Walking through downtown Portland, Oregon, in December 2019, I noticed a lot of empty storefronts. I’d until recently lived in the city, and while one gets accustomed to businesses aging out of popularity (furrier, anyone?), about one-fifth of businesses I’d seen open earlier in the year were now gone. Maybe landlords had gotten greedy? Or maybe Portland, which a decade earlier had been considered a “youth magnet” city, had lost its appeal.
Two months later, COVID-19 started to burn through the country. With the first cases next door in Washington state, Oregon locked down swiftly, a move that proponents believe kept the state’s infection and death rates low (192,000 and fewer than 2,600 respectively), if at an economic cost, especially to Portland’s downtown: On top of 80-plus already unoccupied spaces, 190 closed temporarily or permanently.
Then George Floyd was murdered. While as many as 10,000 Portlanders marched in support of Black Lives Matter, a small portion—50 on some nights, 600 on others—decided the way to address Floyd’s death, to assuage something they felt was killing the American soul, was through destruction. These protesters—some self-identify as Antifa or black bloc, others call them rioters or anarchists—set fires, broke windows, and mixed it up with whatever authority figures they saw as standing in their way that day. Some Portlanders viewed these actions as justified, others considered them smashing for the sake of smashing.
“It’s just people breaking things,” a commercial realtor told me. “They’re just criminals.” With office towers emptied because of the pandemic, and storefronts busted up indiscriminately, downtown became both barren and unpleasant. With so little in operation, locals stayed away. So did tourists. The homeless population burgeoned. Crime shot up, including rampages that kept Portlanders wondering whether the next incident would be on their block, their business strip, their Boys & Girls Club.