Column: The Real Story- by Dirk Knudsen; Editor
What you are about to read are the events of one week in my life in Hillsboro, Oregon, some opinions, but some harsh facts that are undeniable. This is a long piece that took a lot of time to write. I listened to my favorite Pandora Radio station, Thomas Newman Radio. The incredible music helped me tell what I needed to tell. Listed below are some of the songs that played as I wrote and I think they may interest you. Play this first one as you read my story. If by the end of the song you are less than interested then we both know all we need to know, and I thank you. For the rest of you I hope this story resonates with you and perhaps inspires you in some way. God bless you all.
Push Play & Begin to Read
This is hard for me to write to you all tonight because it is Friday, and I am beat, but here goes.
Maybe I wanted to believe too much that it was possible, that the Hillsboro of my youth was the one we could have again. The one we all deserve to have, yet the one we will likely never get back. But the events of this week make me want to reach out to the ethos and to all of you to hear my pleas.
It’s late, and the rain is back; it pours from the gutters tonight, beating down on the lower story of our home beneath me like a drum from some ancient people. Rhythmic and in a repeated pattern like the endless days I spend in pursuit of an honest living in a world gone mad. Each day, rising and rushing and splashing and running down down down before I finally fall. You too I am guessing.
Here are my thoughts on my week in Hillsboro, Oregon
What was it the man in the street said to me tonight as I headed home? He walked past me near The Venetian, looked inside and motioned to the diners at the white linen and candlelit tables, and said, “Looks wonderful”.
It actually is,” I said, having experienced the place.
“Food like that isn’t for me anymore. Not something I can do, not in a town like this where I have no home and no one left to share the meal with. But I have been in there so many times over the years- The Green River was my favorite.”
“Mine too! So what happened to you,” I replied.
Five minutes later, my new friend “Glenn” and I were sitting on a bench in front of the Hillsboro Pharmacy, talking about our town and all that we knew. He is my Senior by a good 15 years. Class of ‘66 from good old HilHi. The real HilHi, not that new one that “some California developer threw up over on Rood Bridge Road,” he said proudly, raising his hand with the peace sign.
“They tore it down, why did they have to do that? It was a work of art and so beautiful. It could have been kept and used for the people to enjoy.”
I told him I knew and that I had gone to school there when it was JB Thomas. Middle School That was where Velma Villareal, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, pushed me against a locker in the lower levels and taught me how to kiss. He smiled and said he knew how that felt. We spoke of the rifle range where boys and girls learned how to shoot, and the incredible theater built in the 1920s with tunnels underneath the stage and a Phantom of the Opera balcony. As our talk went on, we realized that we shared so many good things; just separated by about 4,000 sunrises and sunsets.
We both looked into the Pharmacy- no signs of life as it sits empty, still going through fire restoration. Its iconic logo and Soda fountain, now covered with tarps, hold the promise of a comeback.
“If we lose that, we lose the heart of the town,” said my new friend. “It has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.”
We spoke of his struggle with staying here in Hillsboro. It seems he married a classmate of his after returning from Vietnam in 1971. He was trained as a mechanic and got work after he came home, which lasted for about 20 years before the vestiges of war destroyed his marriage and eventually his job too. Since that time, he has been bouncing around, He had to sell his home in the 90s just East of Bentley Orchards, just to keep things going. He always figured he would get another home, but prices ran in the 90s and 2000s to record numbers, and he was walled out of the market. Today he moves from place to place, trying to live on a soldier’s pension. His health failing, he told me he did not think he would be around much longer, and “that was probably for the best”.
“I have no money for a home or apartment rent. Nowhere to live, no money to afford a place like this modern Hillsboro. But it’s my home town, and I can’t leave it. Where would I go anyway.”
After a bit and trying to offer him hope, I thanked him for our time together and wished him well. As he walked past the burned-out hole that was the Weil’s Arcade, he stopped and looked down through the fence. Lowering his head, he seemed to pause and say something but was just out of my earshot. After a moment, he turned and headed West onto 2nd Street and crossed into the historic Sequoias on the courthouse lawn, where he disappeared. He is yet another person in a long line of people that I have met in the old town- they come like moths to a flame to relive and remember the younger years and simpler times. They come just like me.
