Iler: A story of doughnuts and TriMet’s Line 12

Editor’s note: The following is a selection of a longer piece posted at donciler.medium.com. 



It has been a rough year in most of the world, but I think Portland leveled up its suffering on the path to sainthood.

The pandemic shutdown decimated the city’s economy and emptied its streets. The already large homelessness problem hit turbo. Unemployment reached record levels. The protests, police brutality, tear gas, and federal invasion added icing to the cake of misery. Forest fires smothered the city in smoke in September, a final spear jabbed into the side as the city waited for more unrest.

However, the one thing that has sustained me through all this has been doughnuts. Back in April, when I spent my days driving an empty bus around an empty city, full of shuttered businesses, I noticed my favorite doughnut shop (Angels Doughnuts, formerly Tonallis, on Alberta St.) was still open. It was the one thing that seemed to be open on the street while the world doom scrolled out of control.

I bought a doughnut, masked up, my first time in a business outside of a grocery store since the pandemic began. Eating the sweet treat walking home just about made me cry, the normalcy of eating a doughnut when I couldn’t take anything for granted anymore overwhelmed me. I returned again and again throughout the summer, as the year got worse. I stopped at another favorite on my way to work, Heavenly Donuts on Lombard, hours after police had cracked down on a protest at the police union headquarters across the street and the smell of tear gas hung in the air. Doughnuts became a sweet life preserver keeping me afloat while Portland seemed to crumble.

I thought about doughnuts a lot while I drove the 12 last week up and down Sandy Boulevard. Sandy has seen a lot of change the past decade, and has watched Portland grow up from The Clearing to Stumptown to Rip City to Portlandia.

Nothing captures the changes in Portland more than one food item, the humble doughnut. And the 12 goes by quite a few doughnut shops (five by my count). Daydreaming about doughnuts, and catching up on one of Portland’s busiest routes, got me thinking about the city, where it’s been, where it’s at, and where it’s going.


Before cars, before buses, before streetcars, before the railroad, before fur traders, before Lewis and Clark, before horses, before even the wheel arrived in North America, Sandy Boulevard was here in what is now Portland, Ore. It was a path connecting a marshy landing on the east side of the Willamette River opposite a clearing in the woods on the west side, to indigenous settlements near what is now the airport, the Grotto, and along the Columbia and Sandy rivers.

Sandy Boulevard is a curving diagonal slash against the tyranny of the grid. It is also a busy four lane street, that narrows and widens as it drops through the blocks.

Sandy is a mix of development, containing everything from old streetcar style commercial development, the beautiful Hollywood Theater, old industrial buildings, bland post-World War II strip malls and motels, and the latest in high rise big city condo living.

In the Roseway Neighborhood where Sandy intersects with Fremont and 72nd, Annie’s Donuts has been frying up donuts for a long time. Its pink roof shelters a small shop that doesn’t look like it has changed much with the times. Donuts are lined up in a glass case. Coffee warms in a carafe on a hot plate. A small seating area with formica tables was taped off because of the pandemic, and Plexiglas now separates customers from the workers, but besides that everything is still jelly filled and fried.

Annie’s looks a lot how Portland used to look in decades past: working class, no frills, down to earth. Before Portland became cool, it was a conservative blue collar town in a remote, provincial corner of the country, a low slung city known mostly for rain, strip clubs, and the Trail Blazers. It had jobs and neighborhoods like any other city, but it was a smaller place with simpler tastes.

But Portland had change in its future.



Before the pandemic, I remember driving the 12 down Burnside and getting stuck at the light and looking over at Voodoo. I remember feeling kind of sad, with the cranes going up everywhere constructing buildings most Portlanders couldn’t afford to live, the bougie restaurants, the people with money and tech jobs who had moved in, it made the city feel less interesting, like it had lost something. Sure Old Town was still one of the more “sketch” neighborhoods in Portland, but now Voodoo was a certifiable tourist trap in the middle of it with lines, selfie sticks, and cattle guards. It felt like the local culture had left behind its blue collar roots, and money and gentrification had priced out all the weirdness that had made Portland interesting in the first place. Portland had lost its grit and was getting a shiny, glassy, anodyne future.

The pandemic changed that. Encampments filled many empty lots and sidewalks. Plywood went up over closed businesses. A wave of looting hit a downtown already emptied of office drones and shoppers. Graffiti sprung up on the plywood and blank walls, making the city look like a fill in for 1970s New York City.

I drove the 12 the weekend after protests broke windows and left graffiti in the Hollywood neighborhood. All those bright shiny buildings looked worse for wear, and I worried about some favorite businesses on the street and if they would survive all of this. Portland wasn’t as nice as it had been last year when I lamented its loss of grit. I now regretted being sad about how nice Portland was, now seeing how bad things have gotten.

That’s the beauty about doughnuts though, no matter what a place might do, or the building it’s located in, at its heart the doughnut is an egalitarian treat. It is the treat of the people, and a treat you can take with you, perfectly portable in this moment of not being able to eat in. It’s a round wonder of sweetness, you take one bite, another, and then another, until you circle back around to where you started.

Portland started life as a working class city at the confluence of two rivers in the rainy Pacific Northwest. It got fancier the past decade, but 2020 has definitely knocked the wind out of it. Maybe all the grit, crime, graffiti, and grime are temporary blip in Portland’s upward gentrifying trend, or maybe this year brought us back to where we started from.

I know the 12 will see what happens though. Old, new, fancy or not, it will see what happens. Sandy has always seen change, and the 12 will just keep driving. And there will always be a whole lot of good doughnuts on Sandy.

As I set out to buy doughnuts to taste test earlier this week, I walked out of Annie’s. I bit into a still warm maple covered old fashioned on a cold, fog covered Sandy Boulevard as I waited for the 12. It was delicious and perfect in every way. I knew Portland would be OK.


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