the Planning Committee, or the board. It was the Planning Committee of the neighborhood board, right?v
PA: Right. The Corbett-Terwilliger-Lair Hill Planning Committee Board, right, which was basically 18 people.
EB: I don't remember a lot of trouble or conflict at the Planning Commission, but I do remember some at the Council.
PA: Right. I think the Planning Commission - well, with your help, no doubt - sort of rubber-stamped what we had passed.
EB: Yeah, the Planning Commission was pretty much in favor of the down-zoning. They did it in Buckman, as well, for instance.
PA: Right. Well, that was the era of the discovery of the neighborhood, and of the reaction to tearing things down and to intense development. It was also the culmination of the reaction against the destruction of South Portland, which when you look at it now isn't bad, I guess, and inevitable, no doubt, because of the proximity to downtown, but it was a gradual and very psychologically damaging process that people regretted and resented.
EB: It has changed a lot; I mean, people's attitudes in their neighborhoods and at City Hall. It's changed a lot in the last 30 years about how you deal with a neighborhood and blight.
EB: They don't think about it as a problem that can be solved by a bulldozer anymore.v
PA: Right. Well, when you say that there was a lot of problem with that down-zoning decision at Council, see, I don't remember actually the details of that. There were five people, right, voting, and so it had to be three to two; was that what it was?
EB: At least three to two, right. I don't actually recall the vote or anything about it, but when you get to the Council you always have people who come in from way outside the process, never been involved, don't get involved until it gets to the Council, where they feel they have a lot of weight. So I think a lot of those were coming in and that accounts for a lot of the conflict. It probably was not the board of the neighborhood in there arguing in front of Council.
PA: Right. I remember another person whose name I've forgotten, but who talked about leapfrog development - I don't know if you recall that - in front of the Council. I think that was sort of a turning point in the testimony that day because, I don't know, either he spoke at the right moment - you know, those things are always like dramas, with five acts, and he spoke with a certain amount of wit, you know, and all that, so it kind of turned the direction of the meeting. Probably no one changed their vote, but maybe it gave permission to somebody, some Council member, to vote when they were sitting on the fence. I don't know. But it was a big deal. It was really a big deal.
What happened after that for me was, because so much of the neighborhood was put up for sale - it wasn't a surprise to us that that was going to happen, but it took a lot of mobilizing effort to try and help people who were tenants and already residents of the neighborhood to be able to buy their houses, through combining of couples or groups of people, or special kinds of loans. The U.S. National Bank had a program where they . . . I mean, it was like the opposite of redlining a neighborhood, where they were really going to make an effort to keep people in this neighborhood who were marginal and who might not be able to stay otherwise.
EB: Was PDC helping in that in any way?
PA: Yes. Yes, I certainly want to give credit to PDC because they were willing to - in order to purchase, people had to agree to improve their homes up to code, and that of course meant a loan from PDC and the involvement of PDC in implementing their standards.
That was complex, to try to get people to stay, or by extension, to bring in people who were in that category of inner-city resident, from another neighborhood - maybe they were already tenants, and so they were already in that category. A few people did come in from other neighborhoods at that time and buy houses.
EB: I think a lot of people saw the value of this neighborhood at that time for residential, and these homes which sort of made the style and the character of the neighborhood...
PA: Right. Well, there aren't too many intact Victorian neighborhoods left in Portland, and this is certainly a good example. At this time I should say that it would be really great if the entire neighborhood were designated a historical area, instead of little patches of it here and there. The whole thing should be.
EB: I don't actually know what the dimensions of it are. I think I saw it on a map once. You're right, it's not the whole neighborhood.
PA: I don't remember if this house is included, for instance. I don't think so. It doesn't go as far as my house. It doesn't go down in that whole strip of houses, which is a wonderful strip of Victorians in a row; they're not included in the historic neighborhood.
EB: But it's turning out that that designation may not be very protective, anyway, thanks to our state legislature...
PA: Because it ends?
EB: No, because the state legislature recently directed that you cannot actually put a property on a designated list without the approval of the property owner, and unless the property owner agrees to the restriction on their actions. So there isn't really a requirement for anything except for a temporary delay on demolition of historic structures. But it is true in a historic district, too, I guess. The Planning Commission is dealing with that now.
PA: Well, it would be nice if they included some of them around here, you know, that aren't included.
EB: I think it's good to have it designated, even if you don't have a lot of strength behind it, because it has some political value. Even though you legally can't do much, you can do things politically.
