Published on: April 19, 2023
Yesterday we returned to the subject of cities in distress, with a story about how the REI in downtown Portland, Oregon, is closing because of concerns about employee and customer safety and store security.
I've shopped at that store. I know the neighborhood well, from my summer adjunctivities at Portland State University. It was the area, not too many years ago, to which I hoped to move. I'd continue doing MNB, do some more teaching at PSU, and enjoy the Pacific Northwest that, in my opinion, is the most beautiful part of the country, with the best food and wine.
Emails like this break my heart. Emails like this have broken Mrs. Content Guy's spirit - there's no way she's moving there now. Eye-Opening emails like this one illustrate just how difficult a road some many cities have in front of them.
Portland is said to be one of several cities in the running for a Major League Baseball expansion team. I must admit to being conflicted about this. On the one hand, a team would bring much needed investment to the city. But I also believe that until Portland can figure out ways to deal with the significant issues that face it, making such investments could be problematic.
One MNB reader wrote:
I know it’s hard to admit this but maybe the progressive leadership in the city of Portland has led to its demise?
From another reader:
Until Portland and cities in similar situations across the country admit they have a problem, they are going to continue to lose businesses. And as long as the leaders continue to bend to the criminals the problems will get worse. The losers are those city residents who no longer have good places to shop and end up with higher taxes as the tax base erodes.
The problems have grown much worse than dealing with petty shoplifting that has existed for years. No responsible company is going to put up with major theft and damage and putting their employees at risk. Until the political leaders and DA ‘s in these cities and states get up and say “I am mad as hell and we are not going to put up with this anymore “, the problems will get much worse. I would have thought we are at or beyond that point already, but apparently not in the minds and hearts of those who should and could attack the problems.
MNB reader Monte Stowell wrote:
After reading your missive today about what happened with REI is just the tip of the iceberg for what has been happening here in Portland. Hate to say it, but the catalyst behind what has happened to the loss of many retailers closing up shop in downtown Portland was the riots that occurred after the George Floyd incident. I was born and raised in PDX 76+ years ago, and in the 1960’s when there were protests about the Vietnam war in downtown Portland, but not to the degree of wanton destruction that we saw a couple of years ago. Portland had leadership that allowed the senseless destruction we saw two years ago. What occurred a couple of years ago was businesses leaving or closing their doors as people did not feel safe going downtown. Then Covid hit, and more businesses left. Crime, homelessness, and drugs became commonplace. People did not feel safe shopping downtown and voted with their cars and feet to do their shopping in other places in the burbs of PDX. I remember as a young boy the joy of getting on the St. John’s bus and going downtown with my mom, brother, and sister. Downtown Portland, I sincerely hope time will heal what has happened to you the past 3-4 years. Sad to see what us native Portlanders have seen.
From another reader:
I’m, a long-time reader of MNB and this article is not surprising given the homeless situation in Portland. I’m not sure why you did not identify the challenge in your comments. I felt you skirted the main issue and normally, you tackle them head-on. Portland has created its own problem by enabling the homeless community by making it easy for them to live there and take advantage of their liberal laws. It is a pity that the government rewards poor behavior and they do not provide services that reward the homeless from becoming homeless. I understand there is a mental health element to the story, but have you been to Oregon lately? My wife and I would spend the night in Portland and visit Powell’s bookstore (for the entire day) but not anymore. Portland is a mess, and they have a major homeless issue that they created.
And from still another reader:
Teenagers and young adults descended on State Street, a prime shopping district in Chicago’s Loop area downtown. The Chicago Tribune captured eyewitness video of the crowd running down State, attacking bystanders and beating them. Kicking passing cars. Standing on the roofs of parked cars jumping up and down to inflict damage. It was terrifying observing boys and girls hitting and kicking people thrown to the ground for no reason other than exercising a violent night out. Police were overwhelmed. 16 arrests were made. Some of them had guns.
I live three blocks from there and now worry for the safety of my family. Chicago’s new mayor was quoted saying while he doesn’t condone violence, “it is not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities.” I’m sorry but just appalled at this lack of empathy for innocent people recklessly attacked, the rule of law and the requirement for accountability for actions like this. People, families should have confidence they are safe in their neighborhood. Incidents like this provide some evidence of a fracture in our moral imperatives. City leadership should side on safety, accountability and constructive moves to prevent future events like this.
