A Geography of Opportunity: Maps from the Regional Equity Atlas

Published by the Coalition for a Livable Future
GIS Analysis and Maps by Ken Radin, Population Research Center, Portland State University
Text by Meg Merrick and Vivek Shandas

Of the three pillars of sustainability (ecology, economy, and equity), equity has been largely absent from regional development discussions in part because policymakers lack a shared understanding of what equity means. In launching its regional equity initiative, the Coalition for a Livable Future (CLF) convened 100 leaders from across the region to envision what an equitable region would look like. Together, they defined an equitable region as one where:

  • All residents have access to opportunities for meeting basic needs and advancing their health and well-being: good jobs, transportation choices, safe and stable housing, a good education, quality health care, parks and natural areas, vibrant public spaces, and healthful foods (CLF, 2007).
  • Communities share both the benefits and burdens of growth and change (CLF, 2007).
  • All residents and communities are fully involved as equal partners in public decision-making (CLF, 2007).

In partnership with Portland State University’s Population Research Center (PRC) and the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies (IMS), the CLF has created a regional equity atlas. The Regional Equity Atlas: Metropolitan Portland’s Geography of Opportunity was published in August, 2007 and is available at CLF’s website: http://www.equityatlas.org.

This edition of the Periodic Atlas features several maps from the Regional Equity Atlas that begin to tell a story of the existing challenges and the highly dynamic nature of the relationships among people, place, and opportunities in the metroscape. We would like to thank the CLF for this important work and for allowing us to share these maps with our readers.

A Snapshot of Income Inequality in the Region

free lunches
Figure 1
(click to enlarge)

The percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced price meals often serves as an indicator of low-income neighborhoods. Figure 1 depicts the percentage of students in 2003 qualifying for free or reduced price meals in public elementary schools in the 4-county region. For example, in 2003, to qualify for the free lunch program a family of four could earn no more than $23,920 annually according to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Dark blue squares represent schools with the lowest percentages (0-7.5%) of low income students. The red squares indicate schools with the highest percentages (75%-100%). This map shows that a large number of elementary schools exist at either extreme of this spectrum and that income disparity is an issue in both urban areas and in the suburbs.

The Dynamics of Income and Housing

child poverty
Figure 2
(click to enlarge)

Figures 2 and 3 display flip-sides of income and the dynamics of change over time. Figure 2 shows the change in the number of children in poverty by location between 1990 and 2000. The blue color range from light blue to dark blue indicates a decrease in the number of children in poverty during this decade. The red color range indicates an increase in the number of children in poverty. The tremendous decrease in the number of children in poverty in northeast and north Portland is striking. The pronounced increase in Gresham and outer eastside neighborhoods also stands out. However, significant increases also occurred in some Vancouver and Beaverton neighborhoods.

Figure 3
(click to enlarge)

Note the dramatic increase in the distribution of upper income households (households whose incomes were greater than $125,000 in 1989 and greater than $100,000 in 1999) in inner northeast Portland, where a decrease in children in poverty occurred during the same period (figure 3). Increases also occurred in upper income households throughout the inner eastside of Portland, also accompanied by decreases in the number of children in poverty. While some poor families might have acquired wealth during this period, it is much more likely that middle and upper income households displaced poor families in these areas.

Figure 4
(click to enlarge)

Given the shifting locations of households at both ends of the income spectrum that occurred between 1990 and 2000, the changes that occurred during the same period in the location of single-family rental housing are provocative (figure 4). We see losses in northeast and north Portland in the same areas where there was a decrease in children in poverty, losses in outer southeast Portland, and notable losses in Oregon City, Hillsboro, and Vancouver. The loss in single-family rental housing and the corresponding increase in upper income households in these areas may be due in part to gentrification. Large gains in rental single-family housing occurred in eastern Vancouver, Hillsboro near Intel, and McMinneville, areas that aren’t necessarily providing affordable housing for the poor.

african american change
Figure 5
(click to enlarge)

The distribution of African American residents changed significantly between 1990 and 2000 (figures 5 and 6). The large blue area in figure 5 in inner northeast Portland indicates the significant decrease of African Americans that took place during this decade, with increases in north Portland, outer northeast Portland, and Gresham. However, in 2000, the largest concentration of African Americans in our region remained in northeast Portland (figure 6). Since 1980 the percentage of African Americans in several neighborhoods in northeast Portland has changed dramatically. In 1980, one census that was 73% African American, and four others were over 50% African American. In 1990, six census tracts were over 50% African American. And by 2000, only one census tract that was 50% African American.

af am change
Figure 6

Homeownership often symbolizes the American Dream, but it also is one of the primary ways that U.S. residents can save and accumulate capital.

minority home ownership gap
Figure 7
(click to enlarge)

Figure 7 illustrates a profound inequity with regard to minority homeownership in the metroscape. Assuming that the percentage of minority households is the same as white households in any given census tract, this analysis also assumes that the percentage of home-owning households (white and minority) should be the same (or “no gap” on this map). Any census tract that is in the yellow to red color range indicates a discrepancy between the percentage of white household home-owners and minority household home-owners.

2000 hispanic
Figure 8
(click to enlarge)

Figures 8 and 9 show tremendous growth in the Hispanic population between 1990 and 2000. Their numbers tended to increase in already established Hispanic communities such as Hillsboro, Forest Grove, Cornelius, and the Cully neighborhood in northeast Portland. Significant increases also occurred in Gresham, Beaverton, and north Portland in areas proximate to transportation options such as light rail and lower cost housing.