PA: Well, I hope they do make an effort to extend that, especially in conjunction with the new traffic plan. I think that it needs further protection here, and also with that possible tram. I think that we need to have all the respect we can get here, you know. And it's funny how it never lasts; you know, how you have to keep reasserting yourselves.
EB: That's right. You have to keep working at it.
PA: You have to keep working at it, right.
EB: When did this co-op of people buy the block? Was that at this time?
PA: Yes, it was.
EB: Somewhere in '75, '76?
PA: Well, it would have been in '76, yeah. A couple of things were happening that year, in '76. There was that group of people who were trying to come together, and some people started out in the group of people, potential buyers, with very little money, and most of them were ultimately squeezed out, simply by reality, I suppose it would be. Nobody viciously squeezed them out or anything, but what with, you know, getting a loan and with the PDC loan and all that, it just become impossible for a number of the truly marginal. So that was a heartache.
Another thing that I did that year, in 1976, was a thing called the Neighborhood Show, which was a contemporary crafts gallery. I don't if you remember that, but actually it was great fun, and it made visual everything that we had been doing in this neighborhood because we had portraits of all sorts of people which circled the room and tied the thing together, and then all kinds of other stuff, plus lots and lots of those Corbett-Terwilliger-Lair Hill planning maps, which, because of the neighborhood, are very long and skinny. So they were all lined up in a row, you know, because they're all one-and-a-half feet wide and five feet tall, and you know, colored . . . beautiful colors. That was Alan Fox's work, no doubt. Anyway, this neighborhood has always had a nice visual shape, you know, because of its strange proportions.
But that was real important for my collaborator, Eric Edwards and me, because we did that show together. And then it was during the course of the meetings with the co-op who were buying the block that it occurred to me to make a movie about it, or make a movie related to the story. Not a documentary or anything, but to capture some of the themes that emerged, and also some of the heartache - some of the humor and some of the heartache that emerged during that process, loosely satirizing land use planning, is what it comes down to.
So I had been involved in theater in Portland for quite a number of years before that. I was a theater director, and I had written plays and staged them, so I had a group of actors that I worked with. So I combined all the different parts of my life, bringing in those actors and bringing in non-actors and evolving the script for the movie that became Property. It was filmed on the block and filmed in this neighborhood, and it represented most of the things that did actually happen, although it was no doubt much funnier than the actual reality was. But it didn't leave out any of the cruelty.
EB: Nobody was laughing that much.
PA: Nobody was laughing that much in those real meetings. No, that's not true, they were laughing, but you know, it's easier to become ironic at a distance than up close.
So we made this movie, and it was well-received in a lot of different places. That movie was seen all over the world. It was in the Moscow film festival, you know, and it was in countries all over Europe, and it played in New York, it was on public television. It just had a lot of resonance for a lot of people, and oddly, it continues to have resonance in the sense that people want to see it because it's about early land use planning, or it's about early neighborhood movements, or now it's called civic action. So people continue to ask to see it because of that. Actually, we're just getting ready to remix the master so that it is actually available on video and DVD, because we can afford to do that now and we couldn't years ago, and a lot of people have always asked for it, so why not, you know?
EB: Oh, I would think so, to get it back in circulation.
PA: Right. It is a time capsule, it definitely is. It was made in 1978, and it really is a time capsule for that time. Movies that try to capture the culture - you know, the sort of alternative culture now, you know, they don't quite get stuff right, so it's nice to have a time capsule that actually was from the era because it really does get it right.
It's also interesting to see - even though we've been saying this neighborhood hasn't changed that much, it's interesting to see that it has changed, and you see it right there in the film, you know. Large numbers of vacant lots, you know, wild land in the middle of the city that isn't there anymore. There are rowhouses now, and it doesn't bother me that they're there. I'm not an enemy of rowhouses.
EB: They're better than big apartment complexes.
PA: Oh, definitely. Oh, they are. If they're well made, they'll age well, and pretty soon people won't distinguish so much between them and the older housing stock, I think. Maybe they don't already. I think they blend in rather well there.
EB: Yeah, I think you're right, they do accept them, by and large.
