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This Week's Curator: Nick Christensen of Lents

This Week's Curator: Nick Christensen of Lents

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Nick Christensen is a resident of the Lents neighborhood. He was on the board of the Lents Neighborhood Association from 2009-13, including a 3½ year stint as Chair.  Nick was a journalist living in Hillsboro in 2009, and a recent transplant from Las Vegas, when he decided to buy a house.  He found a bungalow in Lents with a front porch and a basement and a finished attic, He fell in love with it immediately – it had all the quirky charm that had been missing in his late-century ranch-house youth. In 2010, Nick started working in the Communications Department at Metro, where he supports the Metro Council on communications, particularly with the media.

Tell us about your neighborhood. What are the ups and downs of it?

Lents reminds me so much of the neighborhood I grew up in in Las Vegas. I love the
diversity. I remember the first time my dad came to visit my new house, he said “This
isn’t bad at all. I was expecting a bombed out hellhole based on what I was reading in
the papers.” I think Portland can get carried away with how down it gets on imperfect
places.

Lents has a great do-it-yourself spirit. I think the community has been neglected or
“tinkered with” by city hall for so long, people have found their own ways of addressing
issues. Lents created its own tool library because we weren’t allowed to use the
Southeast Tool Library, for example.

That being said, it has its challenges.

When the region’s economy started to go gangbusters, many of the houses that
previously were owned by what I called “recalcitrant landlords” – owners who refused to
invest in properties and rented to the easiest tenant – were sold to other investors or
new homeowners. I suspect that was the biggest cause of the surge of homelessness
we’ve seen in Lents in the past five years. Where the neighborhood once had a couple
of small, out-of-the-way camps, we are now increasingly challenged with several
moving areas where people experiencing homelessness congregate.

I have not experienced homelessness, but I can only imagine that it is an extremely
stressful experience. Those stresses, in turn, are often reflected back to the community.
The increase in homelessness has coincided with quite a bit of conflict in our
community. I think everyone agrees that it’s bad, but the best approaches to addressing
the issue are not at all agreed upon. I also think that our city’s leaders tend to
marginalize those who are impacted by the externalities of homelessness, which is
unfortunate – it furthers the perception that city hall doesn’t understand East Portland, which overall diminishes trust in government and shared responsibility for tackling our
greatest challenges.

What are your favorite East Portland things to do and places to go?

So, I’ll let you in on my tamale-making secret – I love going to Tortilleria Y Tienda de
Leon on Glisan and getting some of their delicious guisados and using them as the
filling for tamales. Or, you know, for lunch. I love walking down to the Foster Floodplain
Natural Area and seeing all the plants grow in. I love getting a beer at Zoiglhaus.

What do you think people don’t know about East Portland that they should know?

The amount of time it takes to live in East Portland is far greater than in the rest of the
city. I mean, if I want to go to a grocery store other than Walmart, it’s a 15 minute drive
to the nearest store. There are parts of East Portland where it’s far longer. Despite all
the four-lane boulevards, traffic doesn’t move that fast.

And transit in East Portland isn’t great. A bus ride from 122nd Avenue to downtown can
easily take 45 minutes, because of all of the stops in Inner Southeast. TriMet runs a
couple of express buses that bypass everything up to Cesar E Chavez, but hasn’t
increased that service in years.

MAX isn’t considerably faster. Neither are convenient for running errands. For example,
if I wanted to stop and get groceries at the Gateway Fred Meyer on my way home, I’d
have to carry said groceries to the MAX station, then wait up to 15 minutes for the next
outbound train. Basically, everything that a lot of people in Portland love about Portland
is a long, long ways away – and all of that time compounds with every trip you make.

What do you think would be most helpful for people in East Portland?

Portland pioneered the renaissance of early-20th-century industrial cities, investing
billions of dollars to keep its core from falling behind like what happened in the Rust
Belt. Where is the dedicated, creative effort to do the same for the mid-century suburbs
that are now struggling because of the results of the investment in city centers?

I like to say what’s happening in Lents right now is “Lentrification.” I call it that because I
want to see Lents break the mold – I want Lents to be a community where more jobs,
amenities and investments can happen simultaneous to creation of more housing and
stability for current residents. We’ve built hundreds of units of affordable housing in
Lents, and we’re on pace to build more. Every neighborhood should have sidewalks for
kids to walk safely, trees to suck up pollution, parks for families to enjoy the outdoors,
public safety so people don’t put bars on their windows, and businesses for people of all
backgrounds and means. How do we create those spaces and those conditions without
forcing everyone already there to move out? I think we can do that if we think creatively
and have a more broad conversation that isn’t focused around fear of the g-word
bogeyman.

How do you think your Portland matches up with the Portland you’ve seen in
media?

There are no naked bike rides in East Portland. There aren’t many places to get a
coffee shop or a microbrew. I’ve never seen the Unipiper east of 82nd.

In many ways, it reminds me of the disconnect between Hollywood and the real Los
Angeles – there’s the Los Angeles we see on TV, all sparkles and starlets and the
occasional freeway chase, and then there’s the Los Angeles that people live, the
amazing, energetic, multicultural collection of communities. It’s that latter vision that
gives me hope for East Portland.

What keeps you up at night worrying?

In my neighborhood? I worry that someone who is suffering from addiction or untreated
mental illness is going to harm my family or my neighbors. We have seen such a sharp
increase in the number of people experiencing some sort of life trauma in East Portland
in the last 6-or-so years, and I worry that their trauma will be externalized through injury
or theft because society has yet to figure out an answer other than “leave them alone
and hope they get better.”

On a more global sense, a lot keeps me up at night. I worry that this country has
forgotten how to talk to each other, and we are sorting ourselves into enclaves that
refuse to get along or compromise or have empathy for those we disagree with. I worry
about my parents, one of whom has early-onset Alzheimer’s and needs constant care. I
worry about the cost of day care for my 3-year-old daughter. Life is never simple.

What gives you hope?

We have such great bones! In a beautiful corner of the planet, we have all the
infrastructure you could want, and tons of human capital, we just have to decide what
we want to do with it.

Why did you agree to participate in this project?

I love sharing how East Portland has shaped me as a person, and how it shapes
Portland as a whole. I’m proud to live here.

You can find Nick riding one of those rental scooters around the Lents Town Center, or on Twitter @nickcpdx.

This Week's Curator: Tricia Brand, Dean of Students at Portland Community College, Southeast Campus

This Week's Curator: Tricia Brand, Dean of Students at Portland Community College, Southeast Campus

This Week's Curator: Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson

This Week's Curator: Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson