Saturday, June 15, 2013

Reflections on a City: Portland Revisited

Portland at night, from downtown
 "Keep Portland Weird!"

That was the slogan on a bumper sticker in the Made in Oregon shop in which Warren and I stopped during our February trip out there. I almost bought it for Katrina, who grew up in a close-in suburb of Portland, but thought better. Katrina would not have been amused, even knowing I was making a joke.

We were in Portland for eight days, the longest I have stayed in that city since moving away in 1983. While much of the time revolved around Ramona and her parents and Sam, Warren and I managed to explore the city a little bit in between baby snuggles and family meals.

Portland in 2013 reminds me of Sinclair Lewis's characterization of Paris in his novel Dodsworth (1929): "There are many Parises, with as little relation one to another as Lyons to Monte Carlo, as Back Bay to the Dakota wheat-fields." Portland is a city with a strong, often vibrant counterculture. Portland is a city with a small group of well-off citizens who pride themselves on their liberalism and give generously to their causes, but who also appear to be strikingly elitist. And then there is the Portland that the visitor does not see, the Portland inhabited by no one save a half million Portlanders. And to borrow from Lewis once again, "it is said that in this unknown [Portland] live bookkeepers and electricians and undertakers and dogs and other beings as unromantic as people Back Home."

The core of downtown Portland holds the government buildings, the large law firms, the banks, and the corporate offices of area businesses. It does not hold very much retail, a trend that was well underway 30 years ago when I was living there. You have to leave the downtown to find the small, vital community commercial areas that to me hold the hope and future of Portland. I am not talking about the Pearl district, a very upscale, "near in" community for the highly solvent just north of downtown. I am thinking of the east side of river, along the arterial streets. In these quieter areas, I saw a lot of small shops of many bents, a devotion to mixed used (residential/commercial), and great infill. As a
Green Bean Bookstore, tucked into a residential area
community, Portlanders seem to understand the need and necessity for a strong community fabric throughout the city and not just in the downtown. In that regard, it reaches back to an era in this country where many basic mercantile wants were met within small shopping districts interlaced throughout a larger community. Even my hometown, standing at around 5000 citizens for much of its first 150 years, duplicated that pattern. I give Portland credit for reviving it. When I left Portland thirty years ago, I would have said that the small neighborhood commercial districts were on their way out along with the downtown. Now I see them as Portland's greatest asset.

A food block near Portland State
Well, that and Portland's food wagon culture. I admit it, I was absolutely bowled over and delighted by the vast range of food wagons, food trucks, and food vans, some of which roam throughout the city and more of which have fixed locations. Around Portland State, which is embedded in the south end of the downtown, whole blocks were dedicated to the food wagons. I did not, alas, partake of Whiffies while I was there, but that is a mistake I will rectify next time. In fact, looking at the larger Portland scene, local food—locally grown, locally made—is a big deal, period. (I did not miss out on having ice cream at Salt & Straw.)

Portland struggles. There is a lot of poverty, much of it open. The transit system, which is extensive in the city, is slanted towards serving people with money. The much vaunted trolly system, which we rode and enjoyed, serves primarily the more upscale neighborhoods, as do the Max lines (the light rail). If you are poor or even working class "getting by" in Portland and do not have a car, chances are good you are taking a bus, which take a long time to get from one part of the city to another.
A Portland trolly that cuts through the PSU campus

We saw a lot of homeless and marginal people—mostly white, mostly male—on streets, sometimes begging, sometimes just sitting. While some were young 20-somethings, the vast majority were significantly older. Warren and I talked about this several times. "There is nothing easy about living on the streets," I said. Even if these individuals managed to have some benefits (food stamps, for example), that does not counter the reality of homelessness. The men I saw were tired and dirty and grim and hopeless. Their omnipresence belies the cool, liberal tones of the left and the harsh critics of the right.

Portland's slogan is "the city that works." What glimpses I saw of the homeless, the most searing of which was passing a church late at night and seeing men sleeping on the steps (and February nights in Portland are not balmy), I am not convinced that Portland works as well as it could, or should.

At times during our stay, I found myself strongly drawn to Portland. It has great housing stock, it has a good mix of shops, many within easy walking distance of strong residential communities. I wanted to be able to wake up, walk to a local coffee shop, meet a friend, and then buy something local, something artisan, something beautiful. Of course, as I pen these words, I am chuckling at my pretensions. I already live in a town where I can wake up, walk to a local coffee shop, meet a friend, and, if I had the money, which I don't, buy something local, artisan, and beautiful. Portland is just on a bigger scale, with more coffee shops and more baubles.

The reality is I don't live that life here, and I wouldn't live it there. Ben and Alise don't lead that life. Portland is not a chic, endless bazaar of clever purchases. Like so many others, they work, they pay their bills, they scrape by, as do I.  They find their fun in their immediate neighborhood, or with friends. They are part of the "unknown Portland" of people just going about their daily lives.
Salt and Straw, local ice cream

Portland has been a trailblazer in design and planning circles in the last two decades. Portland has lead the way in urban innovation, cutting edge designs, and the like. Portland has also been criticized (and studied) in those same circles for creating a city that is not child or family friendly. Its school-age population has fallen as families leave for cheaper and more child-friendly suburban neighborhoods. Ben and Alise do not see themselves abandoning Portland, but they are already discussing charter school choices for Ramona in four years, not trusting the Portland city school system to be intact. It is a discussion I understand and sadly endorse, balancing my belief in public education against the desire to see Ramona receive a good education.

It was good to be back in Portland, even discounting the real reason for my trip, my family. It was just as good to return home, being separated again from my family aside. Afterwards, Katrina and I exchanged views She takes a far harsher view of Portland than I, so we tacitly agreed to disagree. I don't see Portland as a socialist republic; she doesn't see Portland as a not atypical community in the early part of the 21st century. (Portlanders pride themselves on the city being atypical. Trust me, it isn't.)  What I would love to do is meet Katrina in Portland and the two of us explore and discuss, as dispassionately as possible, its strengths and weaknesses, rather than try to describe them in letters.

Keep Portland weird?

I think not. "Weird" is as exclusionary and exclusive as "patriotic" or "liberal" or "conservative."

Keep Portland livable. Better yet, make it truly livable and keep it that way.

Mt. Hood, which hides most of the winter, overlooking Portland


Jenny Woolf said...

Very distressing to see so many homeless. Portland is one of those places I so nearly visited.... and then didn't - and so thanks for the tour.

see you there! said...

Enjoyed reading your views of Portland. As a "native Oregonian" I have visited often but never lived there. I find it mildly amusing that some Portlanders seem to take pride in calling it weird. I like Portland but don't find it weird. Then again, I live in Berkeley :-)