May 1, 2021

Downtown Portland businesses reeling, again, after latest spate of vandalism

John Helmer III covered the windows of his hat and apparel shop in downtown Portland…

John Helmer III covered the windows of his hat and apparel shop in downtown Portland with fabric every night last summer. By doing so, he hoped to prevent his shop from becoming a target for vandalism while avoiding the cost and eyesore of putting boards over his windows.

As protests died down in the fall, Helmer decided those measures were no longer necessary. And earlier in April he noticed an increase in sales and foot traffic around his store, giving him hope that normal conditions might be returning downtown.

But on April 16, a group of people marched through downtown Portland, setting several fires and breaking windows at the Oregon Historical Society, Nordstrom, the Nike and Apple stores, and several other businesses, including Helmer’s shop, John Helmer Haberdasher.

“I’m frustrated and upset,” Helmer said. “These aren’t protests. This is pure vandalism.”

Portland businesses dealt with a surge in property damage last summer as nightly protests consumed downtown, often leading to graffiti, window smashing and burning of debris and dumpsters. That led to an outcry from downtown business owners and prompted many to board up their windows.

In recent weeks, some businesses had expressed optimism that the worst of the vandalism was behind them and had started to make plans to take down boards. That’s a step business leaders and city officials have said is crucial to the recovery of downtown and the city.

But a recent resurgence in property damage over the last few weeks, committed by a small group of “black bloc” demonstrators, once more has business owners on edge. One business recently cited the ongoing vandalism as a factor in its decision to permanently close its downtown office and other businesses say they may leave when their lease is up.

Over the last two weeks, damage that vandals describe as “direct actions” have caused more than $20,000 in damage at the Blazers Boys & Girls Club in Northeast Portland and ended with the shattering of windows at a church and other businesses in downtown and Northwest Portland. With protests planned throughout the city for May Day, businesses are bracing for another destructive episode.

Many businesses expressed support for last summer’s civil rights protests, even at times when demonstrations turned unruly, because they supported the underlying aims. Many say they continue to support those calls for racial justice, but can’t make sense of this spring’s episodic destruction, which doesn’t appear to have a coherent objective.

“I think people are fatigued at this point,” said Vanessa Sturgeon, CEO of TMT Development and a spokesperson for the Rose City Downtown Collective, which formed in December to advocate for downtown Portland. “There’s not a lot of sympathy for it because it’s not protesting, it’s just criminal behavior.”

‘AN ENVIRONMENT OF LAWLESSNESS’

Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a press conference Friday that Portland residents are fed up with the small group of “self-described anarchists” who are intent on property damage and destruction. He called on Portlanders to help police by reporting suspected vandals and noting their license plate numbers.

Over the last year, Wheeler has held numerous press conferences like that one, condemning property damage and promising more action from the city.

But the Mayor said last week that the city is at a “turning point” as the group of people committing damage gets smaller and the city works to hold accountable those who do commit destruction. He said he was pushing for higher bail and pretrial restrictions for destructive protesters and that the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office was reviewing some prior arrests that resulted in dropped charges to ensure that repeat offenders are held accountable.

The Portland City Council last week also approved $250,000 in new grants for businesses that have had their windows shattered or experienced property damage and reallocated $150,000 for additional graffiti removal.

“We’re seeing law enforcement come together in ways they’ve not previously come together,” Wheeler said. “We’re putting those individuals who like to engage in this kind of criminal destruction and violence on notice that we’re going to attempt to arrest them and hold them accountable.”

Some business owners are unconvinced.

Noha Kassab, the owner of Kassab Jewelers, is in the process of filing a lawsuit against the City of Portland, alleging that the Portland Police Bureau and city politicians failed to protect downtown businesses during a May 30 riot last year. Kassab said her store lost $1.5 million in merchandise when it was looted during the riot.

While Kassab’s two stores in Portland’s suburbs are open, the downtown store has been closed and boarded up since last May’s riot. Kassab said she was in the process of getting bids to replace several display cases that were smashed by looters in anticipation of potentially reopening a portion of her downtown store in the next several weeks.

But the recent incidents of property damage to businesses in downtown has prompted her to put those plans on hold.

Kassab said she no longer feels safe downtown. She faulted Wheeler for creating an environment in Portland over the last year where vandals and criminals feel as if they can cause destruction and damage without being held responsible.

“Wheeler is just all talk, no action,” Kassab said. “He’s the reason we’re at this point. When you cultivate or tolerate an environment of lawlessness that’s what you’re going to get — arson, looting, destroying property. I hope he gets out of the way and resigns.”