PA: Right. And you can do good things architecturally, and even smaller things. I saw units of rowhouses in San Francisco that were kind of post-modern versions of Victoriana, and each unit was only 12 feet by 25 feet, which is really small, but they were two stories tall, so you had two stories tall, 12 by 25. That's very small, you know, for most Americans, but it's fine. You know, it's a fine amount of space, and for Europeans it's definitely a fine amount of space. I think that kind of space will be in our future, more than larger spaces. I think that's what's going to have to happen.
EB: That's approximately the size of some of the single one-bedroom condominiums down in the Pearl District. They're like 700 square feet.
PA: Right. Well, I live in Paris, and the place I've been living for six years in Paris, which is quite nifty because it's on three different levels, is only 400 square feet.
EB: On three different levels?
PA: On three different levels, yeah. It's like three shoeboxes on top of each other, and I've been quite happy living there. I'm now moving to a place that's 700 square feet, so I will feel liberated in this huge space, you know, and actually it's the smallest space that is available in Portland, urban space. It's all relative.
EB: Exactly. So after you did the Property film, then where did you go from there?
PA: Well, I kept on with filmmaking for a while. I made another feature film called Paydirt, and it was about land use, as well, but it was rural, and it was shot mostly in the Newberg area on a vineyard. It was a struggle over how the land was going to be used in that rural setting.
When I say that the films are about land use, you know, that's like the deep theme, because there's an awful lot of stuff overlaid onto it.
Interesting, to me, anyway, a book that I just have published this year, all these years later, A Geography of Saints, is the end of the trilogy. It wasn't a movie, but it's also about land use -- it's really what I consider the end of my Oregon trilogy, and it reads like a movie. I have not stopped being interested in that subject. Now the focus, though, is increasingly where I live, and since I live in Paris, I'm interested in the urban development there, and it has just gotten very interesting because the right wing that controlled Paris for all time, up until just last year, lost the election, and last year the socialist won the mayorship of Paris, and so all of the city councilors, which are numerous, up to 40, as opposed to five here in Portland - not all, but the majority are socialists and greens, and you can imagine what a change that creates in the city. All of a sudden the focus is very much on social needs, it's very much on getting rid of the cars.
I have to tell you, it feels like 1974 in Portland, Oregon. All of a sudden the focus is on where we live and how we live in the city, and it's very exciting. It's thrilling. I don't know how I will get involved in it exactly, but I can't imagine ...
EB: Find a little community that's fighting.
PA: Right. Right. Well, I'm sure it will happen some way. But I have not stopped following land use planning in the CTLH neighborhood at all. You know, I'm still very connected here. I still love it.
EB: Do you come back quite a bit?
PA: In the last ten years I've come back twice a year, so I'm usually here for three weeks twice a year. I've followed what has been happening in the neighborhood through other people who are still residents here, and quite recently, it was during a trip here that I suddenly became aware of the - what is the name of the new traffic study?
EB: South Portland Circulation Study.
PA: That's right, the South Portland Circulation Study. I got interested in that sort of the way I got interested in down-zoning; all of a sudden there it was on a wall, and I went to a meeting, and it was very late in the process, of course, because now it has just been passed, but I did get involved, and I spent some time talking to the more marginal people in this neighborhood who were very worried about it because they feel that it will increase property values to the point that they will no longer be able to live here. But the fact of the matter is the property values will increase no matter what happens and they will not be able to live here. I think that's just inevitable as time passes. This is a very close-in neighborhood, you can walk downtown easily, and it's just going to happen, that's all there is to it, and I don't think necessarily the new construction over there on Front Avenue is going to change it any more than it would have changed anyway.
EB: Well, can't they do something like these reverse mortgages where...
PA: Well, actually I talked to the person who is in charge of the South Portland Circulation Study on the telephone at some length about various options for dealing with exactly that, reverse mortgages or some sort of a freeze on property values of houses that actually front Front, or abut Front. The woman, whose name you probably know but I don't remember, anyway, she said that she would look into some of those and get back to me, and did not. Did not. She did mail me - I mean, I'm now on the mailing list in Paris, you know, I receive all of the notices, and I got a copy of the plan and everything, but she did not get back to me on that subject, and that's the sort of thing that if I were still here I would probably pursue. I think somebody should be pursuing that.
EB: It may be over in the Transportation Department, too. The person who did the technical work on that is Ernie Munch, who you may remember.
PA: I do remember him. Of course, yeah.
EB: He made a proposal similar to this 30 years ago.
PA: Yes, of course, I remember, and I was involved in it. Yes, I was for it.
EB: So it's finally maybe going to get some attention. Maybe it will get some money.