A strange feeling came over me, reflecting on the long week I had. It is a lot to take in. I entered my office at 222 East Main and was hit with a heavy chemical smell, nearly gagging me. You see, the new and improved US Bank redevelopment project known as 2nd and Main is under demolition, and for the past 10 days, the West Hills developer who bought the property has been tearing out the old floors treating them with some sort of “solvent”. On their side of the adjoining wall, they wear white bunny suits and aspiration masks. On our side, we have no such protection, and the 3 businesses in our building have had to work with open doors and a huge box fan with a filter blowing the bad air out. We can’t work safely or productively, but hey, the new owners and their team are very sorry! And they testified during the hearings about what great Community-minded people they are. Really? Calls to the City and DEQ have raised no action thus far.
I grabbed my things and left quickly out the back alley, which is now pinched in by fences erected to support the new project.
This assault on our businesses and our efforts to be profitable has continued despite 2 years of COVID closures, not to mention the January 2nd Weil’s arson fire which trapped our building in a steel cage for almost 4 weeks with no access at all. The arsonist (Roel Leon) and his victim (Ronnie Knapp) are still fresh in our minds, as is the 30,000 SF iconic Weil’s building, which would have been 103 years old this year had it survived. It did not. Our windows, mine, in particular, have had a cinematic front-row seat for the entire ugly show, and can I say my heart broke over and over and over? Well, it did.
Ronnie Knapp’s candle lighting this week was beautiful. He died in the fire, and his body lay in the ruins for many weeks before it was found. 70 locals and his friends, many of whom struggle with mental health, addictions, and homelessness, were in attendance. Sadly no one from the City came to pay their respects, but Mayor Callaway did leave a nice card earlier that day. For those that were there, it was a very nice event with real people who really cared. Something Hillsboro seems to be running short on these days.
Earlier this week, on Monday, I visited the Historic John Shute House (1888), which members of the Haag family are nobly trying to save as the last farmhouse on the East Tualatin Plains. Surrounded by massive Data Centers and a gigantic Amazon Hub, the beautiful icon and its associated red barn stand on the edge of the abyss with an uncertain future. Great efforts are being made, but it will take leadership and a caring government to help this family save this place. It is listed on the National Historic Registry. They are now an island of Washington County, completely surrounded by the City of Hillsboro. The Shute farmstead is the last original home in one of the most historic land areas in the entire Pacific NW. More could have been done to save this area, but progress called, and the City answered, dumping tens of millions in tax giveaways into data centers, research facilities, and high-tech smoke stack corporations.
Crossing the street, I checked on the progress of the Methodist Meeting House Memorial. This is a historic marker that a few of us fought for in a land-use appeal. It marks the location of the 2nd place of worship and government in our territory. The memorial also includes 5 massive basalt columns for the children of Colonel Joseph Meek and his Nez Perce wife, Virginia. That is being done to honor the fact that the children are buried under the new Amazon parking lot. Despite fighting for the City to honor a 1-acre preservation site that was contractually agreed to by former Hillsboro Mayor Tom Hughes, we lost. No honoring of agreements for buried children, especially not native children. This is a burden those of us involved will carry now forever, that we did not do enough. The monument will make people stop and wonder what it is. It will be the most significant historic marker in the City, which isn’t that hard because we do not really have any. But it is beautiful, and we are proud of what it represents.
Tuesday I went to a listing I have (yes, I am a local real estate broker of 40 years) at the corner of Century Blvd. and Borwick Street. This is the site of my client’s home, which is being torn down by Washington County officials to make room for the new roadway that will plow through the Noble Woods wetlands (adjacent) on its way North to Baseline Road. Once open, this new North-South connector will unleash thousands of cars a day from the new South Hillsboro neighborhoods to Ronler Acres INTEL and US 26. Those same cars could use Cornelius Pass, but it is bottled up most days to the point of a no-flow situation. So the wetlands and forests at the place where Beaverton and Rock Creek meet just have to go- no way to save them now.
