Portland is a city with a reputation for planning. The city pops up in urban studies courses, theses and symposiums for its skill in creating a process in which citizens and other stakeholders join with city leaders to chart out various aspects of Portlands future. A penchant for foresightedness is something for which Portlanders can be proud considering the concrete accomplishments it has produced: a solid mass transit system, neighborhoods that with some glaring exceptions have retained their identities, and preservation of greenspaces.
This planning gene does have a downside. In the hands of some city leaders, the planning process has been reduced to a ritual with little to do with citizen participation in the decision-making process and a lot about control. Take, for example, the effort to create an independent civilian police review board in 2000. Mayor Katz assembled an impressive blue ribbon committee, the majority of whom crafted what was most likely the most researched proposal for a review board in the nation. Yet, the mayor, warning at the beginning of the presentation of the proposal that she wasnt going to be restricted to what her committee advises, relegated the committees work to a dusty pigeon-hole.
Our propensity for planning has another effect on the health of our community. Too often, we find city officials trying to plan away our basic rights. Anyone who has attempted to obtain a permit for a rally or march has seen this dynamic in action. You are usually advised that the police wish to help you balance your right to protest with other citizens rights to travel and conduct business in the city.
March routes, stops, speakers and other elements of a march or rally soon become points of negotiation with the police whose signature you need to obtain the permit. It soon becomes a process for defining the limits on our rights to assemble, speak freely and demand from government a redress of our grievances. Sadder yet, too many activists and community members allow themselves to accept this role of city as arbiter of what are inalienable rights.
The suffocating effect of that sort of planning can now be seen in the state of our citys public art. Anyone who has traveled to other cities knows that Portlands public art is dominated by the sort of bland, insipid projects bureaucrats and the Regional Arts Council hope wont generate letters of complaints, or in a few choice locations represents the taste of Pearl District elites.
But where are the riotous colors, challenging messages and downright offensive images one finds on walls and public spaces like Chicago or San Francisco? Where are the signs of our citys less visible residents immigrants, youth, and the down on their luck that often is manifested in unofficial public art?
The problem began with graffiti control a broad-brush approach that also covered up true street art. Next came an effort to stop the proliferation of electronic signs. By the time the City Council had waded into the deep end of the First Amendment pool, they found themselves under attack by Clear Channel, claiming their First Amend-ment rights were at risk. The city drafted an ordinance that lumped commercial speech and protected speech together. Art and advertising would be treated the same way, with a process that imposed boundaries and hefty fees few artists would find acceptable or could afford. In the months that followed, murals have been destroyed, disassembled and covered up to avoid the assessment of fines.
Fortunately, a new group has coalesced Portland Mural Defense to take this issue on. Composed of artists and art supporters, the group is lobbying for revisions in the ordinance that separate out commercial and protected speech in the form of visual art, remove size limitations and hefty fees for permits, and broaden the permit review process. The group itself is new and still working on reaching internal consensus on major points, but the recognition that the best way to nurture public art is to have responsibility rest in as many hands as possible.
Thats an important point not just in the case of public art but in so many other areas of our lives in which the city plays a roll. Most progressives see planning as essential to building a rational, just and healthy community. By keeping planning truly democratic, however, we can avoid the slide into the stifling environment of rule by bureaucrat that rarely if ever serves the interest of the people. It makes for better art, stronger civil liberties and a better community.
[If you are interested in Portland Mural Defense, contact Joe Cotter at 503-630-5176.]
The Portland Alliance
2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Last Updated: November 18, 2004