1990 hispanic
Figure 9
(click to enlarge)

Access to Parks and Natural Habitat

As the metroscape continues to change in dynamic and unpredictable ways, the access to parks and green spaces may also change for many residents. Parks and green spaces in the metroscape provide numerous amenities and are part of a network of “green infrastructure.” This green infrastructure protects the water quality of our streams, rivers, and drinking water supplies; supports the region’s diverse plants and animals; protects air quality; and contributes to residents’ health and quality of life. Some studies even suggest that home values improve relative to proximity to urban parks and green spaces. As a result, residents’ access to green infrastructure is a critical issue in questions of equity and social justice.

Two maps illustrate green access. The walking distance to urban parks in Portland suggests that most neighborhoods are within ½ mile to a public park (figure 10). While this map doesn’t indicate the recreational opportunities in these parks, it does illustrate an extensive network of urban parks. Several areas in Portland are also greater than one mile from parks, including areas west of Happy Valley and east of Milwaukie, 102nd Ave. near the I-84/I-205 interchange, and Front Avenue in the northwest Portland.

Parkland Access
Figure 10
(click to enlarge)

Access to habitat is distinctly different than access to urban parks. While urban parks may provide recreational opportunities for citizens, habitat is essential for maintaining healthy urban ecosystems, including flood control, native biodiversity, and cleaning air pollutants, in addition to providing recreational opportunities (such as hiking, bird watching, and environmental education). Figure 11 takes a broader perspective by looking at the percent of habitat and distances from different parts of the metroscape. The figure suggests that most of the habitat is located outside central Portland. While Forest Park is a beacon of habitat close to Portland’s city center, large tracts of habitat can also be found near Cornelius, Damascus, King City, Lake Oswego, and in areas along the Columbia River.

Proximity to Natural Habitat
Figure 11
(click to enlarge)

The distribution of the green infrastructure in the metroscape raises questions about how changes in the region will impact the access to green spaces. Will increasing population reduce the amount of habitat? Will the loss of habitat mean an increase in parks and other recreational amenities? How much of the access to green infrastructure is determined by household income? Addressing these questions will require policymakers and planners to consider who is being affected and how we can improve the living conditions for the whole population.

The Coalition for a Livable Future initiated and managed the production of the atlas, including providing editorial leadership.The project was completed at the Portland State University Population Research Center by Ken Radin (analysis and cartography) and Irina V. Sharkova (methodology and project oversight). CLF developed the project design and funding in partnership with the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies. Detailed information about the methodologies used to create the maps included in this atlas are available in Appendix B of the Regional Equity Atlas: Metropolitan Portland’s Geography of Opportunity. The Regional Equity Atlas is available for purchase or for download at the Coalition for a Livable Future’s website: www.equityatlas.org.

The narrative for this edition of the Periodic Atlas was written by Meg Merrick, IMS, and Vivek Shandas, assistant professor at the Nohad A. Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at PSU, in cooperation with the Coalition for a Livable Future.

Greetings from the Editor, Winter 2008

“What experience and history teach,” the great nineteenth century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel wrote, “is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history or acted on the principles deduced from it.” The Metroscape® staff fervently hope that isn’t true because we have spent a good deal of time and energy putting together an issue rich in historical detail that teaches vivid lessons about the region. The back anchor of this issue is a colorful piece by Meryl Lipman about my old Political Science Professor, Dorothy McCulloch Lee, once the scourge of the licentious and corrupt in an earlier Portland. In the middle years of the last century, the city was a hotbed of various strains of vice and political hanky panky. Portlanders tired of the blind eye officials turned to the bad behavior put her in the mayor’s office, where she rolled up her sleeves and swept out the bad influences. Apparently, her earnestness was more than they bargained for and she was soon voted out. But Lipman shows us a very different Portland from the one we know today and how the popular will can find a focus in a single individual and change the tenor of an entire city.

Another historical piece is an oral history from one of twentieth century Portland’s most distinguished citizens. The late Sid Lezak was, in various roles, a leader of the community for decades and in his work shaped the local legal culture while touching many lives. We were fortunate to run across the long and rich transcript of his oral history interview for the Oregon Jewish Museum and to receive permission from the museum to reprint it in these pages, in abbreviated form. The edited transcript focuses on some of the watershed justice-related events in the region’s history in which he participated. In one brief aside, you’ll note, Lezak even comments on Dorothy Lee’s administration.

Our Landscape essay is the third feature that invokes history, comparing the historic Kenton with the vibrant Kenton of today.

The evolution of the region politically, covered so well in the Lee and Lezak stories, is overlaid by two important pieces that lead off this issue. Our main feature and the atlas focus on equality and opportunity in the region, matters of concern to us all. In the feature, Janet Hammer examines the key indicators of these two fundamentals of the good life in the region. The atlas, compiled from the Coalition for a Livable Future’s recently published Regional Equity Atlas, a laborious four-year project, provides a revealing graphic look at these issues. Together they offer a penetrating look into the state of the Portland metropolitan area that is animated by a sentiment I think most of us share, best articulated—speaking of history—by Theodore Roosevelt in his unsuccessful 1912 presidential campaign: “In the long run, this will not be good place for any of us to live unless it is a reasonably good place for all of us to live.”

We hope you enjoy these enlightening and lively works, because we think that together they form a mosaic which provides a picture of at least part of our past and our present, and perhaps yields clues to our future. Finally, and as always at this season, the staff of Metroscape® wishes you a great holiday season and all the best in the new year.

Craig Wollner
Editor in Chief

“Do-Good Dottie” Cleans Up

Across the metroscape, people are talking about Hillary. Willamette Week reports breathlessly on the latest VIP Democrat to endorse her presidential candidacy. The prolific bloggers and would-be insiders at Blue Oregon and Daily Kos opine about her voting record, her merits versus detractors, her appeal (or lack of appeal) to Oregonians, and her chances of actually winning.