Sturgeon said that there have been failures at multiple levels of government that have led to the continued destruction.

She said the city and the Police Bureau don’t have the resources necessary to address the ongoing property destruction on their own and need more support from the state. She also faulted Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt for not doing more over the last year to ensure that offenders were held accountable.

Schmidt has charged nine people arrested during direct action marches over the last several weeks, including two individuals that damaged buildings downtown on April 16. Brent Weisberg, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s office, said the office is navigating a significant backlog of cases, which has been exacerbated by court closures due to the pandemic.

“It’s the same group of 100 people committing crimes over and over again,” Sturgeon said. “It’s continued because they haven’t been held accountable for their behavior.”

BOARDS GO BACK UP

Golden Optical told patients in an email this week that it will permanently close its downtown location at the end of May.

Co-owner Caryn Lawson said the building owner at the office’s Southwest Broadway location decided to put plywood up after several businesses in the building were vandalized and looted during last May’s riot. Lawson said Golden Optical had its windows broken, while its neighbors, Collier Clothing, suffered thousands of dollars in lost merchandise.

Lawson said the boards made it difficult for patients to find the office and they stopped getting walk-in customers looking for eyewear. That prompted the business to move to a new location at Southwest 8th Avenue and Southwest Yamhill in January.

But Lawson said the boarded up buildings, graffiti, trash and increased homelessness in downtown was still keeping patients away. And she said the continued threat of vandalism, and the city’s inability to stop it, remained a concern. Lawson said it ultimately made the most sense for the business to close downtown and focus on its Bethany location.

“When you’re constantly concerned about whether there’s going to be protesting or rioting in front of your office, it’s really hard to focus on maintaining customer service,” Lawson said.

While other businesses remain committed to staying downtown, the recent damage has compelled some to put boards back up or rethink plans to remove boards and protective fencing from around their buildings.

The Oregon Historical Society took plywood off its windows in January, three months after a group smashed nearly a dozen windows in the museum’s pavilion and tossed flares into the lobby.

But the boards went back earlier this month after vandals broke more windows at the museum on April 16. Oregon Historical Society Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk said the damage the museum has suffered over the last five months has cost it well over $100,000. He said insurance had paid for most of the repairs, but the museum expects its rates will go up.

Tymchuk said the museum ordered new windows immediately after the most recent incident because having boards up doesn’t create the environment or message it wants to send. But he said it will take several months before the new windows arrive and the museum can’t take the boards down until then.

“It’s frustrating, it’s depressing because what’s the purpose?” Tymchuk said. “We’ve been leading the way for years, telling the whole history of Oregon, the good, the bad and the ugly. I don’t understand the purpose of damaging us or the church next to us or the Boys & Girls Club.”

Eric Murfitt, the owner of downtown clothing shop Mercantile, has had boards covering his downtown clothing store since it was looted during last May’s riot, causing $1 million in losses. The resulting insurance claim that Murfitt filed led to his insurer not renewing his policy last fall and forced him to accept a more expensive policy that doesn’t cover damage related to civil unrest.

Murfitt said that has prompted him to keep his boards up for the last 11 months. He is in the process of ordering bars to cover the windows at his store to prevent future break-ins. He said when those bars arrive, he will finally remove the boards.

But while he is taking steps to take his boards down, he has seen other businesses near his store putting their boards back up, in some cases covering both their doors and windows with plywood.

“I noticed walking around that many more businesses had boards up that weren’t there before,” Murfitt said. “I can’t blame anyone for doing that with what’s going on.”

Still, Murfitt said The Woodlark Hotel next to his shop and several other hotels downtown have recently reopened and he has started to see some tourists coming to the area, which has given him hope for downtown. Helmer, too, said he is hopeful that more people will return downtown when the pandemic recedes and that the crowds will deter vandals.

He said vandals smashed the window at John Helmer Haberdasher before 10 p.m. on a Friday, a time when many people would have been milling around downtown in pre-pandemic times.

Sturgeon said downtown Portland’s recovery will depend on more people returning to the city center.

But for that to happen, she said, people have to feel comfortable visiting and working downtown and business owners have to feel safe enough to remove the boards from their windows.

“It’s very important to get the boards down,” Sturgeon said. “But most importantly, people have to feel comfortable taking them down, which means the rioting has to stop first, there has to be accountability for the criminal behavior.”

Jamie Goldberg | [email protected] | @jamiebgoldberg