A few weeks ago, Lucille McAleese was opening her beloved Kells, an Irish-themed pub and restaurant in Portland’s Old Town Chinatown. Mornings can make or break your day, and that morning, someone took a big shit right in front of Kells’ front door. Lucille’s retching and gagging soon turned to anger, so she called the local news, and camera crews swooped in.
Almost everyone who lives, works, or ventures into Old Town Chinatown has stories of routinely having to avoid stepping in coils of human shit. Lucille says that during the summer she finds poop in the parking lot behind Kells almost every night.
“Cleaning it up is something you can’t ask the staff to do. My husband, Gerard, usually has to do it,” Lucille told me. “When I see it, I want to throw up. It’s a very visceral reaction.”
Flanked by the pseudo-cultured Pearl district to the west, Downtown to the south, and the broad Willamette River to the east, Old Town Chinatown houses some of the most iconic parts of the city.
Whenever tourists visit, most of them need to see the White Stag sign, Union Station, and the remnants of the underground tunnels that were used for Shanghaiing unwitting sailors, according to legend.
Ten years ago, Portland was nothing more than the second-biggest city in the drab Pacific Northwest, but it seems like every day some national publication has it atop some internet click-through best-of list. Many out-of-town visitors I talked to in Old Town said they were shocked by the state of the district. Few imagined that waiting in line for a doughnut, or taking a picture under the neon Portland sign, would mean tiptoeing over turds on skid row.
Most of the city’s social services are on or around West Burnside Street, the main artery cutting through Old Town Chinatown. With shelters, missions, and soup kitchens come areas of vagrancy, drug use, and overall shadiness. Everybody poops, but not everybody has a private place to slink away and drop a deuce, so the human shit piles up in alleyways, under bridges, and in public parks.
A dump outside Kells, courtesy of Lucille McAleese's low-quality camera phone
On any given weekday, Old Town Chinatown’s homeless issue is painfully obvious. The barren streets are dotted with transients lining the blocks. Alcoves are filled with bedrolls, shopping carts, and drooling junkies. But reconciling residents’ frustration with vagrancy and their proud progressivism is nearly impossible. Every year, Portland spends about $30 million on homeless resources, making it a mecca for transients. According to a 2013 report issued by the city, almost a third of people on the streets have been in Portland for less than two years, and 60 percent of that group were homeless when they arrived.
“This is what people see when they visit our city. It’s the first impression for out-of-towners. Friends say they won’t come down,” Lucille told me. “And we’re touting Portland as one of the most livable cities in America?”
Carl Bruins knows all about folks who crap on the sidewalk. He’s been living in Portland on-and-off for some 47 years. After laboring for decades as a carnie and working up a good meth habit, Carl gave up on traditional employment and took to panhandling and living on the streets. Deep grooves run down his cheeks and across his forehead, cobbwebbed furrows surround his eyes, and a single tooth juts out of his lower gums. At 55, Carl looks closer to a man in his 70s.
Last week, I ran into Carl panhandling downtown. I gave him some change and asked if we could talk about all the poop in Old Town Chinatown. After he rambled in his semi-coherent drawl, we took a walk to the Pioneer Square Mall so he could take a dump.
“You go wherever you can. There are bathrooms in the parks, but junkies use them. There’s no way you can get in there,” he said.
He also told me about trying to dip into businesses in the area, but nine times out of ten, he’s bounced before he takes a second step inside.
But Carl told me he always finds a clean bathroom to shit in. He said most people on the streets know all the best spots. Those who go on the sidewalk or in alleys are likely too far gone on drugs or booze. Or maybe they just want to give a good fuck you to the city.
Either way, Carl said that a small segment of people are ruining it for everyone else.
Carl has an endless collection of stories about the sad and savage state of the Old Town Chinatown scene. He used to wait for meals and sometimes a bed at the missions, but now he won’t go near the place.
“There weren’t that many homeless when I moved here. Now people are fighting, attacking each other, stealing each other’s stuff,” he said, shaking his head. “They get drunk and ruin it for everyone else.”
City officials have heard peoples’ frustrations with Old Town Chinatown. Recently, news broke that Mayor Charlie Hales may grant subsidies to big developers to come in and build fancy high-rise apartments. The Portland Development Commission has also been working to lure more tech companies to Old Town Chinatown. Recently, Hales announced San Francisco startup Airbnb would be opening its North American headquarters in the neighborhood this summer.
The city’s plan is reminiscent of an aggressive urban renewal-project that revitalized the nearby Pearl District fewer than 20 years ago. The Pearl used to be a struggling industrial area with little to offer in the way of restaurants and nightlife. Today, it’s the chic part of town where Portland’s well-to-do come and dump their cash at fancy wine bars, galleries, and boutiques.
Voodoo Doughnut in Old Town Chinatown
Perhaps the most iconic part of Old Town Chinatown, though, is Voodoo Doughnut. The renowned bakery sits a block off West Burnside, seconds from the Portland Rescue Mission and within sight of Kells. On any given day or night, a long line stretches down Southwest Third Avenue, filled with people eager to buy pink boxes filled with Cock ‘n’ Balls, Voodoo Dolls, or doughnuts covered in Cap’n Crunch.
Tres Shannon, Voodoo’s founder and CEO, isn’t so keen on the moves City Hall has made in recent years to transform Portland. He’s been in Old Town Chinatown in some regard since 1990, and he's nostalgic for a time before Portland was the self-proclaimed “City That Works.”
“I liked it more in the 90s. It was sketchier and more dangerous,” he told me.
Even though Tres can testify to finding human poop in alleyways around Voodoo Doughnut, the vagrancy issue is way down on his lists of troubles in the area.
A much more glaring problem, he said, is the people who come to Old Town Chinatown on the weekends. Axe-soaked dudes and spray-tanned women file in from outlying suburbs like Gresham, Vancouver, and Beaverton, and pile into the douchey weekend nightclubs. With the weekend crowds come drunken rowdiness, fighting, and arrests.
“I’m way more scared of the Girls Gone Wild fight-and-fuck crowds spilling out of bars now. I avoid going downtown on weekends,” Tres said.
Over the past few years, the weekend Old Town Chinatown crowds have become absurd. The city has even had to start closing off major streets to cars, and extra police swarm in on Friday and Saturday nights to make sure the bros play nicely.
Aside from the debauchery, weekend nights provide a positive glimpse of what skid row could become if more Portlanders lived, worked, or hung out in the area. Maybe then the human dumps on the sidewalks wouldn’t be so glaring.
Tres thinks the vagrants and drug dealers are as much a part of Portland’s iconography as his shop, which is flanked by a porno theater on one side, a titty bar on the other, and Section 8 housing one floor up.
“We don’t want to change anything. This is what Portland always was,” he said. “People think our motto is ‘Keep Portland Weird,’ but we just stole that from Austin. I think it should be ‘Keep Portland Sketchy.’”
And if sketchy means stepping over piles of man shit, so be it.