PA: Yeah. Well, we proposed that when we were doing the Corbett-Terwilliger-Lair Hill plan. We wanted to close Front and put housing in there, and there was even a cartoon about it in a local newspaper; it had two cars talking to each other, and one car is saying, "I can't believe they're going to rip up my ancestral freeway to make housing." It was in the Clinton Street Quarterly. I'm sure it could be found, if you wanted it.
EB: That was a great paper.
PA: It was. But right, it's an idea that's been bouncing around for a while. It would be nice, though, if they had some elements in it that would protect the people who are clinging to their existence here and need help.
EB: That would be nice. That happens all the time. At any rate, pressing on, what next do we need to talk about? There was the Johns Landing proposal. You might have been around at that time. That was '74-'75?
PA: No. Well, I was, but that was before it all came to my attention as a process. No, I wasn't involved with that, but I remember learning about the history of it right away. But you know, these kinds of battles still go on in this neighborhood because now the school down in the Terwilliger neighborhood has become the French School, and they have an ongoing struggle with their neighbors because of the use of that property. The neighborhood wants to be able to continue to, you know, play on that property, and do touch football on that property, and the French School doesn't want them, and they've built a hedge around it, and actually I have no idea where the conflict lies right now, but you know, the beat goes on.
EB: Right. All over the city. I've just been put on the Planning Commission, and every once in a while I say, "Now, why did I do this?"
PA: Well, you're the perfect person.
EB: This looks like 30 years ago to me - you know, all kinds of conflicts and so forth.
PA: Yeah, but you're the perfect person. You have all the history in your head.
EB: Maybe. I would say it differently. I'd say I'm a different person on the Commission because I remember when a lot of these things were first talked about 30 years ago, like in the Northwest District and over in Terwilliger, over on the East Side. Sometimes it seems like, hey, not very much has happened, we still have the same issues, but it's not true. We have different issues now.
PA: Were you brought here by Neil Goldschmidt from another city?
PA: Ah, from Cleveland. I recall that, and then you obviously implanted, you're encrusted here.
EB: Yes, I did. I did.
PA: Because you've been here forever now.
EB: And I wasn't very long with the City because I was not that - anyway, that's a subject for my own paper, which I'm writing now. A little journal, a letter to my grandkids about being a planner in the world.
PA: You know, interestingly, again relating this to my life in France, I have become an environmentalist and have been working in environmental activities since about 1987, so that's already, what, 14 years. And you know, when the environmental movement started everywhere, there was not too much relationship between it and land use planning, and now the Minister of Environment in France is called the Minister of Environment and Land Use Planning - or the other way around - and they are one and the same, and the focus for environmental causes in France right now is local land use planning.
It's so funny because I've been there. It's like what you were just saying, I've been there, you know, 30 years ago, and so it's all terribly familiar to me, and sometimes that makes it not attractive, when you've already been there, you know?
EB: Yeah, right. That is interesting that they might be mainly in the same place as Portland 30 or 35 years ago.
PA: Well, Portland was way in advance.
EB: Maybe. Maybe that was part of it.
PA: I mean, isn't that the case?
EB: In terms of citizen participation, we were way ahead of everybody.
PA: You were probably part of the reason, you know. I mean, you brought that idea with you, and Neil Goldschmidt was certainly open to it, and there was already a large population of fairly politically active people here, starting in the late '60s and early '70s. So it was an idea whose time had come. But you know, the notion of sustainable development, which has been around for about ten or twelve years, is still extremely vague and no one has the faintest idea what it means, but it is supposed to apply to social considerations, as well as financial and environmental, and so it's a logical framework for citizen participation and the involvement of people in decisions that would normally just be economic. So it's funny that it took quite a while for a term to be created that spoke to what we were already doing here in Portland in the '70s, because it was already sort of sustainable development.
EB: That's right.
PA: And it's a foreign term to so many people, and it's a foreign concept still to so many people. It really is.
EB: But it was not a foreign concept to our great-great-grandfathers and -mothers, you know, who basically were always saving, were not pillaging the resources, they were conserving them. People who were out in a hostile environment trying to get food and other things you need for your life couldn't do that, they couldn't. Of course, on the other hand, there weren't as many of them, so it was possible for them, maybe, to get everything they needed without destroying the entire environment.
PA: Right. Well, they also didn't have lots of goods that they were throwing away and that were sitting out there not decomposing. It was a different situation.
