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A man with heavily calloused hands tuned up his side yard.  He told those within earshot his specialty.

“If you want to know a city you have to know dirt.  Take Portland, Oregon for example.  From a pleasant canoe stop at a bend in the Willamette River, until the moment two land speculators flipped a coin to name her, Portland has had dirt.

“You can find her dirt in any urban excavation.  Walk down the street most days and you’ll find a hole big enough to tip a skyscraper into.  There you’ll find Portland in between the dirt paths, the plank roads, the macadam, the concrete, and the asphalt that surrounds the hole.

“Portland has many grades of dirt to sift through.  Old Portland dirt where city fathers built their city into One-Stop-On-The-Willamette, instead of St.Johns or Milwaukie, to new dirt that makes Portland the best city to set records for visiting as many strip clubs as possible in one night. 

“Some of the dirt covers us all equally.  For instance, who swung the first hammer on the Portland Hotel, reincarnated as Pioneer Square?  It was the Empress Hotel of Victoria, B.C. set in downtown Portland.  It was a landmark, a destination.  Now it’s dirt, replaced by a living room. 

“And who threw the first shovel of dirt for the KOIN Center that blocked Mt.Hood out of the Sunset tunnel.  We need a reminder of television more than an Alpine view?

“The longer we live in and around Portland, the more dirt we see.  Shanghai tunnels used to drag drugged loners into sea duty?  Deep kidnapper dirt.  Light rail tunnels?  Deeper graveyard dirt.  We brush it off and move along knowing there is a shower at the end of the day.

“But what happens when fresh eyes see the dirt for the first time, kids who are learning about themselves, their city, and where they fit in the mix.  For some it must feel like a dump truck just dropped a load on them. 

“How do they interpret the exclusion laws of early Oregon, or the image of KKK Oregon in the first half of the last century?  Without any context they must feel like breaking out the boar bristles and scrubbing down to the bone. 

“Does education improve their view of the world?  If so, what do they see?  Is it vote-counting legislators working on re-election instead of budget solutions?  Is it lawmakers tied to disastrous tax measures? 

“Sometime in the future a kid will walk by hole in the ground in downtown Portland and see the layers of streets, ours included, pressed together like rings in a tree.  They might see the modern street level, and the paths below, and wonder how time peels away while man adds on. 

“They won’t have any perspective to understand the roads of history, the roles of science, or the turbulent social mix that produces a civilization.  But they will still wonder.

“They won’t have a chance to sift through the dirt to see what holds meaning for them.  The only dirt they’ll see is shovel after shovel landing on their future, their dreams, by a state that turned its back on them in hard times.  And it will feel normal.

“Is it asking too much to give a kid something to see when they look at a hole in the ground?” 

Or is the dirt good enough?

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