Wednesday: I met with another client and friend Sandy. It seems another Data Center is on the prowl, and her family farm is being impacted. So we talked about policy, money, power, and all things land use and transportation. We both want to be in favor of these behemoths, but it is hard to be. As we have previously covered, they suck power, water, land, and resources up in a way that can double the consumption of those commodities in the City. Scary stuff for a few jobs and profits that all leave our community to Wall Street and places much further away. Sandy told me at the end of our meeting that I needed to watch the movie The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, starring acting great Sidney Poitier. I did – and she was right. Great movie and a great message. More on this in the summary below.
Thursday was the day to show and try to sell a local family a home near Orenco. The price was $600,000 dollars, and we came in strong at about $630,000. We even offered no inspections and non-refundable earnest money but lost out to an all-cash buyer who was representing an out-of-town investment group buying homes specifically in Hillsboro, Oregon. Why here? Because an internal report says that our market is going to continue to see rents and prices rise at a higher rate than the rest of the Nation. And why is that? Because the jobs we have created here that so many are touting as a “win” for Hillsboro are the damnation of our local people. We can not build homes that people can afford, and our city lacks the land to do anything about it. As companies run into Hillsboro, people like my clients, and most of you, can no longer buy homes here.
That brings us back to my evening here tonight, on Friday.
It is really late now, like 3 AM, dead of the night late. The rain has stopped, and in the distance, I hear the train blasting its formidable whistle about 3 miles to the South. It might be crossing at 209th by Harvey the White Rabbit or maybe at Brookwood by Hazeldale and TV Highway. I am thinking of all of this that I have experienced in just this week, I am thinking of all of these fine folks and all of you too.
As I contemplate what this all means, this song came on Pandora; The Hand of Fate from the soundtrack to the movie Signs. This is the music that is playing when Mel Gibson finally pieces together all of the things that he knows to be true about the state of affairs he and his family are in. At the moment of their ultimate demise by alien invaders, he sees clearly what to do and utters to his brother the now-famous words, “swing away Merrill ….. Merrill swing away” . That triggered Merrill to grab his Louisville Slugger off the wall and take care of the alien with some choice blows and some water from a smashed glass, leading to the solution to the entire problem for the world.
So as I sit here and reflect on this week the signs are all there and they all make sense, so I will just spread some water around now about what it is all so ultimately clear to me.
- We as a people should have never stood the destruction of our beautiful old High School. Regardless of some environmental issues, it was beautiful and had many years left, during which it could have been an iconic community center. Argue all you want- it was a bad decision to take it down. If we have $40 Million to give a baseball team, we have enough to care for our historic places.
- The rifle range was awesome, and we should still teach kids gun safety and respect. I am no gun nut, folks but the girls and boys alike loved it, and we never had gun issues in those days. No one shot anyone, and most of us guys had shotguns in our pickups during high school. We surely did not have executions like the one that went down last month near Graterris tire.
- The Hillsboro Pharmacy is the heart of the City, and right now, we need it back. We can not heal the woes of this modern Hillsboro growing out of control. But we can retreat inside for a coffee, a sweet treat, or a friendly face or two who will remind us that the world can be better. Hurry back, you guys!
- My new friend “Glenn” should be able to have a home and not struggle – we need to have places people on fixed incomes can live as long as they want, especially our Veterans.
- I and my co-tenants should not be choking in our place of work just because another out-of-town developer wants to run over us. Our city needs to stand up and show up when these things happen, and we need to hold the offenders 120% accountable. We are hoping to get some help on Monday – but are not putting money on it.
- Roel Leon, who burned the Weils Department Store, has a long record and has led a life of mental instability. He will pay for his arson and for killing Ronnie, but we could have done more as a society. Try getting mental help for someone, and you will see what I mean. Until last year it was impossible to access help, and it barely is now. We have to do more. We continue to send our prayers and support out to Ronnie’s family and friends.