Among the questions they’re asking: Is Hillary Clinton too controversial? Is she too conservative? Is America ready for its first woman president? And, if elected, could she effectively stamp out corruption in Washington, thus restoring our country to its former integrity, if not glory?

As 2008 promises all kinds of election excitement, an instructive piece of local history may provide parallels, if not answers, to the Hillary questions. Indeed, not too long ago Portlanders were raising similar concerns about another pioneering female politician, one who also promised great change should she be elected to the city’s top office.

Portland in 1947 was a dirty town. A port city crawling with gambling halls, strip joints, seedy bars and brothels, the City of Roses offered every addiction known to man. Bookies set up shop on 4th and Morrison. Dealers sold opiates in Chinatown. On SW 3rd, the legendary Tart’s Row, a romp with a prostitute cost $10. A sweet-faced, redheaded madame called Little Rusty entertained local cops and Supreme Court justices. Mafia-controlled abortion racket brought women streaming in from Seattle and California. Violence and venereal disease ran so high that sea captains refused sailors liberty time to carouse in Portland. Crime rings, both local and out-of-state, paid police and politicians to stay off their scent. Rumor had it Portland’s mayor, Earl Riley, skimmed off the protection money collected by police, estimated at $60,000 a month, and hid it in a vault next to his City Hall office. 

A port city crawling with gambling halls, strip joints, seedy bars and brothels, the City of Roses offered every addiction known to man.

On the night of January 14, 1947 Captain Frank Tatum anchored the Navy ship USS Edwin Abbey in Portland, walked up the gangplank and headed for Cecil’s Rooms, a bar on 6th Avenue. Huddled in his coat as temperatures dropped to the teens, he checked his platinum, diamond-studded watch and puffed with pride. The piece was worth $1800. In his pocket he had $700, enough for a thorough perusal of Portland’s nightlife. As Tatum imbibed and flashed his watch, Cecil’s owner, Patrick O’Day, saw an opportunity. An argument ensued but 52-year-old Tatum was no match for ex-prizefighter O’Day, who beat him brutally and told his boys to “get rid of him.” Two of Cecil’s employees lugged the semi-conscious Tatum to a car, drove into the hills above Northwest Portland, and tossed him off a 50-foot cliff.

The body was found five days later. The watch and $700 were gone. Tatum’s murder shocked residents out of complacency. Portland’s City Club began researching the Rose City’s depravity. Ultimately, the 1,000-member civic organization pointed its long, elegant finger at Riley and police.
While Portland’s public officials were small fish in a sea of nationwide syndicates, rotting city government, in cahoots with local law enforcement, had enabled organized crime to flourish. Portland residents were fuming.

Into this maelstrom strode Dorothy McCullough Lee. Disgusted by the vice industry, Portland’s Commissioner of Public Utilities began doing some research of her own. Testing the waters for a 1948 mayoral bid against Riley, she swore that, if elected, she would enforce the law. Influential ears perked up.

mayor lee
“Let’s really be brothers” — Mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee signs a proclamation setting February 19th to 26th as Brotherhood week as Dr. Morgan S. Odell (left) and Adolph L. Block, committee members, look on.
OrHi [no negative number].
No stranger to law or politics, Lee, an attorney, had served 14 years in the Oregon House of Representatives and Senate. In 1943 she left Salem to join the Portland City Commission. She was about to become Portland’s first woman mayor, and only the second woman in the United States to hold a city’s top office.

Could the thin, gray-haired wife of a Standard Oil executive battle Portland’s underworld and win?

Lee seemed an unlikely heroine. Gray-blue eyes peered out like half moons under strange, ornate hats as she stood erect at 5’4.” She weighed in at 110 pounds. Straight posture, a sharp nose and prim mouth suggested a 47-year old schoolmarm, stalwart, efficient, but ultimately harmless. The question arose: could the thin, gray-haired wife of a Standard Oil executive battle Portland’s underworld and win?

Dorothy had decided long before that she would not be hamstrung by gender, and that sex had no place in politics. At age 13, she leaned over the rail of the U.S. Senate Gallery, where her father, Navy Rear Admiral Frank McCullough, had been summoned to Washington. Listening to the women’s suffrage debate, a horrified Dorothy realized she might not get the right to vote. She kept her eye on the issue, which passed into national law in 1920. She became a lawyer in 1924 and, arriving in Portland the same year, she opened the first all-female law practice in Oregon, with a fellow attorney Gladys Everett.
As the lone woman in both the Oregon Legislature and on Portland’s City Commission, she refused to see “woman” and “political leader” as mutually exclusive.

As City Commissioner, Lee had dealt mostly with infrastructure. She’d convinced the local traction company into updating the streetcar and bus system, to the tune of $1,500,000, and she implemented a successful mosquito-control program. Citizens knew her as an effective administrator.
Still, she debated whether she was the person for the mayor’s office. Sensing her passion and her indecision, City Club and other organizations turned up the heat on Lee. A phone call from a female civic leader upset her. “The mothers of Portland are looking to you, Dorothy,” the woman said, knowing Dorothy had two adopted children.

Days before the March 12, 1948 filing deadline, Dorothy sat in her parked car at Union Station. High clouds moved across the sky and W. Scott Lee, her burly, big-faced husband of 24 years shifted in the seat beside her, ready to leave on a business trip. She was still torn, she said, and Scottie gave her his final thoughts. He told her, personally, he wouldn’t want the job, “under any circumstances,” and he did not envy her the campaign. But, given the issues and people urging her on, he did not think she had much choice. He kissed her goodbye, got out of the car and entered the station to catch his train.

At 8:36 p.m. March 12, while dining at a friend’s house in San Francisco, Scott received a telegram: “Prepare to hang onto your hat when you come home. I filed for Mayor Thursday and Riley filed today along with seven little known candidates. Have written an announcement story for Sunday papers. I need publicity agent badly also ghost writer. Will you apply for job.? Love Dorothy.”

