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Feb-27-2013 23:56printcomments

The Streets of Despair

A Remembrance of the East Multnomah county Mexican Ghetto.

Streets of Despair
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(PORTLAND, OR) - Those who walk the streets of despair, walk with stooped shoulders, hoodies pulled tight over their heads, shuffling along, staring down at the concrete sidewalk in front of them, one hand on a belt holding up pants that are hanging just above their bony pelvis. It is a uniform they wear, one that shows their state of mind and the state of their despair. Women of despair are seen walking the same streets, pushing a stroller with a young child, dragging a toddler along with the other hand. They are going home or going to the store or going to a bus stop. A lucky few are going to work. You can tell they are employed by a little bounce in their step, walking like they have a destination, their heads a little more emerged from the ever present uniform hoodie.

This particular neighborhood of despair is bounded by NE Glisan on the North, SE Powell on the South and from SE 148th on the West to Rock wood on the East. Admittedly these boundaries are arbitrary but is a neighborhood I have lived in and watched deteriorate over several years. The area around SE 162nd and Burnside/Stark is commonly referred to as the “Mexican Ghetto.” It is true the area is heavily populated by Hispanics, but as many Blacks live here as well as low-income Whites. “Low-income” applies to almost all the citizens of these streets of despair.

The Max train runs through the middle of these streets, following East Burnside to the end of the line in Gresham. Apartments line the tracks on both sides of the street, providing easy access to housing and quick access to downtown. Dire predictions of crime following the train into East County have proved to be somewhat true. Hardly a week goes by that some one is not assaulted, stabbed or shot at one of the Max train stops at 148th, 162nd, and 174'th and beyond.

Trimet tries to deter crime, by installing cameras at the stops. Trimet police seem to be around, but the criminal activity still seems ever present. This entire Mexican Ghetto is heavily policed. Portland Police patrol the area and park on 162'nd waiting for something to happen. Gresham police patrol the same area and do the same thing. Multnomah County police also patrol the area making frequent traffic stops, and then there are the Trimet police too. Not to be outdone, an Oregon State Police car will appear and zip and zoom around the neighborhood, even though the freeways they are supposed to patrol are several miles away. Folks are afraid to jay walk, but desperate enough to rob. Both Mexican stores have been robbed. The service station at 162 and Stark has been robbed. The “red store” at 162 and Burnside has been robbed. Both Sam's Hideaway's bar and restaurant have been robbed. The waitress held at gun point and terrorized.

Despair doesn't just descend on a neighborhood quickly like a curtain ending a play, it comes down slowly like a window shade changing the view forever. The neighborhood changes a little bit with each old familiar store closing down and moving away to be replaced by a different business or a vacant lot. The old “Flower Drum,” Chinese restaurant a staple of the after hours crowd, has gone away. It is now a Country Western bar and motorcycle crowd hangout. The old Safeway at the Village Square Shopping center at 162nd and Stark closed down and moved a mere mile or so away to 162'nd and Division. It too is now closed. The old Jack and Jill's night club at `162nd and Stark is now a pizza joint that charges too much.

Mexican entrepreneurs seeing the newly vacant Safeway store opened it up as a small mall, with Mexican groceries, a meat market, a deli with hot food to go and filled the remaining vacant space with a jewelry store, and a Cricket phone shop. The store is also an official bus stop for the big white bus that travels back and forth to Mexico. I see Mexicans with their cowboy hats and boots waiting patiently with their suitcases for the next bus to arrive.

The question often asked is did the newly emerging Mexican population enable the Mexican store to open or did the Mexican population come because there was a store that catered to their ethnic needs?

Either way the area has become distinctly Mexican. A second Mexican market and bakery with a hot food deli is just a few blocks away on 162nd and Glisan. It shares the space that used to be a Piggly Wiggly market with a plasma center where low income (why else would they do it) people go to sell their body fluids: plasma. Poor people have few choices to make a little extra money legally, recycle beverage cans and sell plasma are but two.

An always controversial Methadone clinic is located right on the rail line Max stop at 162'nd and Burnside. There is much loitering at this clinic, folks dressed in ne'er-do-well clothing, many covered in tattoos and piercings either add to the flavor of the neighborhood or denigrate it, depending on your point of view. Many after finishing their business at the Methadone clinic or the plasma center jaywalk across the street to a small but busy beer and cigarettes store. “The Red Store” it's called. The store is Mexican owned but patronized by all.

Sam's Hideaway is the neighborhood bar and sometimes restaurant at 162nd and Stark. It has withstood the test of time and remained open for many years. It has changed owners a handful of times but the regulars show up at 7:00am opening time waiting for the barmaid to unlock the doors. She leaves the door open to clear the air of the smell of stale beer and the Pinesoll used to mop the floors at night.

Most of the customers first in the door are graveyard workers looking to get a drink or two before going to bed for the day and taking the time to see if they can get a little money ahead by playing the lottery, at least enough to pay for their drinks.

I say “sometimes restaurant” because the operating hours keep changing and the bar maid is never sure what the soup of the day will be. Sometimes the soup is good and sometimes it is not, depends a lot on who's cooking that day.

I think one reason the customers are so loyal is because the barmaids at Sam's routinely “over serve.” But then getting drunk is one of the ways to escape, albeit temporarily from the streets of despair. The other way to escape the despair is obvious in the heavy drug use that permeates the neighborhood. Sweet escape! One junkie told me that when it gets too much for him he just slams some heroin in his arm, and then “I'm outta here.”

