more information about the U.S. Census, visit www
figures about Tract 86 in this
article are derived from a special
project known as the American Community Survey, which was
conducted in 1996.
Cookie: Enumerator Veronica Broeth won't take no for an
published an article about this neighborhood by Portland
writer Bill Donahue (see "Pilgrim at Johnson Creek" at www.double
local Census Bureau currently employs about 1,000 temporary
workers, all of whom had to pass
a criminal background check.
has few fans down at the Sting Pub on Southeast 82nd Avenue.
Contractor Arlin Grenawalt (above) says the questions are
dumb; bartender Brenda Stecker tossed her form in the trash.
from the Census 2000,
level information, will become
available to the public during the summer of 2001.
Running east from the bleak rentals along Southeast
72nd Avenue to the dingy motels of 82nd, and south from
the fresh blacktop of Duke Street to the county line, a
dusty dead-end road named Clatsop, Tract 86 thrusts into
the soft underbelly of Southeast Portland like a spent shotgun
On the map, and in the leatherbound plats of the county
recorder's office, this part of town belongs to the Brentwood-Darlington
neighborhood. But to the roughly 3,100 people who live here,
this territory is Felony Flats--and it doesn't belong to
anything but itself.
On average, the household income here is 25 percent lower
than the rest of the city. There are 63 percent more people
living on public assistance. Two-thirds more high-school
dropouts. Four times the number of trailer homes.
Tract 86 accounts for just 0.6 percent of Portland's housing
stock but boasts about 10 percent of the city's inhabited
RVs, vans and boats.
This is not the Portland of iced lattes, trattorias, bookstores,
bike lanes, dot-coms and SUVs. This is the domain of the
junk car and the chain-link fence, a neighborhood where
the river is a muddy trickle named Johnson Creek, where
dogs prowl through unpaved roads and grown men wobble their
way to the mini-mart on bicycles that make their knees knock
against their elbows.
"This is an area that's been ignored forever," says City
Commissioner Erik Sten, who likens the typical public meeting
here to a pro-wrestling bout. "And that may be the way the
residents like it."
Outsiders tend to leave this neighborhood alone, which
generally suits both parties. But once every 10 years, the
U.S. constitution dictates that the federal government mount
a massive operation to count every man, woman and child
in America. This month, in the nation's largest peacetime
mobilization ever, an army of census workers almost half
a million strong is marching through the nation's streets
and alleys, paddling up bayous and trekking along dirt tracks
in a last-ditch mission to persuade reluctant citizens to
complete their forms.
The benefits of the census are obvious. Unemployment levels,
population density, crime rates and poverty statistics all
depend on an accurate head count. Schools, highways, hospitals
and 911 services rely on census figures, as do myriad county,
state and federal programs targeted at specific groups of
It follows that neighborhoods with low response rates miss
out on government spending. In the past decade, Multnomah
County lost at least $30 million in direct federal funding
as a result of the 1990 undercount, says Taro O'Sullivan,
press officer for the local census bureau, adding that this
is a very conservative estimate which does not include state
matching funds or indirect federal spending.
This year, thanks to an unprecedented bombardment of TV
and radio advertising, 69 percent of the estimated 297,000
households in Multnomah County mailed in their forms--pretty
close to the national average. That leaves a rebel force
of 92,700, each of whom must be persuaded, one way or another,
to surrender their pride and submit to Uncle Sam's probing.
This phase of the government's campaign--officially known
as the non-response follow-up--is a truly monumental operation.
But it is particularly challenging in areas like Tract 86,
which has one of the lowest census response rates of any
neighborhood in the city. When the mailbox tally was completed
last month, Tract 86 lagged the rest of Portland by a full
10 percentage points.
And herein lies a maddening paradox: Tract 86 is precisely
the kind of neighborhood that has the most to gain from
answering the U.S. Census, and yet it remains reluctant--even
at times unwilling--to participate in its own betterment.
Armed with a clipboard, a name tag and a ball-point pen,
Veronica Broeth coaxes her dented Ford Escort wagon bouncing
and groaning down a rutted dirt road off Southeast Duke
Street, past a couple of beaters with "For Sale" scrawled
across their windshields, where the sidewalk is a riot of
weeds poking through a scattering of gravel.
Daintily stepping over puddles, Broeth marches up to a
shotgun shack fortified by a cyclone fence and fumbles with
the latch on the gate. A dog begins to howl. She raps on
the door (there is no bell). She stands still for a moment,
squinching her eyes against the fading rays of the sun,
listening for some telltale sign of human presence--voices,
footsteps, a TV signal. But there is no sound but the barking
of the dog and the hollow chink of wind chimes. "If dogs
could answer questions, I'd be in good shape," she shrugs,
filling out a notice and sticking it in the door handle.
At first glance, Broeth, 51, seems an unlikely candidate
to spearhead the federal government's assault on Tract 86.
