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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Memories of a Derelict Burger King

Posted by Sarah Mirk on Tue, Sep 14, 2010 at 9:58 AM

Politicians and civic boosters gathered downtown last Tuesday, September 7, for an unusual celebration: cheering on a demolition. The low-slung building on the corner of Broadway and West Burnside was only one story tall, but it was a major symbol of obstinate blight amid an increasingly glossy urban renewed neighborhood. Everyone from a city commissioner to a state senator was on hand to applaud the death of the long-ailing former Burger King that squatted for 32 years on two Portland arteries.

As blogger Lost Oregon pointed out, when the Burger King first opened in 1978, it actually won a local architecture award, which noted that the "plaza-like" space was "such that a man in a coat and tie would feel as comfortable as a student."

Well, how times have changed. Police records show that since 2005, officers have responded to that corner a whopping 1,257 times. About a third of those calls were for traffic incidents, but the cops conducted a total of 79 welfare checks and responded to 36 calls about drunk people, 29 fights or assaults, and 60 "disturbances." All this on a property that the county assessor says should be worth $2.8 million.

Mental health and housing nonprofit Central City Concern bought the foreclosed property for $1.6 million last summer and, with federal dollars and state bonds, is turning it into a $19 million three-story health clinic. To commemorate its passing, I talked with locals about their memories of the city's most notorious Burger King.

DEBORAH KAFOURY, County Commissioner

It wasn't even just the physical structure of the building, but what it represented. It represented what we don't want our city to be: the shadier side of a community, drug dealing, prostitution, sadness, despair. With a health clinic, it's going to be hopeful and people who are trying to turn their lives around.

When it was Burger King, my friends and I [in the 1980s] used to dare each other to go buy something in there. It was always really sketchy. It was a naughty place to be, because you knew your mother wouldn't want you to go in there.


MEAN GENE, Homeless Portlander
I was standing right there once, I saw two crackheads fighting over a penny. An actual penny. They go in and get food, they get their change. One said he was shorted a penny and they started fighting. Police came and took their ass to jail. There were a lot of things that happened there. There was always something, especially at night. Police had to keep two officers up there, especially on Fridays, because of the drug activity there. You'd have to be crazy not to see it, it was all out in the open, it's good that they're tearing it down. But I hate to see it go, because I loved eating there. Burgerville's the spot, now.

JEFF COGEN, County Chair

I mostly thought of it as a symbol of weird suburban development in downtown Portland. I always thought, "Why in the world is there a suburban strip mall Burger King here?" The only time I went in there was a long time ago after a show at the Roseland, I think it was a reggae show, I went in there and got some french fries. That was the only time I went in there.

There are times when I see them wrecking buildings, and I feel sad that we're losing a part of our history. But when I drove past this and saw the wrecking ball, my first thought was: Good riddance. I guess this is a part of our history, too, but I didn't feel any attachment to it.



NICK FISH, City Commissioner
I think there’s something terrific about taking a Burger King, that sold unhealthy food, and replacing it with a health clinic that’s serving the needs of that community. I thought it was a conspicuous example of decay in the downtown. You’re used to seeing buildings like that in the periphery of the city, not in the center of the city. It was a distressing sign to drive by a building that we couldn’t find a use for.

ANGELA BOROVICKA, Portland native living on the streets for the past six months.
I always noticed that it was empty, and I thought that maybe it was because people always urinated there so people didn't want to hang out there. Since it was just being used as a bathroom and vandalized, nobody would want to even sleep there. I heard that there was, at one time, drug activity was around there. I assumed that everyone was staying away from it because it was a marked territory, it was being watched so much. I always was amazed that it just sits there and no one has used it. I think also, no one's using it because of the past stigma around it.


ANDREW MACE, Old Town-Chinatown Neighborhood Chair

It was not the prettiest Burger King, even when it was a Burger King. Pretty much anything would be an improvement. In lots of discussions of planning around the Pearl District, it's often brought up that the Broadway corridor is a tough corridor because it's a wider street where two neighborhoods come together. There's never been a fairly cohesive plan about how to merge those neighborhoods.

When I first moved here in the 90s, the entire stretch of Burnside up to 23rd was something you avoided. You'd maybe go to Old Town because the bus took you through it, there was never any draw to it. That's just not the case anymore. Despite its issues, Burnside is just much more approachable. I don't think anyone really knows how its demolition will affect the neighborhood. It'll definitely help in terms of public safety, that building has been an eyesore and a problem for a long time.

ANONYMOUS EX-EMPLOYEE, Lost Oregon commenter


Too unpleasant to hang out and eat there? Try being employed there. I worked there one summer (the summer this store got a security guard, which really helped) and it was pretty hairy... People were always trying to reach in and grab the till drawer at the drive-through—one of my coworkers kept a section of broomhandle at that station so she could beat them on the arm. I just slammed the window as hard as I could. I also remember a coworker defending herself with a pot of hot coffee (yikes).

Addicts would nod off in the back dining area, and homeless would sleep there as well (most of the dining room, and the bathrooms, were completely out of the line of sight of the front counter—how stupid a design is that?!). I had to clean the bathrooms sometimes and it was a real horror show. The mirrors were broken quite often, and there would be urine-soaked clothes laying around, and razor stubble from street guys trying to keep clean in there. Needles, flooding, you name it.

We used to slip the “waste” (food that had been sitting longer for X number of minutes) to the homeless. The managers forbade us to give it to those in need, so there was an extra incentive to do it. That place is loaded with bad karma.

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