by Rory Judah Blank
I live in Portland, a hip, growing city at the northernmost edge of Oregon. A haven for artists, activists, foodies, and queers, it’s the most bikeable city of its size in the United States…and also the whitest.
To encourage bicycling, Portland placed the most coherent commuter corridor directly through a historically Black neighborhood. In North Portland, Williams and Vancouver Avenues run adjacent to Emmanuel Hospital where, in the 1970s, the City of Portland razed 300 black-owned homes and businesses, uprooting what was a flourishing Black community. Today, I watch as my poor/working class and Black neighbors are removed, again, to the barren suburbs to make way for a vanguard of white yuppies. Single family houses are being demolished and replaced with pre-fab, high-density apartments.
City resources are lavished on gentrification and bicycle infrastructure, but few are invested in our public transit system and structures that support working class people (whom are disproportionately people with disabilities and QTPOC). Fares have gone up, incentives to park and ride have phased out, and there are endless stories of transit cops harassing riders. Bus routes run infrequently enough to be standing room only in my part of town.
These are some of the little things that make it harder for me to participate fully in society.
I’ve been living with chronic pain since an accident in 1994 began the cascade of symptoms currently diagnosed as arthritis and fibromyalgia. At 31, I have the hips of a 75-year-old (in the words of my orthopedist), with multiple impingements that cause pain when walking, standing, and sitting. My pain is rarely below a 6 on a pain scale, and at least once a week my pain becomes so excruciating that I cannot function—to talk, work, or move my body.
It’s frustrating being unable to do things I want and need to do, like grocery shopping, cooking dinner, and putting dishes away. My social life consists of dinner with friends once or twice a month…if they host. I spend my free time resting, trying to recover enough to do it all again tomorrow.
Then comes the stress of structural and cultural disableism. Simply walking around my neighborhood is enraging. There’re no curb cuts at most corners. One of my neighbors has to use the busy street to get around in his power chair, which is incredibly dangerous—especially at night, especially for an elderly black man in a city where drivers show marked racial bias at crosswalks. Each new house I see is multilevel with stairs leading up to the entrance. Disableism is so entrenched in this city and I don’t have the financial resources needed to mitigate it. My housemate has to do my laundry more often than not because I’m daunted by the 11 steps to our basement. I’d ride my bike to work (I have a sweet red step-through with a sparkly gold helmet), but our lease requires storing bikes in the basement, and that’s too physically difficult for me. When I requested a reasonable accommodation my landlord said, flat-out, “No,” and the law says he’s right to. Our society is set up is to benefit those who have money and power at the cost of those who don’t, making survival difficult for those of us without.
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US language around disability centers the individual: we say a person “has a disability.” Disability rights activists in the UK, however, frame it differently. They recognize that people with disabilities are not disabled by impairments. We are disabled by the built environment and a capitalist society that excludes and exploits some while enabling others.
In Portland, that exploitation is a stark reality. Crowded bars and fab restaurants up a hill full of steps, bathrooms that are either wheelchair inaccessible or gendered or both, menu items and whole parts of town steeped in the violence of cultural appropriation and racism…these make places inaccessible to so many of us, but are accepted by the masses as commonplace and unremarkable: a reward earned by their successfulness, an entitlement that not everyone deserves.
The latest assault on our rights was via metered parking. Portland City Council passed new parking rules that went into effect July 1st. Until then, those of us with disabled parking placards could park free and without time restrictions in metered districts. We make up about 12% of people parking in Portland’s metered districts and, apparently, the city has decided it wants that money, regardless of the impact on poor/working class people with disabilities. Under the new rules, those of us with physical disabilities who don’t use wheelchairs must pay the same as able-bodied people: $200+ per month for someone like me who works downtown. Not only will I have to walk to the meter every few hours to pay it, but each time the meter expires I’ll have to move my car to a different block. This is a huge amount of walking for someone whose pain escalates with each step.
When I lived in Oakland and went to school in San Francisco, having a pain crisis meant being stranded several miles from home, unable to use public transit, and unsure of when I’d be able to function enough to get myself to a safe place. When I moved to Portland, the first thing I did was buy a car so I’d always be able to drive to work…and drive quickly home if my pain level started increasing too much for me to cope with.
It’s just a seven minute drive to work, but a 20-45 minute odyssey on the bus. Mine’s a crowded route and I usually have to stand because I don’t “look disabled” to other passengers (and I can’t begrudge elders, poor working people, and mamas who want to take a load off). On a bad pain day, this means my daily allotment of energy gets used up before I even get to the office, which leads to more sick days. On really bad days (made more frequent by all the extra walking), I can’t even make it three blocks to the bus stop. I worry about losing my job because of so much missed work. Driving lets me park less than half a block from my office and save my energy for work and other essentials.
Two hundred dollars is 15% of what I put in the bank each month. I’m lucky: I have a job that mostly supports me, but I already choose between eating enough and paying all my bills. I can’t work more than 30 hours a week due to the intersection of capitalist expectations vs. what my body can produce. Paying to park near my office is out of the question.
I was living in my car for three months before I got hired at my current job, and it was another two months before I was able to get housed. During that time I received ~$1000 in tickets because of my difficulty walking (to parking meters or the ½ mile trek to MAX, Portland’s light rail service). The tickets doubled when they went to collections and then wage garnishment—and tickets can’t be contested unless they’re paid. That was almost two years ago and I’m just beginning to get back on my feet financially. What a welcome to Portland!
My experience wasn’t unusual. People with disabilities are disproportionately represented among folks experiencing homelessness—people with disabilities make up over half of unhoused people. Working while disabled is a struggle. Social safety nets are constantly being disintegrated to line the pockets of the wealthy, and any wealth black families can accumulate is stolen through gentrification. Folks have little—if any—support to stay afloat when times get tough.
I’m doing my best. The dominant culture says work is all I’m good for, then throws obstacle after obstacle to obstruct any opportunity I have to succeed at the very thing it tells me I’m valueless without. The game is rigged.
This is Capitalism at its finest. What’s happening to me is exactly what’s supposed to happen to me and everyone like me. This is eerily reminiscent of Oregon’s “ugly laws,” which prohibited disabled people from being in public spaces. People with disabilities are literally being built out of the city, unwelcome and invisible.
Oh well… Keep Portland weird!
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