A single mom, ex-nun, ex-probation officer with a master's
degree in social work, she projects the sunny demeanor of
a church-lady holding a rummage sale, not the gung-ho bloodlust
of a Green Beret.
But underneath the easy smile and rumpled appearance, Broeth
is a tough cookie. She has lived in a modest ranch house
in this area for 25 years, raising two sons on her own after
her husband died of heart failure in 1984. For nine years,
she and her sons ran a paper route through these streets.
She's no stranger to the knots that tangle your stomach
when you knock on an unfamiliar door, not knowing if it
will be answered by a little old lady in slippers or a 300-pound
sheetmetal worker brandishing a pair of needlenose pliers.
That Broeth lives nearby is no coincidence--familiarity
with the neighborhood is a key criterion the census bureau
employs to recruit its enumerators, the ground troops whose
job is to wade into door-to-door combat with the nation's
recalcitrant citizens. In areas that are slow to yield their
secrets, the assumption is that residents will be more likely
to open up to one of their own.
That's one thing in theory. It's another when she's tiptoeing
down a crowded driveway on a dead-end street, where a mechanic
in grease-stained T-shirt and torn jeans is welding a rooster-tail
to a VW bug. Standing in a shower of sparks, with an acrid
tang in the air, Broeth clears her throat in the doorway
until the man throws down his torch, snaps off the radio
and flips up the visor of his mask.
"I'm sorry to take you away from your work," she says.
"But I'm from the U.S. Census and this'll only take a few
The mechanic frowns. But he knows he is beaten. Without
a whimper, he removes his mask and proceeds to answer the
questions. Five minutes later, Broeth strolls back to her
car. She now knows his name, telephone number, date of birth,
ethnicity, race, gender, whether he rents or owns this house,
and how many people live there--the eight questions on the
basic questionnaire, or "short form." (One in every six
households receives the "long form," which contains up to
"Once you actually get to talk to people, they'll answer
the questions," she explains, stuffing the completed form
into a precarious perch above her sun visor. "But getting
them to answer the door--it'll drive you nuts!"
A few blocks away, Broeth strides past a rusting pickup
loaded with tool racks, steps through the gate in a chain-link
fence enclosing two snarling dogs, and raps on another door.
"Hello!" she calls. "U.S. Census! I need to talk to you."
Then the blades of a venetian blind whiten against the
front window. She knows her quarry is home. But despite
five full minutes of standing on the steps (which is an
eternity on a stranger's porch--try it sometime), no one
answers the door. Behind the muddy clouds, the sun is sinking.
Broeth sighs and sticks another notice in the door. As she's
getting back into the car, however, the door opens, and
the dogs rush inside. She runs back to the steps, and knocks
again. "I know you're in there!" she says, her voice quavering.
"I need to talk to you." Again, there is no reply.
"I'll be back," she mutters. "This is not my first attempt.
We're not going to go away. At least I know when they get
home--because they let the dogs out."
Answering the census is mandatory--technically, you can
be jailed for refusing--but enumerators are prohibited from
raising this issue lest it be interpreted as a threat. Broeth
also resolutely avoids being a cheerleader for the federal
government or getting involved in political discussions.
Instead, she concentrates on the basics: The information
is confidential; it only takes a few minutes; let's get
it done so we can both go on with our lives.
Broeth is supposed to make up to six attempts to contact
each household. If she is unable to make contact, or if
they refuse point-blank to answer, she refers the file to
her crew leader, who makes three more attempts; if these
are unsuccessful, the file is referred to the field operating
supervisor, who tries again. Finally, sometime in July,
the recalcitrant files--the real hard cases--wind up on
the desk of local census director Cynthia Jones, who makes
a personal visit to each holdout (see "Interrogating the
Interrogator," page 30).
In practice, however, Broeth wins most skirmishes through
a combination of dogged persistence and deft sleuthing.
For example, one of the houses on her list was vacant when
she visited, but a neighbor said the tenant had been evicted
a week before. Broeth got the phone number of the property
management company from the "For Rent" sign and called them
about the evicted tenant. When the company refused to release
any information, Broeth asked her supervisor to track down
the landlord from county property records. Then she called
the landlord, who obtained the tenant's name and particulars.
"It's frustrating," she acknowledges. "It costs the taxpayers
money. But you just keep trying."
Broeth gets no bonus for persuading residents to complete
their forms--she is paid a flat rate of $12.50 an hour--but
she pursues her quarry with the grizzled determination of
a bounty-hunter. Sometimes she wakes up in the middle of
the night and realizes that she has been dreaming about
how to crack the last few houses on her caseload.
Tract 86 is not the poorest area of Portland, nor does
it have two characteristics traditionally associated with
low response rates--language barrier or a large minority
population. What it does have is a chip on its shoulder.