He replied immediately: “Have wired my hat fast. I apply for both jobs. Will expect no additional compensation for occasional overtime. Home Sunday 11:30. Love Scottie.”

Dorothy had little need for campaign management. Fed up with Riley, Portland’s citizenry ousted him in the May 21, primary giving Lee 85,045 to Riley’s 22,510 votes, and an eight-month transition before assuming the position.

Mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee with Portland city commissioners.
Mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee with Portland city commissioners.
OrHi #CN008915-0317P082.

In January 1949 she took office and rolled up her sleeves. Within two weeks she hired Charles Pray, former head of the Oregon State Police, a man known for his honesty, as her new police chief. Lee declared that “slot machines and other corrupting devices would be repressed.” She used police to pull the offending machines. Within three days, a Press Club member paid her a visit. The Press Club slot machine provided $50,000 in annual revenues, the man said. Its removal would cause the club significant hardship. Lee turned to a red book of Oregon codes; the man reminded her of his large contribution to her campaign. She sat behind the large desk in the mayor’s office, her alabaster face impassive, and thumbed through the book. Finally she looked up and said, “The law merely says slot machines are illegal. It doesn’t make a distinction between gentlemen’s clubs and the corner beer tavern. Slot machines are illegal in Oregon.”

The man sat, dumbstruck.

Within months she had raided Chinese gambling joints, earning her the nickname, “No Sin Lee.” She and Pray closed downtown card rooms. They removed pinball machines. In 1949 and 1950 they shut down burlesque houses, brothels and The Music Hall, a homosexual club boasting female impersonators.

Mobsters moved away and the vice industry suffered. Downtown businesses also languished, their property values declining, and in September 1949, a coalition of 10 disgruntled businessmen sought to recall Mayor Lee from office. The reason, as reported by The Oregonian: “An onerous and inequitable financial burden upon the workers and business people of Portland.”

Dorothy responded, citing sore losers, but wrote in a statement, “To file a recall petition against any public official is, of course, the privilege of any group of citizens under the Democratic Form of Government.” She added that she “would not want to serve as Mayor of Portland any longer than the majority of our people wish me to be their chief executive.”

As residents and civic organizations supported their mayor, the recall attempt faltered. October 1949 showed her approval rating at 66% and, by November, recall ringleader attorney Maxwell Donnelly sent her a peace offering, a dozen roses, with the note, “I was only foolin’.” Dorothy refused the bouquet.
Her troubles did not end there. Former Mayor Riley continued running a payoff racket from his Packard dealership and, since Lee was unable to shut out national crime rings organized by the Seattle Teamsters Union, debauchery did not pull up stakes and leave town altogether.

Meanwhile, downtown businesses closed and city revenues plummeted (partly as a result of Mayor Lee’s vice-fighting tactics). Additionally, Lee’s introduction of business taxes and school levies failed, as did Housing Authority of Portland’s bid to build 2,000 low-rent apartments. Her introduction of a civil rights bill alienated her from an inherently segregated town.

During her years as mayor, Lee cleared downtown congestion, implementing the current grid of one-way streets. She was a friend to women, minorities and the poor, but she was largely ineffectual in Portland’s top office.

Obsessed with morality, she neglected the business community and refused to play politics. Lee interpreted the law in minutiae, overlooking legal race tracks and dog parks, causing many to question her consistency, and even the law itself. Thus she became a laughingstock, dubbed “Dottie-Do-Good,” chided for her funny hats and otherwise marginalized.

In 1952 she sought reelection but, backed by the business community, Fred Peterson ran against her and won. Dorothy McCullough Lee left City Hall and Portland was back in business.

Among the signs of the relapse was California stripper Tempest Storm’s purchase of the Capital Theater in 1953 where she headlined shows. Also by 1955 Portland had succumbed to a mob war, Seattle Teamsters fighting local kingpins to control the city. In 1957 a national vice probe called three Portland witnesses to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor and Management Field in Washington, DC. Among those subpoenaed was new Portland Mayor Terry Schrunk, accused of taking bribes from bootleggers in his previous job as sheriff. Though Schrunk remained popular after his questioning, Portland was embarrassed by the national attention and organized crime lost its hold on the City of Roses.

But Dorothy McCullough Lee had long since moved on to Washington, DC where she served on the National Parole Board and the controversial red-hunting Special Committee on Subversive Activities. She returned to Portland in 1962 to teach at PSU and resume practicing law.

By all accounts, Dorothy Lee was an honest politician. In 1943, as a state senator and candidate for senate president, she faced a tied vote, 15 to 15. Lee conceded, explaining that she “could not, in the interests of the state, allow the deadlock to continue any longer.” The only argument against her had been her gender. In wartime, senate president is next in succession to the governor and opponents believed a woman could not be governor in wartime. Ex-Governor Charles Sprague later clucked at the premise. He had no doubt Lee could have governed the state and commanded the state guard through World War II.

Additionally, she eschewed partisan politics and, as a Republican in the Oregon Senate, she often supported traditionally Democratic causes, including free textbooks for schoolchildren and funding for low-income housing. As she told an interviewer on women’s radio show in 1948, recapping her years in Salem, “You couldn’t really tell who was a Democrat and who was a Republican unless you already knew.”

History tends to reward honorable public servants, even when they fail to deliver expected miracles. Though by all accounts Lee was a better legislator than a mayor, few newspaper articles criticize her. Ex-Governor Tom McCall called her “a real lady, with an iron will,” and ex-Senator Richard L. Neuberger said Portland would have been spared humiliation by the Senate Committee had Dorothy remained mayor. 

History tends to reward honorable public servants, even when they fail to deliver expected miracles.

