By Mac Smiff. Photography by Andrew Roles.
Every city has a section of town that gets no love. In Portland, Oregon, that part of town is known as St. Johns. It’s also where ya boy happens to currently live. Originally founded as a town all its own in the mid-1800’s by a rather insignificant recluse named James Johns, the peninsula known as St. Johns sits in the V-shaped area where the Columbia and Willamette rivers converge. The City of Portland annexed the nearly 18 square mile area in 1915 and very little modernization has occurred since.
One would think a neighborhood surrounded by such legendary waterways would be a brilliantly beautiful and lush landscape and an ideal part of town to live in, but it’s not. Perhaps Portland’s premiere blue collar neighborhood, St. Johns boasts a 60% minority population and is home to many a factory worker, dock hand, and welfare collector. People from other parts of Portland in search of cheaper rent who are not willing to move to the “hood-burb” of Gresham frequently move here, only to find themselves trapped in a seemingly abandoned section of Portland proper. Seriously, there are gravel roads out here. I often muse that if St. Johns fell victim to a zombie attack and the feds quarantined the area, no one else in the city would even know–or care.
As an assimilated Portlander who prefers not to own a car, St. Johns is especially troubling because of its extremely inefficient public transportation system. There are two major bus lines that run through this section of town and both run extremely frequently. However, these particular buses are very not useful to people that work and play downtown. This is extremely surprising in a city that touts one the nation’s best public transportation systems. What’s doubly frustrating is that Tri-Met continues to expand to Portland’s suburbs, but has made little to no progress connecting St. Johns to the rest of the city.
The #4 (which I often refer to as “my limo”) runs right in front of my house on Fesssenden, and zigs-zags all over town before finally getting out of St. Johns. This bus literally makes 26 turns before it reaches the Lombard Transit Center (which is really just a bus mall). Where a drive from my house to downtown takes 15 minutes, the bus ride is upward of an hour. My ex lives in Vancouver, Washington and can get to downtown Portland quicker on the bus. The #75 also runs out here, and it takes a more efficient route, but it goes to Milwaukie and most decent humans have no reason to be out there. To Tri-Met’s credit, they did add an express bus (#16) that takes the St. Johns bridge, but it only runs during rush hour and is very infrequent. In fact, I’ve only seen it once in the 6 months I’ve lived here.
I recently talked to a guy from the city named Sam about the bus situation out here, and he assured me that I’m not the only one making complaints about the bus lines and general disregard for St. Johns. He did seem rather surprised when I told him that even if I walk over to Lombard to catch the #75, it takes me 45 minutes to get to my gym in the Hollywood District, which is only 10 miles from my house. But alas, this is a gang-ridden peninsula…
That said, I still enjoy living in St. Johns. Cabbies hate coming out here, but it’s nice to live in the most diverse section of the city. Within 3 blocks of my front steps, I have a Persian-owned 7-11, the Mexican tienda, and a Korean-owned market. Gangs out here still tag personal property and I know damn well the police aren’t going to harass me when there are kids running the streets with back-packs and du-rags. All I need is some street repairs and a bus that takes me directly downtown, or at least to the Rose Quarter Transit Center.
Maybe they’ll do something about it after they extend the streetcar to Lake Oswego.