EB: Right. Well, maybe you need to start an effort so that the Corbett-Terwilliger neighborhood has its corresponding neighborhood in Paris and...
PA: A twin neighborhood, yeah.
EB: ...you can start conversations back and forth about how things are done here and there. Maybe they could learn something some one another, actually.
PA: That's interesting. I've seen a report put out by a German group that was a correspondence between a German neighborhood and an American neighborhood, and actually they had nothing in common whatsoever. That's what they determined, but they enjoyed communicating with each other. I think that's what you would find also with the French neighborhood and the Corbett-Terwilliger-Lair Hill neighborhood, is that they'd find out they had literally nothing in common, but they might enjoy it.
EB: Like measures of density or...
PA: Or just the whole process, you know, because it's a culturally determined process, civic participation is. You're right to say that we have that tradition here, even though it has been severely weakened by all sorts of things, you know, modernization of one sort and another, but it's a movement that is happening, civic participation. It's not dying; it's probably increasing. I think that even though France is a country where the people got together sufficiently to stage a revolution, they don't have civic participation. The governments and cities are run by the oligarchy, you know, and there's really not participation. So it's new; it's as if it were new over there. They're actually thinking of putting a referendum into place in France, and I saw references in documentation to a referendum in the state of Oregon in the United States. How odd. It's kind of fun.
But it would be interesting to have that kind of a correspondence. Aren't there international conventions of people who are involved in neighborhood planning? Don't things like that happen, where people actually...
EB: The topic comes up a lot in planning and civic professionals' conferences and literature, but neighborhoods don't get around that well; individuals in a neighborhood don't get around that way. They don't go to neighborhood conferences, by and large, that I know of.
PA: Not even nationally?
EB: I tell you, I don't know of a single one that I could call to mind right now. Now, an individual from a neighborhood could go to a planning conference where they have a whole day's sessions on civic participation or public involvement or whatever. I don't know of one - and I guess I could understand why. These people don't get on planes and go to conferences. They go in their car to their family in San Francisco or something.
EB: Well, and they spend their time in their neighborhood. Neighborhood activism is time-consuming.
EB: But the tool that would make that possible for them now is the internet. They could really get around anywhere in the world on the internet, and communicate with one another, ideas and projects and attitudes and events and that kind of thing. They could do that easily. I think part of it probably is they don't know people in other lands or other countries, and furthermore, as you say, I think they might be put off by the fact that it's so different. If they could look past that a little way - like I just came back from the Middle East, and I was constantly impressed by how differently they conducted themselves civilly than we do, but sometimes I couldn't decide whether their way was better or our way was better. It just depended on what you were trying to achieve.
PA: Well, what was an example?
EB: An example, for instance, is the garb of women, including the scarf. And of course in Dubai, were I was, it's a very modern society, and so they didn't have the...
PA: They didn't have a burka.
EB: Right, they didn't have to do that. But in some ways, having that uniform made it possible for them not to worry about their clothes. You know, they don't have to worry about shopping and so forth. But on the other hand, they lost the great joy of finding just exactly the right dress for a particular occasion. So you can't say really whether one is...
PA: Whether one is preferable to the other, yeah. They're just very different, yeah.
EB: But certainly there is little in the way of things like rape and crime of various sorts there, and violence toward women. At any rate, there are good things about it, and there are bad things about it. From our point of view they're entirely different, but it doesn't hurt you once in a while to consider, "Well, why is that so bad, and what are the good things about it?" In other words, even though you might not ever want to do something like that as a provision in our own culture, still it might help you reaffirm the cultural ideas you do have; you know, sort of test them a little bit.
EB: I always enjoy going to places which are really different because then you have a chance to reflect on how you do things and why, and how exactly is that so much better than what they do. Time after time I come away saying, "Well, I don't know, it's different from us, but I don't see that it's necessarily so much worse than us; it achieves certain things, but it doesn't achieve other things."
PA: I'm fascinated also by those contrasts, I really am. If you get a chance to read my book, Metaphors for Change, it has ideas from cultures all over the world, you know, people who are totally sincere and are putting out their idea of how things should be done, and they're presented without cultural bias. We make an attempt to explain, well, this is within the context of the Korean culture, that sort of thing, and that's the way that things should be regarded, within the context of their own culture. But I love that contrast and mixing and matching.
EB: Yeah, I've found it endlessly fascinating.