What happens in the absence of that is loss of neighborhood integrity and quality, as you observed in the Pearl area. Just not right.
I've long argued here that the permissive attitude toward small crimes like shoplifting allows for the escalation to organized theft and the kind of chaos and anarchy you describe.
I live in a Connecticut town where small bands of kids often will wander the streets in the late night/early morning hours, wandering into driveways to see if cars are unlocked. If they are, they ransack the cars. If someone has accidentally left the keys to the car, they steal the vehicle. This has happened on my street, in part because we are easily accessibly to I-95, which allows for a quick escape.
The message to homeowners has been that the police can do very little about these cases. They don't want to engage in gunfights on suburban streets (probably a good decision), and don't want to engage in high-speed car chases. And, there apparently is a rule - police cars won't exceed 75 MPH when chasing a suspect. (Message to lawbreakers: Drive away at 80 MPH.)
I've never understood how any of this reinforces the notion of as civilized society in which the rule of law actually matters.
I do think that some of this is different from issues like drug addiction and homelessness that afflict many US cities, and while I would agree that liberals/progressives have largely not distinguished themselves in their policy choices, I would argue that at least some these decisions have been made because of compassion. Misplaced compassion, in some cases.
What I'm not smart enough to figure out is what a sophisticated, nuanced, lawful and, yes, compassionate public policy looks like. I'm not sure the answer is to simply ship the homeless and drug addicted to Santa Monica or Cape Cod - that isn't really addressing the problem. It is easy to blame. Much harder, I think, to formulate a sensible solution to the disease, not just the symptoms.
We had a story yesterday about how McDonald's plans to upgrade its burger line, prompting one MNB reader to write:
I admire their persistence, and an upgrade would be good, but haven’t we been down this road before? Remember the Arch Burger, Angus Burger, Chopped Beefsteak, McDLT, Big N’ Tasty…
One of the apparent goals is to be more like In-N-Out, which led MNB reader Rich Heiland to write:
One of the reasons I've always gone to In-N-Out is for the experience. I was going in one in California not long ago and when I got to the door and employee who was sweeping up out front ran over to open the door for me. At one point I went to the restroom and an employee was in there and totally violated the man code by speaking to me. "How are you liking In-n-Out?" he asked. I told him "just fine" and asked "how do you like working here?" He answered "I love it. Everyone is so nice and it's fun to see other people having fun." To me McDonald's needs more than just imitated an In-N-Out burger.
And another MNB reader asked:
Why do only “select cities” get to have a possibly tastier burger from McDonalds?
I think it just takes time to roll it out.
And finally, this note from MNB reader Steven Ritchey about the idea that execs should spend more time in their stores:
Having corporate people office at individual stores sounds like a really good idea. I mean it gets decision makers close to the action, to the customers, where the rubber meets the road.
It can also be a major train wreck.
After 45 years in this business, I've seen a lot. I've seen store managers become exasperated when their division manager, who'd not worked in a store in years, or if they'd ever worked in a store would make a visit, and totally berate the store manager who was frequently a very good manager who'd run circles around their boss over things of no consequence.
Do you really think this DM would be welcome at a store full time?
You'd be amazed at how many corporate managers have never, ever worked in a store.
My older brother was a Meat Market manager for a local grocery chain. He worked at one of the inner city stores, a very different location from what this chains typical store was. His Supervisor had never actually been a meat cutter, had never managed a meat market, yet he was always on my brother about how he ran his market, which was always a top producer in terms of margin,
Now, I know there are some really good, capable middle managers at corporate, but one bad one having their office at a store would wreak havoc, and chances are, nothing would happen to them.
This is something that sounds like a really good idea on the surface, but in actual practice if not done right with the right people could do more harm than good.
You've described a lot of organizational problems that need to be addressed. But I'm pretty sure that the best answer is to have the right people and the right systems in place at all levels of an organization, all focused on making stores a better, more cohesive and responsive shopping experience.
Essentially, what you've described is typical of siloed organizations. Here's my opinion - in the end, it is the job of a CEO to break down the silos so these scenarios do not exist. And the CEO who does not do that - who does not recognize and work to solve the problems that you describe - is a CEO who is not doing his or her job, who may, in fact, be doing more harm than good.