I know of one 8 unit apartment complex that someone in each unit either uses drugs or sells drugs, black market methadone, heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamine. All want to escape from the despair, and make extra money doing it. When times are hard people will escape from their reality. Drugs and alcohol are available and escape is at the corner store a six pack at a time or next door where your neighbor sells heroin. Everybody knows everybody else in this neighborhood. They are all connected by despair.

Human nature is also degraded by despair and those willing to take advantage of others less fortunate. One white land lord in this ghetto solicits sex from women behind in their rent. I personally know one woman that often paid her overdue rent this way. I personally know another woman, my former daughter-in-law, that was solicited in this manner. She declined his offer! One Asian in-and-out market owner was known for trading groceries and beer for sexual favors from local women if the area,

What is it that causes this cloud of despair to reign over the streets of the Mexican ghetto? What causes the head-down-stoop-shouldered demeanor of the folks that live in this depressed area?

One word is lack! Lack of money! Lack of hope! Lack of self esteem, the self esteem that allows a woman to trade her body for rent and groceries, lack and desperation!

The particular street of despair that I lived on for several years was SE 157 avenue, just a few steps from Powell Blvd. Next to my apartment complex was a vacant lot, used by anyone passing by as a dumping zone, Old TV's, couches, refrigerators and bald tires wound up there. Neighborhood drunks would also use the lot as a place to sit, drink beer and smoke, adding to the flavor of despair.

In my last year living on this street, a neighbor three doors down from me shot himself in the head in his bedroom. He was a young Samoan man, named Tovio, of about 30, always angry at the world and arrested by police several times while he lived there. Once he jumped on top of a car in the lot and waved a machete around. Police tasered him and hauled him away. Most of the neighbors were afraid of his crazy ways. When he died he was hauled away by the coroners office in a body bag. All the neighborhood children watched.

My other neighbor, to the right of me, hung himself in his garage. He was a hard working Mexican man named Felix who spoke little English. Felix's wife had an affair with a lesbian woman just before he committed suicide. Perhaps he could not bear losing his wife to a woman. He left a three year old daughter. The coroners office cut him down and hauled him away in a body bag too. Again all the neighborhood children watched.

It was naive to think it was safe to walk along the streets of despair even in daylight. It was not and I always carried a gun for my own protection. It was naive to think it was safe to ride Trimet along East Burnside. It was not! It was naive to think it was safe to sit in a neighborhood bar and drink. It was not. The streets of despair are not safe. Desperate people do desperate things!

As for myself I no longer reside on the streets of despair, the Mexican ghetto of East Multnomah county. Why? Because I could afford to move away. I am fortunate not to suffer the lack that imprisons those simply unable to leave, because there is no better place for them to go. I now walk the streets of my new community without fear for my safety and no longer feel it necessary to carry a gun in my pocket.

But there are other streets of despair in Portland, and in every city in this nation. If however, you see the familiar stoop of a person, man or woman, in despair, try to remember what you learned in Sunday school. The golden rule still applies. Treat others as you would have them treat you.

By Don DuPay

February 23, 2013



Donald Lee Dupay was a police officer for the Portland, Oregon police bureau, from 1961 to 1977. After five years service as a patrol officer Don was promoted to detective where he worked all the specialty units, morals, auto theft, checks, safe, burglary, special missions, and homicide. He was also an officer coach, instructing others on how to be productive detectives and teaching criminal investigation subjects at the police academy. Don witnessed the unintended consequences of the war on drugs that caused some of the officers in his department to become corrupt. Frustrated by that corruption he quit his job as a homicide detective and became the director of security at a major Portland hotel for several years.

Don has long thought we should legalize the so-called "consensual crimes" of drug distribution and use so we can stop killing each other over our failed drug policies. In his presentations Don offers an interesting perspective on additional unintended consequences - "collateral damage" - the countless innocent lives destroyed by drug prohibition.


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Alexandre April 7, 2013 11:38 am (Pacific time)

Yours is the intelligent approach to this issue.

commenter March 1, 2013 8:57 pm (Pacific time)

Well done. When I criticize those who hold power and use it for what seems to be their own personal benefit, I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that the part of them that is human at least rationalizes their activities as an indirect means to help those who need it the most (the trickle down theory). Many actively, and with seeming sincerity, contribute to charities and volunteer for public projects. On the other hand, I have seen first hand how racist they are and how stridently they disrespect the desperate and disadvantaged - as if their own behaviora would be any less destructive if born to the same circumstances. Articles like this help communicate a true sense of the reality of the lives of the victims of racism, economic totalitarianism, and irresponsible governing. Articles like this should be published in all major newspapers on a regular basis.

Anonymous February 28, 2013 7:09 pm (Pacific time)

Vic if there's nothing to steal, then robbery will be low. Most poor people in the states are poor for a number of reasons: sickness/disease, lack of inniative is generally the main reason. Those who blame others for their poor behavior/performance is pretty standard. Even when these people receive plenty of resources they revert back to former non-productive behaviors. Dupay you recall Lt. Crabtree? I was with his son (Westpointers) when he was killed in Vietnam. Bot were good men. How about Torgy downstairs at the firing range? Kurt Carlson with training Dept.?

Vic February 28, 2013 8:53 am (Pacific time)

Here in San Blas, Mexico, everyone is for the most part poor, but the crime rate is very very low. Armed robbery is extremely rare. In fact, I have not been able to find anyone who recalls an armed robbery here. I think it is because there is no pressure to have the newest and latest. Everyone is struggling, and that is an accepted fact, but we are not as bombarded with advertising to remind us of what we do not have, but should. Again, awesome article..a great read !

Vic February 28, 2013 8:34 am (Pacific time)

Awesome article, Don ! Thank you !

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