PA: I don't know if I've been very informative.
EB: Well, my experience is that people don't remember a lot of the details.
PA: Right. What we remember is the funny lines, like the leapfrog thing. If I could only think of the guy's name.
EB: We can find it in the transcript of the Council.
PA: Or Eric Silverstein, if you ever get a chance to talk to him.
EB: You know, I haven't seen or heard of him lately. He's still around here though, huh?
PA: No, he lives in Corvallis.
EB: Oh, that's why.
PA: He lives in Corvallis, yeah. But he lived right there across the street until just a year ago, and then he was actually squeezed out, in the sense that they wanted to renovate and raise the rent, and so he left and he went to Corvallis. But he probably remembers that guy's name, or even John Platt probably remembers that guy's name.
EB: I am going to have a talk with John.
PA: Well, John was significant for land use planning in this neighborhood.
EB: That's right. I didn't realize that about the television station, but that was a key.
PA: It was a key. It was absolutely a key for giving people a physical identity. It was a coincidence - well, maybe there are no coincidences, but it was a wonderful coincidence, it really was. Also, John was really good at snaring people. I had never done any video or film before John said, "Why don't you do this program?" and that's how I got into all of that. I entered into all of that technology via this neighborhood. So the neighborhood was a tremendous jumping-off point. Maybe it was the best part of my life, you know, the 14 years that I lived here. I mean, I can't say that really, you know, because I've had a great time in ensuing years and I've always managed to create a sense of community and recapitulate a political involvement, but still it was really important because it did blend the work with an actual real place. So it gave me a sense of place.
EB: Exactly. For some guys the biggest event in their life was going into the Army. But everybody, I think, has some period in their life when they were really engaged very much, and it's a memorable time.
PA: Right, but in a totally satisfying way.
EB: Yeah. Not like being in the Army.
PA: No. Although I have to admit that I understand why men never forget war and all the experiences of war, and how everything would seem dull after that, I'm sure, or it would seem certainly less involved.
Another factor besides that television station that made so many things happen here was it was a time when life was not expensive. You know, life really wasn't expensive. Not just the price of a house - the house we're sitting in cost $15,000 - not just the price of a house, but rents were really low, and I survived easily on about $400 a month for many years there, or at least a chunk of years, and that was fabulous, you know, so that you actually had the time to become involved in community activities. I think people work much harder now, they work much longer hours.
EB: They do. And everybody in the household works.
EB: So there's nobody around to kind of take care of the neighborhood. That's true.
Well, let's see, what else can we talk about?
PA: Well, I don't know. I don't know what other direction to take this.
EB: Let's talk about the other movies that you made.
PA: I was always involved in theater, and then that evolved into film and video. But I did stop making films in 1983 when I moved away from Portland. I was somewhat put off by the huge financial risks, and people's demands on me and expectations in relation to film and in relation to money to be made and what-have-you.
I think what came to me at that point was the fact that Portland often devours its own. You know, it eats its young, and I felt that in some way, and I'm far from the first person who thought that. John Reed certainly wrote about that, talked about, you know, how important it was for him to be out of Portland. But I felt that really strongly just in the early '80s, and it also coincided with the Reagan era, when to a certain extent the '60s and '70s ended. It did end. It really ended. The era ended, very much so for me with Reagan. Money changed.
EB: And Ivancie.
PA: And Ivancie. Right, locally he was the manifestation of Reagan, yeah. It's amazing how individuals like that can have such an impact on the culture, you know, and on people's attitude toward money, people's attitude toward concern for their fellow human beings. You know, Reagan basically created the homeless problem by eliminating halfway houses and all of a sudden we had three million homeless in the street. What a change in the culture, you know?
And it was at that point that I left and went to live on the high desert in a rather isolated situation, which I loved, I absolutely adored. I lived here for 14 years in this neighborhood, and it was like a time apart from the rest of my experience with Portland. It was its own world, its own life, and it had all of the components of a good life. As soon as that was over, as soon as that feeling was over, well, then it was Portland again, and that meant, oh, my old hometown, you know, and I've got to get out of here.
EB: That's right. This is your hometown.
PA: This is my hometown, yeah. But see it wasn't just my hometown during the whole time that life was happening in this neighborhood. It wasn't my hometown. It was a life of its own. It was really quite different. But it's funny how the hometown thing came to the fore then, and I had to get out. Got to get away. I think it's important to get out of your hometown.
[End of Interview]