A lot of ink and paper is being spent on Vera Katz these days. Thats understandable. Over the past 12 years, she led Portland through prosperity and recession, civil strife and political turmoil, and even through a historic flood. For good or ill, this city carries the marks some would say scars of her leadership.
For the boys in the corporate newsrooms, its time to break out the stories about Katz failed ideas remember putting a lid on I-405? and skirmishes with factions of Portlands business community. Theres also Veras heavy hand on the city council, keeping four commissioners busy administering their bureaus rather than questioning city policies on things like the police.
While these things do make up part of the Katz legacy, they are in many ways unfair to a mayor who never stopped trying throughout her dozen years in City Hall. The real Katz legacy is a cautionary tale about the inadequacies of liberalism even the increasingly conservative version embraced by Katz operating in a neo-liberal world.
Cities are the building blocks of our society and our economy. The activities within cities are what make larger socio-economic structures possible. The protective walls states and nations have offered cities in the past have been breached by neo-liberal economic theory. Free trade agreements and the rise of a world trade organization allows corporations to batter down any barrier cities may erect to preserve a prosperous economy and society. Through those breaches can be repeatedly heard the great sucking sound Ross Perot warned about 12 years ago. This is a world for which the liberal Katz was ill-prepared and which she never came to fully understand.
Look at the economic strategies of her administration. There was Pros-perous Portland, the blueprint for luring high tech to Portland. Tax breaks and loosened regulation were offered as enticement for locating a chip plant here. In return, the corporation was not required to offer any solid promises on wages, benefits or the impacts on the community or the environment. Fortunately, Prosperous Portland proved to be a non-starter now gathering dust on a shelf somewhere in City Hall.
This did not put Katz off the idea that cities should be in downward spiralling competition with other cities in winning the hearts of corporations they hoped would keep city dwellers working. Instead of targeting high tech, the mayor now started looking at creative indusries like public relations, you can never have too many PR flaks in your city visual arts (i.e. upscale galleries), and, the more ominous, biotech.
To that end, Katz used special revenue districts, cash from city coffers and other publicly funded bells and whistles to renovate the Northwest industrial area into the Pearl District, revitalize NE Alberta St. and rebuild the Brewery Blocks on W. Burnside. Sparkling new buildings filled with largely out-of-state chain stores stand ready to meet the needs of the new urban illuminati. In the meantime, the original residents find themselves driven to the citys edges, where rents approach the reasonable (offset by increased travel costs to get to those minimum wage jobs downtown).
Twelve years of courting corporate America has created a Portland with a greater wealth gap than before, entire communities displaced by boutique neighborhoods serving more affluent urbanites.
In the meantime, those other problems that have been with us for more than the dozen years Katz has ruled at City Hall, remain. The Willamette River despite the Katz Walk and her announcement of a River Renaissance remains a toxic sewer. Air quality continues to decline along the I-5 corridor, creating higher levels of respiratory disease among the citys poor living near the freeway and industrial centers. Portlanders are working harder to get by and many are holding down two or more jobs to support their families.
The Katz years have been good to business. The mayor was really not equipped to do otherwise at least within her political perspective.
She could have been bold by reaching out to other cities to form a collective defense against predatory corporations shopping for the best deal. She could have seen the futility of using developers to drive the local economy (how many retail stores can we use?). She could have done many things that would not have cured all Portlands ills, but at least mitigated some of the suffering while building support for an even bolder future course. But that would have meant stretching her liberal skin too far. That was something Katz couldnt do. Thats the real Katz legacy.
The Portland Alliance
2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Last Updated: February 8, 2005