For the better part of the last century, as ever-smaller
homesteads sprouted along its country lanes like mushrooms
after a spring rain, this territory was an unincorporated
part of Multnomah County. Then, citing a need to improve
water and sewer services, the city of Portland annexed it
in 1985--a takeover bitterly resented by many local residents.
"People are still reluctant to admit they're living in an
urban neighborhood, even though the country has been gone
for 20 years," says Mary Davis, the executive director of
the Brentwood-Darlington Community Center. "There's a definite
sense of being the last bastion of rugged individualism."
This attitude is vividly demonstrated in an anecdote related
by local writer Bill Donahue in a recent article about Johnson
Creek. In 1980, Metro proposed a flood-control plan, to
be financed by landowners along the creek's meandering path.
At a public meeting, Episcopal priest Clifford Goold rose
to his feet and declared, "We'll see your soul in hell and
your back broken first." Five hundred people gave him a
Local demographers are all too familiar with the area's
prickly reputation. PSU researcher George Hough Jr., for
example, canvassed the area in 1996 as part of an effort
to test the effectiveness of local, part-time enumerators.
"When someone rolls in and says, 'I'm with the federal government'"--he
smiles, extending his middle finger. "That's what you get."
Down at the Sting Pub, a squat dive on 82nd Avenue where
the men's urinal sports advertisements for 1-800-DIVORCE,
the census has few fans. "There are a lot of low-income
people who feel like they don't count, so what's the difference?"
asks Arlin Grenawalt, 59, a contractor with a voice like
sandpaper who lives in a trailer a few blocks away. "You
get charged for storm drains you don't have. You're living
on a dirt road. You're reluctant to do anything they want
you to do. You see all these other areas improve, but nothing's
ever been improved out here. Nothing ever happens."
Over the crack of cue balls and the strains of Bob Seger,
patrons of the establishment, which got its name from a
multi-year undercover police operation conducted behind
the bar, assemble a long litany of gripes against the city,
county, state and federal government.
"I'd love to go back to Washington, D.C., with a machine
gun," says Walder Lee Eye, 62, a ruddy-faced journeyman
carpenter, painter, mechanic and motorcycle enthusiast who
once won $80 by killing a bottle of beer while standing
on his head. "But you know what would happen--the next lot
would be worse.
"People don't respect each other any more," he sighs, reaching
for another beer as he draws his cigarette down to the filter.
Bartender Brenda Stecker, 39, discarded her form as soon
as it arrived in her mobile home's mailbox. "It went right
in the garbage," she says, punctuating her disdain with
an arch of her pencil-thin eyebrows. "They want to get your
whole life history, but nothing happens. So why bother?
Then they know all about you.... It's like we don't have
any freedom any more. You're not a name, you're a number."
The only daughter of a waitress and a gas-station mechanic,
Stecker left home at 12 and gave birth to her first child
at 15. She has lived and worked in the motels and taverns
of this area for 25 years. "I like this neighborhood," she
says, over the whine of the video-poker consoles sucking
in $5 bills. "I'd rather be here than anywhere else. Everybody
takes care of everybody around here."
Despite a sharp eye for official wrongdoing--she is quick
to cite crowded jails, the police overtime scam and the
failure of the Oregon Lottery to rescue schools--Stecker
has never registered to vote. "It's not worth it," she says.
"Just pay your taxes and hopefully they'll leave you alone."
Although the Census Bureau is expressly prohibited from
turning individual information over to any agency, public
or private, many people in Tract 86 cannot quite shake the
suspicion that their personal information will be leaked
to whatever bureaucratic entity they happen to fear most--whether
it be the IRS, the FBI, the police, the sheriff's office,
the bureau of buildings, the state Office for Services to
Children and Families or the World Bank.
This fear is hardly unique to Tract 86. But some people
here have another, even more paranoid concern about the
census questions regarding ethnicity and race. They feel
that the government favors minorities and immigrants over
impoverished white folks, and that answering these questions
will only make things worse.
If anything, the opposite is true. But setting paranoia
and racism aside, the broader question remains. Do the residents
of Tract 86 count? Should they bother? Is there, really
and truly, any point in filling out the census if you're
poor and white and live in a trailer park?
As far as the larger community is concerned, the answer
is clear. But inside the confines of Tract 86, the issue
is anything but simple. It is obvious that this is a neighborhood
that doesn't trust the government. What is perhaps
less obvious is that this is a neighborhood that doesn't
really want help from the government.
People here don't want flood-control projects or local
improvement districts--especially if it means higher taxes
and some bureaucrat breathing down their neck. Many would
rather sacrifice prosperity for independence, and keep the
dirt roads, the ruts in the gravel, the cyclone fences that
gird their tiny fortresses. Thanks to the dedication of
enumerators like Veronica Broeth, the Census Bureau may
win the battle for their answers, but it is a long way from
winning the war for their hearts and minds.
Week | originally published May 10,