This year marks a renewed examination of the East Portland-West Portland divide so what better way to start than with Cora Lee Potter, a community leader from Lents. She has chaired the Lents Town Center Urban Renewal Advisory Committee (LTCURAC) and continues to advocate for the neighborhood she loves while working as a planner in regional community transportation. However, it is her other titles on LinkedIn that prove she has the necessary level of intrigue to receive Neighborhood Notes’ highest honor. “Agent Provocateur, Cat Herder, and Personal Chef at New Bohemian Grove Farm Resort” round out her list of current roles. Clearly we have chosen wisely.

NN: Congratulations on being named this month's Armchair Mayor, and forgive us if we don't address you as Mayor Potter. How would you describe yourself to our readers?


Potter: I'm a city girl that came from rural roots. My paternal family hails from the head of a holler in Appalachia, and my maternal family members were some of the first farmers and ranchers in Eastern Oregon. I'm a fifth generation Oregonian, but I have a sneaky southern accent that I have to suppress because my Tennessean grandmother was a big influence on me when I was learning to talk. She also put me to work in her restaurant as soon as I could lift a bus tub. My other grandmother is a really thoughtful but assertive woman that taught me about civic life and community service. I like to think I'm the result of their combined knowledge and style but I don't know that I can ever live up to their greatness.

My formative years were passed in the coastal hamlet of Coquille, Ore., that has a population of around 4,000. It's a bit Lynchian there—like Twin Peaks, only with flooded farm fields instead of mountains. I love Portland, but I've always felt like it's still pretty easy for me to adopt the "stranger role" and really take a step back, look at the city like an outside observer, and talk to people while making few or no assumptions.

NN: The big story out of Lents these days is the compost station. What are your thoughts on that?

Potter: Well, first I want to make sure that everyone knows that it's a mixed food and yard debris transfer station. And this is for a business that has been collecting yard debris at this site for a few years without really being noticed or causing problems. No big piles of processing compost will be at the site. Essentially, the local haulers will be dropping off their green bin loads there, and then the material will be loaded onto a large truck for the long journey to North Plains usually within the day. But, the conditional use permit does allow for it to be stored up to 48 hours.

From a land-use standpoint, it's not really a big change. The facility is in the middle of a really big (100-acre) site that's zoned for heavy industrial. The site has large environmental buffers that keep it from intruding on the adjacent residential areas. I'm really happy that city council was strict about limiting the number of trucks going in and out, because that actually is the biggest impact on the people that live in the little housing area right around the entrance to the site off Foster Road. And, we're getting some benefit from the upgrades they are making. The yard debris will move inside a building instead of sitting on the ground outside. That does help keep Johnson Creek a little more protected.

My biggest concern with the project is actually that Recology is investing a lot of money to keep odors and other nuisances under control. It's a big investment for a property that they're leasing, and if we needed to move them to accommodate new development that creates more jobs, it's going to cost more to relocate Recology. But, overall they've been good neighbors through this process and taken a lot of time to talk with us and hear our concerns. I think it's been a good learning opportunity and made the community really aware of the waste we create, since it's no longer out of sight and out of mind.

NN: Do you miss the wild days of the baseball stadium debate in Lents and do you have any reflections on that?

Potter: No, I don't miss those days at all. It was a really trying time for me personally and all of the really patient and conscientious people on the LTCURAC. It's always sad to me when my neighbors are doing and saying hurtful things based on fundamental attribution errors. I think things really went awry when it became a public debate centered around an ideological opposition to a proposal for the redevelopment of Walker Stadium (and sadly, a pretty nice person) that the LTCURAC was trying to responsibly evaluate in a measured and thoughtful way. There were a lot of serious opportunity costs both with building and not building the ballpark, and they really needed to be discussed in the context of the history of the LTCURAC and the existing plans and goals of the LTCURAC. I don't feel like we ever got to resolve or really have that discussion.

I will say that it was very unfair to ask the urban renewal area to foot nearly the entire bill for the ballpark. I think people were willing to consider a project that preserved more of our future budgets for other development, but the big price tag is what really made it impossible to support, as proposed.

The one good thing that came out of the whole ordeal is that the Parks Department agreed to a master plan process for Lents Park. We're hoping for a successful parks bond soon, so we can turn it into the world-class urban park that the people of Lents deserve.

NN: I've always wondered why there was no plaque to honor Woody Guthrie's time as a resident of the Lents neighborhood. Any thoughts on that and how is the neighborhood doing?

Potter: I think the best tribute would be for someone to fix up the apartment house where he rented and make it the sort of place that honors and reflects his ethos. A plaque really doesn't convey what Woody Guthrie was about, or why Lents would be the place he chose as his home base.

When Woody Guthrie lived in Lents, there was no I-205 freeway, 92nd Avenue was a main street, the New Copper Penny complex was a movie theater, shops and a drug store. All the vacant lots and neglected buildings had form and life during that time. Lents was a vital place with its own vibrant neighborhood economy. And it was and currently is a gateway to nature, to farmland and the mountains and gorges where he did his best work.

So, I'm channeling my inner Guthrie for this analogy: Our neighborhood is making a hard climb out of a hole we didn't dig. Luckily, we're strong climbers and we can still see the sky. The new folks falling into the hole are making us stronger, but we definitely need to make sure that one person isn't pulling another person down from the top as they try to scramble up. I think our biggest frustration is that the city and other jurisdictions keep throwing down a rope, and then right when we're about to get a firm grasp on it, they pull it back up and go looking for another kind of rope.

NN: What's your impression of our spending priorities as a city? Are you optimistic about Portland's future or are we in danger of bankruptcy in this economy?

Potter: I'm going to really address this in terms of capital investment. I think our operating budgets are really defined by where we invest our capital in the first place. So, something like spending an equal amount on parks maintenance in E Portland is hard to justify because we haven't developed an equitable parks system, both in quantity and quality, in E Portland in the first place.

Over the last decade, I think Portland has really been struggling with moving from the monocentric, Goldschmidt-era policies that prioritized central city development above all else, to a polycentric outlook that still maintains the central city’s vital role as the metropolitan center but also more holistically addresses the need to maintain neighborhood scale economies. We're at the hard point where polycentric policy goals are becoming documented plan, but the focus of implementation and awareness of the needs and aspirations of areas outside the central city haven't made their way into the culture of city staff. So, on paper, in plans, I think our priorities are headed the right direction. In execution, not so much. And spending really is the result of yearly budget prioritization. You can justify spending with plans, but you can’t really get the line item in the first place unless someone is actually willing and able to create an appropriate project.

We've made strides along the corridors that directly connect to downtown and quite a lot of progress in N and NE Portland recently, but I honestly think that is because a lot of city staff happen to live in those areas, which helps overcome the lack of awareness. But, there is a serious geographic and socioeconomic inequity of investment in E Portland that needs to be addressed. This is not about equality of spending; it's about reversing the systemic disinvestment that has occurred over the last three decades. If we spend an equal amount in E Portland compared to the rest of the city, it will still continue to lag because it started out at an extreme disadvantage. E Portland has been a donor area to the rest of the city from a capital investment standpoint for 30 years. It's going to take an equal or greater amount of time with E Portland in the role of being a recipient area to reverse the trend of disinvestment and ensure that we don't become a model of the worst aspects of some European cities where low socioeconomic status classes are segregated in the outer ring neighborhood slums in a reverse doughnut effect.

As far as bankruptcy is concerned, I think we're a pretty resilient city that always finds a way through. We certainly can't be complacent, and we definitely have to be strategic. But, even when I watched Portland from the sloughs near Coquille, it always seemed like every downturn and trial just made the city better. In comparison to a place like Coos Bay, where my grandmothers live, that just keeps getting more and more depressed with every blow, and the real bankruptcy there is the loss of young and talented people. I'm guilty of contributing to that and it does cause me a lot of melancholy. Luckily, I don't see that happening in Portland anytime soon.

NN: If you could address the people of Portland directly, what would you say?

Potter: Honestly, I need to address two cohorts of Portland residents.

To the folks that live west of 60th Avenue: Be generous, gracious and aware of everything you have access to that doesn't exist in other neighborhoods further east.

To the folks that live east of 60th Avenue: Have aspirations for your community, don't accept the status quo, and don't let past transgressions prevent you from accepting present opportunities. Oh, and vote in every single election cycle.