While Lee, who died in 1981, may have been conservative, she was also ahead of her time. The Mafia left Portland in the early 1960s, 10 years after her failed reelection bid; civil rights took root in the same era. Women’s equality movements blossomed in the late 60s as well.

While it remains to be seen whether America is ready for its first woman president, or whether Hillary is the appropriate woman for the job, Dorothy McCullough Lee earned a legacy of admiration for planting the seeds of Portland’s transformation, and also because she showed more interest in fulfilling her platform than in acquiring or retaining power. And, though her staunch devotion to her original promise cost her a second chance at City Hall, she bore no grudges. Quoting Abraham Lincoln to her husband during the 1949 recall campaign, she said, “As long as you are of any use or value to the community, you cannot expect to be free of abuse and criticism.”

Meryl Lipman is a Portland area freelance writer.


Home sales

Is there a market crisis in real estate? Across the country communities are concerned about the effects of the sub-prime mortgage crisis. At first analysts thought Portland might escape unscathed, but now they are not so sure. The full impact of the mortgage crisis probably won’t be known for years. A look at indicators for the five Oregon counties in the metroscape gives us a picture of the current state of Portland’s residential real estate market and how news of the crisis might have made some buyers nervous.

The average length of time homes stay on the market

has been increasing since 2004, with a large spike at the end of this summer. There are more homes on the market, fewer pending sales, and fewer closed sales. Perhaps buyers are taking more time to make decisions, competition for homes is light, or potential buyers are having a harder time acquiring mortgages. Average sales prices in the metroscape have been climbing steadily since 2004, with a 6.7% increase in the year ending in October 2007 compared to the year ending October 2006. For the same period, median sale prices increased 7.6%. However, a slight price dip occurred when news of the mortgage crisis hit.

Sid Lezak: A Portland Life in the Law

On August 2, 2005, Marilyn Yoelin, a volunteer for the Oregon Jewish Museum (OJM), interviewed Sid Lezak at his home in Portland. Lezak, who died on April 24, 2006 at the age of 81, was the longest serving US Attorney in American history. When he retired in 1982, he had served 19 years, but that period was only one—the middle—segment of his three careers in the law in Oregon. He had previously been in private practice and later led in the development of mediation as an alternative to lawsuits. His pioneering work helped make Oregon a national leader in this form of dispute resolution, both in the private sphere and public policy.

The reflections presented here are a small part of the wide-ranging interview that Marilyn Yoelin conducted with Lezak (there are also eight hours of untranscibed oral history by Lezak at the Oregon Historical Society) last century. The interview was transcribed by Anne LeVant Prahl, Curator of Collections at OJM on September 12, 2006.

The excerpt begins with Lezak reminiscing about how he and his wife, Muriel, came to settle in Portland.

—the Editor


Sid Lezak: We just needed to be on our own, independent. One of the things I did was to go to the University of Washington. I had been to California, I had an aunt in California and I had spent a summer in Los Angeles and I will say this: I was smart enough and sensitive enough to recognize that if I had gone to Los Angeles I would have become “one of them.” I would have been caught up in that life. This would have been in the late ‘40s. I actually had talked to people down there when I was there. I had done a tour of the west, knowing that I didn’t want to go south or east. I will never forget the florid-faced… lawyer in the first Beverly Hills law office I went to with a waterfall saying, “You like women? You like sun? You like the beaches? You like money? This is the place for you.” It was a complete turn-off and I recognized that my own weaknesses were such that I would not have been able to resist being a part of that sort of thing.

But I needed a fairly large city and I had gone to the University of Washington summer school. The minute I hit Seattle I knew the northwest was it for me. I hate hot summers and I love the relatively cooler summer (it was cooler then than we are getting these days in Portland). There was a kind of feeling that this was an area where we could be free and build our own lives. And through a peculiar set of circumstances, many people are not aware that I accepted a job with Reuben Lenske…. We didn’t fit and I left after a couple of years….

He was very liberal, politically, much farther to the left than I was. Part of the dividing line in 1948 was whether or not you were a Wallace supporter in the Progressive Party or whether you were a liberal Democrat. I had had a defining experience in my life: the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939…. I had been with the American Student Union the Left-Liberal young people’s group and, without being too knowledgeable (I don’t want to indicate that I was particularly sophisticated) I knew that that was the side that I was on.

And I learned, at the time of that split and in later conversations that in fact the leaders of our group were in fact people who were part of the Young Communist League and part of the Communist apparatus. I later learned that there was no question in my mind that the brains and energy behind the Wallace movement was to a much larger extent aligned with the Communist Party. But the thing was that those who were Communists were defending the Nazi-Soviet Pact and that was a wake up call for me. From that point on I was suspicious. And I had other circumstances later in life, like with the American Veterans’ Committee and even with the ACLU, that always kept me aloof and suspicious of folks who not sufficiently aware of the downside of Stalinism and the Communists, who were always too eager to defend it.

One of the things I am rather proud of, notwithstanding my feelings about the Party and the people who were in some cases cheating it out of its dues if not actual members; I was one of four lawyers who were willing to represent people whose rights I thought were being prejudiced by the McCarthy hysteria in 1949. And there were still many people who wondered how somebody [could defend them without being a sympathizer]…. Fortunately something happened that let the government, the FBI in particular which had infiltrated our local [Portland] Communist Party to a very great extent (as a matter of fact the joke later was that… the main financial supporter of this pitifully weak and small Communist Party in Oregon may have been J. Edgar Hoover, because he was paying off informants and so on).

