John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Meet the group devoted to abolishing capitalism, and also making streets super smooth.
Anarchism: The belief in the eradication of government, growth of a utopian society defined by mutual aid, and, ultimately, a timely schedule for filling potholes.
Or so it goes in Portland, where locals recently peered out their windows to see random street-improvement workers, one dressed in a black mask wielding what looked like a post-apocalyptic cudgel. The men weren’t there for another Trump protest; rather, they were packing asphalt into deep crevices that developed after the Pacific Northwest’s brutal winter.
A small circle of friends created Portland Anarchist Road Care in February as a response to deteriorating road conditions, which they believe make driving and cycling less safe (as well as a financial burden to owners of damaged vehicles). Whereas the planet’s other pothole vigilantes rely on mostly passive approaches to draw attention to holes—painting male genitalia around them in the U.K., making them tweet the government when run over in Panama—Portland’s avengers take direct action, using a temporary but well-established mending technique called cold patching.
They have patched holes on three city blocks and remain in a “constant state” of awareness to find other craters to fill, emails the anonymous PARC. Needless to say, they have yet to consult the municipality for any of these activities. “We don’t think the city should exist; we are only limited by our capacity and our imaginations,” says PARC. “We aren’t asking permission, because these are our streets. They belong to the people of Portland, and the people of Portland will fix them.”
Eliminating potholes isn’t only a matter of property ownership, the group asserts, but one of morality. “There can be no ethical services provided by the government because they are facilitated through the power of the gun,” writes PARC, presumably while flipping the bird like in the top photo. “Don’t get us wrong, we believe that many of these services are crucial for society, like healthcare, education, and maintained roadways, but we believe that the way to achieve access for all is by deconstructing the state and capitalism, as well as other coercive hierarchies that exist in our society. It is this driving philosophy that motivates our actions, not only to fix the potholes, but to take power back from the state, into the hands of the people.”
The 2016–2017 winter was one for the history books in the Pacific Northwest, with the region getting repeatedly lashed by rain, freezing rain, snow, and graupel—puffy powder pellets that would be cute if the temperature wasn’t so insufferably cold. By late February, municipal workers were staring at a backlog of more than 1,000 potholes, including a massive one that a local said was rimmed with a “bunch of hub cabs, broken car-light lens, and other garbage [it] spit out from the cars it ate.”
“Record snow and record-low temperatures in December and January caused an unprecedented number of potholes on our streets,” says Dylan Rivera, a spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation. “This was followed by a record rainfall in February, hindering our ability to work on potholes because the patches need dry weather to be effective.”
The city responded by launching a “Patch-a-thon,” mobilizing up to seven times the usual number of crews to patch holes and making an online map where citizens can report road damage. Last Friday, all available crews went out to fill more than 900 divots, which amounts to a month’s worth of pothole work condensed into a single day. However, Portland’s own map shows there’s still much work to be done; the city just wishes that people let it handle it by the book.
“It’s not safe or legal for people to fill potholes on streets that are maintained by the city,” says Rivera. “They run the risk of being injured in a traffic crash.... They also run the risk of being held personally liable if someone were to be injured by the pothole they attempted to fix.”
Portland’s fly-by-night pothole packers don’t seem worried, though. They claim their numbers are growing, that they might someday branch out into other forms of infrastructure repair. “It is necessary to build the community networks that we envision for a post-revolutionary society,” PARC says. “When people ask anarchists, ‘Who will fix the roads?’ the answer is obvious: We will.”