(Portland) At 9 a.m., Erica Hetfeld came across first responders caring for a homeless victim of an overdose in the middle of Portland. A scene that has become sadly commonplace in this Democratic bastion, long established as a model city for the American left.
“It’s a tragedy,” says this real estate professional, while three disheveled men smoke fentanyl – an opioid up to 50 times more powerful than heroin – near her office. “Before the decriminalization of drugs, we didn’t see that.”
A native of this western metropolis, this Republican voter can no longer stand seeing “zombies” in the streets, businesses covered in graffiti and tents on certain sidewalks.
Victim of a burglary in 2021, the forty-year-old left the city center for a wealthy suburban suburb, holed up behind a security gate.
Since the pandemic, Portland has suffered “a spectacular fall”, testifies this mother, incredulous at the simple fines inflicted on drug addicts.
“There are no consequences for criminal behavior or for using drugs in public,” she complains. “It completely destroyed our city.”
All drugs have been decriminalized since February 2021 in Oregon, only the sale and production remains punishable by imprisonment. This pioneering reform coincided with the deadly national fentanyl epidemic.
In the middle of a presidential year, the decline of Portland is held up as a foil by the conservative press, which depicts a city ravaged by its progressive ideals, in a state controlled by the left for more than 40 years.
From Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to Donald Trump, Republican leaders are fueling this trial with laxity. In September, the ex-president revived the memory of the violent riots that occurred in 2020 during the demonstrations caused by the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a white police officer.
“How many people have been prosecuted for destroying Portland? », indignant the billionaire, who wishes to reconquer the White House. “Even today, the city is devastated.”
In her restaurant, Lisa Schroeder grimaces at this political recovery.
“We have other fish to fry,” retorts the owner of Mother’s, a true institution in Portland, “we have to take care of this city.”
This Democrat launched her bistro 25 years ago in the anti-establishment metropolis, the daughter of worker activism and anti-fascist culture. She saw Portland become hip, thanks to its atypical streetcars in the United States, its vegan sandwich shops and its indie rock scene.
Ten years ago, the series “Portlandia” summed up this bobo-rebel side by mocking this “town where young people come to retire”.
But Portland, where real estate has exploded, is now losing residents.
Deserted city center
Giants like Nike or Target close their stores there citing repeated thefts. Teleworking has emptied the city center, making homeless people and drug addicts very visible.
“There are drugs on every street corner,” notes Mme Schroeder, which has lost two-thirds of its turnover since COVID-19. “So people have even more reasons not to come downtown.”
The sixty-year-old nevertheless voted for decriminalization, with the hope of treating rather than punishing. She remains amazed by the failures of the health system, incapable of financing the necessary structures.
The merchant also denounces the “passive-aggressive approach” of a police force which she considers upset by the reduction in its budget. When a customer’s car window was broken recently, the patrol told him they “don’t handle property crimes.”
After a jump between 2019 and 2022, crime began to decline in 2023, according to statistics. But the police take an average of 20 minutes to respond to an emergency call.
In the streets, the slogan “Keep Portland Weird” sits alongside billboards denouncing “record fatal overdoses,” “the increase in shootings” and “widespread car thefts.”
A campaign by a citizen group created by two communicators, one Democrat, the other Republican.
Portland was a “progressive pantheon, we were like a beacon,” says its left-wing co-founder, Kevin Looper. “And all of a sudden we are a counter-model.”
In an increasingly polarized America, this fifty-year-old would like to find a middle path.
“Between the far left who think all cops are bad, and the far right who want a police state, most people just want someone who answers emergency calls.”