- Our city should have officially sent people to pay respects to Ronnie and his family– that is a wrong that must be righted in the future. This is not who we are as a city and the no-show can be considered as a lack of caring- and that is wrong. The family felt it too and let me know. We have the capacity to manage everything from Home Energy Scores to a nearly 1 Billion dollar a year budget. We can have people to make sure we show up when these things happen.
- The Shute House must be saved, and the City needs to work with the family to offer them anything they need to save it- that means zoning, grant money, tax breaks, assistance, planning help, etc. Just my opinion, but the City expanded the growth boundary, rezoned the entire area (with the State insisting) to Industrial, and gave tax breaks to companies that have now surrounded this jewel. Those same considerations are owed to anyone this happens to.
- The 1-acre lot for the Methodist Meeting House should have been honored by our City. It was not. Commitments are just that, commitments. We all need to keep them.
- We really should not have let Newland, the massive Canadian developer, alter all of that farmland in South Hillsboro into homes. Too much history here to explain but believe me, the money was flowing to get that to happen, and hundreds of millions in profits are rolling in. Those decisions have now led to Century Blvd being extended through a pristine creek preserve and to my clients losing their home to a right of way taking. It is progress, but that does not make this right.
- My friend Sandy needs to do what is best for her and he property. But Data Centers are no friend to the people of Hillsboro. We let them waltz in here, buy all the prime land we had for real jobs, and take up our power and demand our water. To hear members of their management gloat about endless profits falling from the sky, I am sickened. We should all be. I think a tax on every megawatt they use and terabyte they create should be levied to support housing for the young and the average joes and janes of Hillsboro. Not low income but Middle Income which is most of our city. Someone needs to do something, and it is way too late as it is, but we need to act.
- My buyers should not have to pay $630,000 in Cash to own a very average home in our City. Mark my words, the Californication of our markets will have that same home at 1.2 Million inside of 10 years. We have to find solutions. One of them is to put a moratorium on all tax giveaways for commercial users and to halt all Industrial land expansions. We have to be smart enough to stop and let housing catch up. Shut off the endless supply of money to these corps, and they will take a pause or come because Hillsboro is a good place to do business, not because we will beg them to come and pay them to do so. That is just foolish and bad for the people of Hillsboro. In addition, we should consider some limited UGB expansions on the North end of the City, where a large group already has the ear of Mayor Callaway, Commissioner Beach Pace, and County Commissioner Jerry Willey. When we do move that line, however, it should only be moved with some hooks that the homes will be built so that median-income Hillsboro buyers can afford one. That can be done through lowered land prices, credits from the land owners, or help from the City. Their lands are worth maybe $30,000 per acre now, and that will jump to $700,000 per acre if selected to come into the growth boundary. So we need to be brave enough to say to them that it has to be a quid pro quo or no-go. Believe me, they all would agree in a heartbeat and still make a fortune.
- That brings me back to The Simple Life Of Noah Dearborn. The story is a corollary of what is happening here in so many ways. One man has the stones to say “NO- Not for sale,” and the story then gets into many sideline themes. All of them are good, and it is inspiring to see the ending. It is a simple approach- at some point, enough is enough, and smaller towns should just not all be wiped off the maps. We have to slow down or stop here – and the results would be miraculous. The pace we are on is unsustainable, and we can not manage it. But we have to find people who are willing to call BS when they see these things. I am a Noah Deerborn fan- great watch, and I highly recommend it.
I have said a lot here, folks. But among you are many of the Sons and Daughters of Hillsboro, and you know what I mean. Many of you newer folks came from towns like ours, running from the hoard and the orcs who claw and tear at the earth, and together we must work for a better Hillsboro. We are not at our best; no, we are far, far from it. But we can course correct, and we can be better. We must be. As for me, I am back at it tomorrow and Sunday, and there is so very much to do. One thing I am thinking about is baseball and not the Hillsboro Hops.
After all, what else is a local boy who loves his town to do once he sees all the Signs lined up?
Swing away, Merrill…Merrill…Swing away!
The soundtrack for Reading or Writing a story like this: