Self-fulfilling prophecies revealed in Portland

Since the dawn of civilization, social elites have manipulated the masses through oracles, omens and prophecies. The threat of divinely enforced calamity, foretold via earthquakes and eclipses, or the promise of divinely guaranteed victory in battle, leaked by a priestess inside the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, were powerful motivators in ancient days.

In modern times, folks aren’t as easily fooled, though remnants of that old black magic persist: astrology is still popular; the fickle Dow Jones Industrial Average is considered an accurate measure of the market, its random fluctuations reported by the hour; and the Book of Revelation informs the foreign policy of many right-wing Republicans.

But the most common form of fortunetelling employed by our political overlords and landlords these days is the self-fulfilling prophesy. Here’s how it works. First, allow your property, or the public asset for which you’re responsible (park, pier, school), to fall into disrepair and disuse. Second, point out that the sorry condition of said property is such that your only choice is to sell it to someone with enough money to fix it up. Third, seal the deal and evict the homeless, the poor, the disabled, and any small-business owners from the premises. Lastly, laugh all the way to the bank.

Let’s examine some recent examples of this chicanery.

My favorite is the Maine State Pier. Almost 10 years ago, city officials declared that the publicly owned pier was in such rough structural shape that Portlanders could never afford to fix it. Ipso facto, we need to allow private developers to lease the pier for, say, a century, and they’ll replace the rotting pilings for us in exchange for the favor of allowing them to build luxury office space, a hotel, restaurants and other amenities for tourists there.

Of course, the pier wouldn’t have been in bad shape to begin with had those same city officials done their jobs and maintained the waterfront infrastructure for which they are responsible. Luckily, both development proposals for the pier imploded last decade and it’s still standing strong. But now Mayor Ethan Strimling — whose campaign was aided by one of the politically connected developers who tried to take over the pier years ago — is using similar language to seed the field for future private development of this precious public asset. He recently described the warehouse and office space on the pier as “desperately underutilized,” despite indications city officials themselves have squandered multiple opportunities to bring more marine-related businesses there.

Portland's Congress Square Park in 2013. Seth Koenig | BDN

Portland’s Congress Square Park in 2013. Seth Koenig | BDN

Congress Square Park followed the same pattern: city officials failed to maintain it and then used the park’s poor condition to justify their effort to sell much of it to the owners of an adjacent hotel. This time it was citizens who rose up to block the deal, and who subsequently maintained and improved the park for public use. These days, the space is more popular than ever.

Privately owned properties provide the latest examples of self-fulfilling prophecy in action. Last month, attorneys for CVS and property owners on Forest Avenue argued that the buildings they want to demolish to make way for a new pharmacy don’t merit protection as historic landmarks “primarily because they [are] in poor shape,” the Press Herald reported. Experts hired by the developer testified to the presence of “lead paint, asbestos and other contaminants.”

It’s too bad the same property owners never hired anyone to remove those poisons from their buildings, including the space rented by a nonprofit that serves developmentally disabled adults. That battle is ongoing.

And just last week, the owner of two dozen apartments on Grant Street, in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood, used the same excuse to justify evicting dozens of tenants, all of them poor and many mentally ill. Landlord John Le, who bought the properties last spring via a limited liability company tied to a New Jersey-based investment firm, cited “drug activity and the poor condition of the buildings” as reasons he was “forced … to evict the residents so he could renovate,” the Press Herald reported.

Granted, if the Grant Street properties weren’t in such cummy condition, a mass eviction wouldn’t have been necessary. And, it turns out, it still isn’t necessary — following a public outcry, Le agreed to give some tenants more time to find other housing and not use the courts this month to put people on the street.

I didn’t see that one coming.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.