Neutral, No Brakes

By David Krogh

Picture this, a city with a neglected and dirty downtown, streets with potholes and no sidewalks, homeless campers in numerous locations all about, gentrification, corruption, crime and exploitation, general disorder and a lack of citizen participation or hope. Does this scenario sound familiar? In his book Neutral, No Brakes, Patrick Howard is describing a small fictitious city in California called Morley. However, he said that several cities he is familiar with, including Portland, suffer many of the same problems he highlights in his book. 

Gentrification often starts with urban renewal, he opined. “A feeling of community is destroyed, in favor of speedily constructed high-rises, trendy businesses and new inhabitants with little historical or cultural memory. Examples include the Rose Quarter and Mississippi and Williams Avenues in Portland and others. Without appreciation of what truly sustains quality of life, vibrant communities and their attendant benefits can be easily lost.” And often the new development (as depicted in Morley) is lacking in affordability, has no sense of place and gradually succumbs to the negative influences of urban blight.

As suggested, the problems faced by Morley are common to many cities, including Portland. Howard clearly illustrates in his book that the interests of the public are more and more being redirected by the separate agendas of city officials and special groups. 

“This is nothing new, but it has become unbearable in Portland. Whether due to incompetence, misguided ideologic zeal or old-fashioned corruption, the result is the same. Public input tends to be a sham, except from well-established special interests. Decisions affecting a community and its people are never made at the well-attended Town Hall, but rather in small gatherings of entrenched insiders, an echo chamber that is either ignorant or apathetic to the needs of common folk.” But this is the point, suggests Howard, where hope can be reborn, at least within the City of Morley.  

The first quarter of the book is filled with character development. There are many interesting characters who represent diverse backgrounds including an ex-con on parole, an extremely knowledgeable independent book seller, LGBT members, government office workers, a quirky doggy daycare helper, a greedy landlord, foreign development agents, an unethical realtor, a homeless man named Harry and a deceitful mayor named Rusty. 

Once readers are introduced to the main characters the story unfolds at a rapid pace with ever changing actions to keep interest levels high. This book is primarily for mature readers as Howard has stated he wanted to be realistic with his characters meaning “gender fluidity and sexuality as a matter of fact.” He sums up his characters as “there is good and bad in everybody, and I’m just trying to show the balance.” And with both the good and the bad illustrated, it is up to the reader to identify that balance.

Regarding the suggestion of hope for the City of Morley, Howard’s core group of characters band together to influence civic change. “Economic forces that harbor no loyalty to person, place, or community continue to roll along, unabated by institutions that should be looking out for our broader interests. The story of Neutral, No Brakes began as an attempt to make sense of it all.” 

Howard makes it clear that change takes time, but that even a small group of citizens can start a movement towards positive civic change. That actually happened in the town that Morley was based on. “This is at its heart an optimistic tale. One will always encounter forces inclined to disrupt, destroy or tear down. It’s a constant struggle of order over chaos. Individuals and communities need to align themselves with the former and reject the latter. We must have faith in our ability to improve life for ourselves and those around us.”

Can local citizen activism work in a large city like Portland? Actually, it already has. One example is the process currently underway to change the current and outdated commission form of government.

Howard is a retired ER doctor living in Portland with his journalist wife, Carolyn. This is his first book and he is currently working on both a prequel and a sequel.

Neutral, No Brakes is available locally at stores like Powell’s Books and Suits Me Fine Creative Outlet Store in Sellwood and online at Amazon. For more information, email Green Mill Press at

Neutral, No Brakes

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