In any event, it started with some immigration cases, the Filipinos who were being kicked out of the Party even though they were largely illiterate. They were working in fish plants in Goose Bay. The union had been organized by people who were Communist to some extent and they didn’t know a Communist from a manicurist, and there may have been something that they did… fortunately we were able to establish in a kind of technical way (a lawyer in Seattle had done it but I was going to represent these folks before Judge Gus Solomon, who ruled against them). [Gus Solomon was a distinguished US District Court judge in Portland from 1949 to 1971, otherwise known as a strong civil libertarian. –ed.] It was something that I have never quite forgiven him for because he knew these people. He and Irvin Goodman and Leo Levinson had been partners and they had represented some of these folks. I was not sore at him for ruling against me in that case. I was sore at him because I didn’t feel that he had given adequate consideration to the arguments that we were making and ultimately he was reversed by the Court of Appeals and the Filipinos were permitted to stay here – I won’t go into the technicalities)

Marilyn Yoelin: Just for a moment to clarify – this was a deportation case?

SL: Yes, these people were being deported.

MY: And when was this?

SL: This would have been in 1953 or ‘54.

MY: So, J. Edgar Hoover…

SL: No, he was not the head of the Immigration Department. But a lot of this case was based upon investigation that was done by the FBI, the Immigration Department and by the most active and enthusiastic “Red Squad” as they called it in the United States under a guy named Bill Brown who later became the head of the American Legion’s so-called Patriotic Sub-set. Very enthusiastic supporter of “red-baiting.”

MY: So, you were an attorney [in private practice] at this time.

SL: Yes, I was an attorney. I came out here and passed the Bar in 1949. But I was no longer with Reuben. I was working, oddly enough, first on my own and the in partnership with Paul Bailey and started representing lumber and sawmill workers and other unions.

In any event, one of the things that I did during the same era was that I became a member of the legal redress committee of the NAACP and something else that I am proud of is that in David Robinson’s basement, (… he was the head of the Portland Rose Society, the first head of the Anti-Defamation league here and his son later became one of my assistants as a US Attorney and has had a very distinguished career as a law professor at George Washington University) in his basement, a group of us met to draft Oregon’s first Public Accommodations Law which ultimately passed the Legislature.

Now, there is a little preface to that that people do not understand. In 1950, I believe, a vote was taken on an initiative about whether or not Portland should have (and this was only Portland) a fair employment practices act. At least I’m pretty sure it was that act. It was one of the major acts providing for penalties for discriminating. The people of Portland voted that down. People forget how reactionary this town was. When I came here all of the elected officials in statewide government were Republicans. The city was quite corrupt. It was only as a result of a City Club report on the extent of the corruption in the city, and particularly in the Police Department and tolerance toward gambling and prostitution, that a woman mayor, Dorothy McCullough Lee (called “Good-Deed Dottie”) was elected and tried to clean it up. Four years later she was thrown out. The old bunch was put back in. Portland was not ready for reform. Then a few years later, partly as a result of congressional hearings on the attempted takeover of vice by Teamsters and internal battles between those who wanted to fight the McClellan Committee hearings [on labor racketeering. –ed.] to push Bobby Kennedy up and gave him a good deal of publicity and credibility and enabled him to be appointed as Attorney General. That’s another whole story.

We gave a $3.00 box of Tillamook cheese to some of our best clients for Christmas. That was the extent of our corruption.

In any event, people simply do not understand how this town has grown. When I came here in 1949, the lawyers were 4 to 1 Republican to Democrat. Now at least 5 to 1 Democrat to Republican…. But back in the 40s it was completely dominated both by very conservative business elements and very corrupt elements in (some, not all of) the unions. The Teamsters and Boilermakers [had] enormous amounts of money left over from shipyard days in the War. Then I was representing unions that were completely—I have to say this—clean. The FBI was very surprised when they went over my records with a fine-tooth comb in order for me to be US Attorney. They found out that there was nothing there. We gave a $3.00 box of Tillamook cheese to some of our best clients for Christmas. That was the extent of our corruption. In one of the immigration cases, the parties refused my advice, which I thought would result in the charges being dismissed. But because these were people who had come over at a very young age, in one case six months and in the other case two years, one from Finland and one from Canada (the accusation was that they had been members of the Party). The Party wanted to make them martyrs and they did.

MY: So they sabotaged…

SL: They did not take my advice and I said, “I can only work for you and be your lawyer. I cannot be a lawyer for the interests that you may have other than those that I see as your best interest as your lawyer. If you have other reasons for wanting to take different advice that is your privilege.” Ultimately, they both were deported. That’s the McKay and Mackie cases. [Hamish MacKay and William Mackie were immigrants living in Portland who were eventually deported owing to their membership in subversive organizations, after years of litigation. Mackie’s case reached the Supreme Court. —ed.]

It was made a cause celebre people on the very far left. And there were some other things that kind of indicated that I wasn’t quite as close to being the Communist supporter and sympathizer that some people thought I was because of others that I represented. I also handled some loyalty security cases of people who were being thrown out of the Federal government (or attempting to be thrown out) because of suspected disloyalty. One of the things that taught me is how frightening these cases are because you got nothing in those days from the government. I see the victory that the Mayfield people have in getting the government to disgorge. [Brandon Mayfield was the Aloha lawyer wrongly accused of complicity in the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings. –ed.]

We were absolutely unable to do that back in the 50s during that era. In one of the cases in particular I am very proud of being successful and the person has gone on to lead a particularly distinguished career and I have not gotten her full permission to disclose just who she was. People would be startled to hear who that was. Her whole group of people working with her came to her defense and enabled us to mount an effective defense proving that the problem was not hers but one of guilt by association.

MY: We were talking about some of your first few cases that were revolving around immigration and deportation issues.

SL: Yes …. The important thing is that it was another illustration of the fact that (perhaps foolishly because of the identification that people made between the kinds of cases that you handled and your own predilections) there were people who were startled that a “Communist” like me somehow got appointed as US Attorney. But, as I said, there were reasons why it was clearly known….

