Assault on Tract 86
An army of census takers are descending on felony flats-- and the locals are running for cover


photos by Ben Guzman


For more information about the U.S. Census, visit www









The figures about Tract 86 in this
article are derived from a special
project known as the American Community Survey, which was conducted in 1996.









One Tough Cookie: Enumerator Veronica Broeth won't take no for an answer.









magazine recently
published an article about this neighborhood by Portland writer Bill Donahue (see "Pilgrim at Johnson Creek" at www.double










The local Census Bureau currently employs about 1,000 temporary workers, all of whom had to pass
a criminal background check.





The census 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.











Data from the Census 2000,
including tract-
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 shell.

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 people.

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 minutes."

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 53 questions.)

"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."

No answer.

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 standing ovation.

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.

Willamette Week | originally published May 10, 2000





















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