There was an interesting battle about whether there should be an ACLU chapter here. The group that wanted to organize the ACLU chapter were the people who had been active in the Wallace camp. The ACLU at this time was going through some of the problems in dealing with some of the same issues that I had dealt with at the University of Chicago and the American Veterans’ Committee, there is no question that there was a tactic on the part of the Communist adherents, if they could not take over, they would make life miserable for the organization. There were a group of us, Alan Hart, a very distinguished lawyer… [Hart, a former chief counsel of the Bonneville Power Administration and co-founder of the Portland firm Lindsay, Hart, Neil & Weigler.—ed.] was one of us, Jack Biddy, Herb Schwab [Schwab helped establish and was Chief Judge of the Oregon Court of Appeals, 1969-198. —ed.] and others—this would have been about 1955 or so—we felt that the moving force behind the effort to organize the ACLU was one that would embarrass the ACLU itself and the community. We resisted it until we could get our forces organized, which we did and had what we considered to be a – I don’t know how to phrase this comfortably because I wasn’t in that much disagreement with the ultimate goals that many of these people had – that was not the issue. It was an issue of style and process.

I mentioned Adlai Stevenson [the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 1952 and 1956. –ed.], a person who had progressive ideas but who was not willing to do those things to move them that would set people’s teeth on edge. And these people just seemed to glory in combativeness and wanted to demonize the people on the other side. The beauty of much of what was Oregon in the old days was the ability of people – and I was the poster boy in a way in serving under six presidents with the assent and approval of both Democrats and Republicans all those years (and I want to say that one of the things I am most proud of is that there was never an accusation during the 20 years that I was US Attorney that that office was run with any consideration of any consequence being given to partisan. I had retained five of the six assistants that my predecessor had left and a couple of them stayed with me for the rest of their professional lives. And my hiring was not based upon consideration of party. 

I was the poster boy in a way in serving under six presidents with the assent and approval of both Democrats and Republicans all those years

As a matter of fact something that just came up and is on my desk right now: Don Sullivan was the chief of the District Court and when I heard him I thought that he was a Republican and he had changed his registration so that he could vote for Kennedy in the primaries (he was a good Irishman) but again I thought that he was not being hired because of his registration. In his biography, which is in the Oregon District Court Historical Society, he is kind enough to say that the years he served as assistant US Attorney were among the happiest in his life.

That is my legacy – the people who worked there during the years that I was there and the freedom that I had from the kind of political pressures that so many had in other places so that I could hire the best people that I could find with some attention being paid to reaching out to hire minorities and women. The rule that I had was that there was certainly not a quota—no minority or woman would be hired who I did not think was perfectly capable of doing the job—but I would have to say that minorities and women were not in every case, the very best qualified in terms of normal meritocracy standards. In other words I did make an effort to diversify the office because I thought that was valuable at the time. Those were some of the issues.

But let’s talk about one issue before I forget it and then we will drift to something else, and that is, what is the most important decision that I ever made in my life? That is an easy one. Marrying my wife.

Sid and Muriel
Sid and Muriel Lezak.

MY: When did you get married?

SL: 1949. We got our degrees on June 17. She got her Master’s Degree in Community and Human Development at Chicago. I got my law degree June 17, June 16th we got married. And that day we piled everything we could fit into a Ford convertible and drove out to Oregon to settle. I already had a job lined up because I had been out the previous summer. I think she said to me, “Portland, is that the one on Puget Sound?” She was sort of “whither thou goest” and I remember sending her grandmother back a picture of us on the 4th of July when we went up to Timberline and there was snow up there. Her grandmother said, “What has this man done to my lovely granddaughter?” A few years later, after our first child was born, she recognized that just belonging to women’s clubs and doing the housework was not enough of an outlet for her energy and she went back to get her PhD…. That was about 1954, and she was going very much part-time. The only place that she could get a PhD. was at the University of Portland. In 1960 she became a doctor and has had a very remarkable career. She is now a full-professor of neurology, psychology, and neurosurgery at the medical school. She published the first book to try and put the field together and found the best publisher, which was Oxford, and it has just come out in its fourth edition. It is universally accepted as the bible in its field (which means I don’t win many arguments at home). I had to tell her, “Muriel, that book ways 6.2 pounds. If you throw that goddamn thing at me and kill me it will be a lethal weapon and you will be charged with murder.”


MY: You did mention at one point that you served under six presidents. Did you start with Kennedy?

SL: Yes, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan

MY: I’m sure there were a lot of challenges with each administration, with each attorney General that you had to deal with.

SL: We had some battles. People say, “What are you proudest of?” One of the things near the top is the battles that our office fought, along with the wonderful lawyer that I brought over from the Interior Department, George Dysart (who has since died). For many years he tried to persuade the Justice Department to come down on the side of the tribes with respect to their treaty rights to fish for salmon. The state officials were arresting the Indians for doing that which Dysart and the tribes felt that were not in violation of their treaty rights.

There was a case that started by an Indian named David Sohappy, Sr. against the State of Oregon because he tried to enjoin arrest for fishing at their usual, accustomed places and the government, through Dysart’s urging and with my assent finally agreed to join in on the side of the tribes. It took 17 victories in a row over the states of Oregon and Washington (because the political heat was so great on the part of the fisherman in opposition to the Indians). The first case that we won was known as the “Bologna Case” (that is for Judge Bologna, not the lunch meat). It was the first decision that said that Indians had special rights to fish under their treaty that had to be taken into account by the states. Because the states of Oregon and Washington would not accept that decision, the case was taken before Judge Boldt in Washington who ruled that in the absence of any other method of determination, the Indians had the right to take one half of the fish. That sent up an enormous uproar from the sports and commercial fishermen….

Under Federal Law, major crimes on the Warm Springs Reservation were prosecuted as Federal crimes by our office and we maintained a wonderful relationship with the tribal people and law enforcement folks. I am pleased that I continue to have the confidence of those people.

MY: Is it your sense of history that gives you the sensitivity for the disenfranchised from the majority population?

SL: Yes, I think so. It is one of the reasons throughout history that Jews have been in the forefront on Civil Rights movements and movements to protect the rights of disadvantaged in every respect. I am comfortable relating some of that to the extra sensitivity created because of the history that I was raised with.

MY: You have been the initiator or part of the creation of many things that seem to have come to the US Attorney’s office….. I wrote “non-partisanship, public defender’s office project, affirmative action, bringing law clerks, special assistants…”

SL: I was certainly more interested in promoting and in doing things which lead to results which were favorable to those ends than were most US Attorneys. I was seen as being on the left wing of US Attorneys and it was almost a miracle that I was retained. We used to joke about it. I made no bones about my having a liberal agenda….

You are retained or appointed at the pleasure of the United States Senators. What we had was a peculiar situation in which both the Republican Senators, at the time that they decided to keep me (I had been ordered to submit my resignation when Nixon came in and I did) had a meeting and had some information about the way our office was operating… And also I think (being politically pragmatic and looking at it from their standpoint) that they were seeing the composition of Oregon politics changing. They were all moderates, Wendell Wyatt [District 1. –ed.] and John Dellenbach [District 4. –ed.] were the two representatives. Packwood and Hatfield, the two Republicans….

I think that maybe one of the reasons was that they may well have felt that this was a show of their openness by retaining a US Attorney who had proven not to be partisan. It would be nice to say that the only reason was that I was so outstandingly competent in the job, but there were a lot of competent people and there were only a few of us who were retained from administration to administration. Their perception of wanting to reach out to Democrats who had been voting for these folks in large numbers (Hatfield was elected by a large number of Democrats, as was Packwood. Packwood was the first person to get up on the floor of the Senate and talk about doing away with the criminalization of abortion. The women’s groups all supported him).


[The single most difficult problem] … I had during the 21 years that I was US Attorney … was during the years 1965 to 1973 having to deal with Viet Nam draft evaders and trying to make appropriate distinctions. Do you resign because of your protest of the war or do you stay in and try to make the consequences of people having done what they felt was the right thing to do … and I was quite sympathetic with many of them….

And the question was discussed and the decision was made that here in Oregon, having a very small percentage of its domestic product dependent on the military. As a consequence, Oregon was one of the most fertile ground for opposition to the war. So how to accommodate to that? At first we were like almost every other jurisdiction, it was the judge’s prerogative to sentence. And there were sentences to prison that were being given out, two or three years in some cases. But as the war became less and less popular, the judges were reacting to it, our office was reacting to it, we had a wonderful probation officer who came up with the idea that we don’t have to send these folks to prison. We can send them to the Tillamook Forest camp where they can serve for six months doing ecological work….

It was a humane way of handling a very difficult problem. It was also representative of a concern that the courts have some response to public attitudes and policies. I would give more credit to our chief probation officer on that one. It was clear that he thought he had fertile ground with us and with a couple of the judges.


MY: Now you were transitioning out of the US Attorney’s Office and getting into more of the mediation and should we discuss the next step in your career?

SL: It is interesting. If you look back in the Oregonian files you will find a quite long piece in what used to be the Northwest Magazine…. [O]n the front page there is a picture of me standing in front of the courthouse steps, “Sid Lezak – prosecutor, survivor, mediator”…. [W]hat I was doing, without knowing it, as US Attorney, was functioning as a mediator. That was my role, without having been trained for it in ways that I have been since. Without recognizing that that was what I was doing, and not always doing as good a job at it as I would have liked. He [the Oregonian writer] recognized that I stood between my assistants and the courts and certainly between private council and the agencies which wanted us to bring certain actions that we may disagree with. The first fun of being the US Attorney was that you could pick and choose the cases you wanted to try and that was fun. I picked some good ones and we had great times on some of the fraud cases that I handled with most of the work being done by one of the assistants. Then I realized that in the really difficult cases, my function, if I were to be active as the trial lawyer, I could not function as the mediator between the various kinds of interests that were there. So I backed away from being as active as a trial lawyer and concentrated on the role of being mediator. And it was OK with me when someone said to me, “Lezak you are an honest fixer.” That was not a bad description for what I was doing.

MY: That was your tikkun olam [the Jewish concept of performing good deeds to repair the world. —ed.].

SL: That’s right.


SL: I had the good fortune, something that we did initiate with the aid of a former nun at Lewis and Clark Law School, to use Federal funds for work/study for Law students. Nobody had ever done that before. I went back to the Justice Department. Then we had law students coming out of our ears. We had more law students per lawyer than anybody else has ever heard of. It was a great experience, for them to be in the courthouse. You will run across them occasionally, there were about a hundred of them and there are still a lot of them running around Portland. You talk to anyone who worked in our

On the other hand, if you want to have some way to make a judgment about what to do, you follow the advice of a great American philosopher, Mae West.

office. It was not only good for them, they were wonderful for the office as well. They have been great boosters because of their experience and they’ve made me look better than I am entitled to look because it was such a good experience for them. The other thing they liked was “Uncle Sidney’s” advice: you are all going to have choices to make. Let me tell you that the most important word in plotting out your careers is “serendipity.” Serendipity will play a greater roll in your life than any plans that you make. Between rational choices, you might just as well toss a coin because you have no way of telling which among rational choices is going to turn out for the best. On the other hand, if you want to have some way to make a judgment about what to do, you follow the advice of a great American philosopher, Mae West. She said, “When faced with the choice between two evils you either pick the one you haven’t tried before or the one that is the most fun.”

Sid and Muriel