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City of Portland, Oregon, USA - a traveller's views
Portland's Hip Streets: A Paradigm In Progress? Or Lost? ( ... or "What ever happened to the yellow bicycles?"... )
by Brian Buchanan,
"Let's go to Portland for few days. We can stroll and shop. You can go wind surfing up the Columbia gorge. We'll rendezvous for drinks and dinner downtown, after you zoom back from The Dalles on the freeway." Folks from Vancouver, Canada tend to look to Portland, partly because whenever Vancouver civic debates turn to rapid transit, or urban development in lumber-reliant cities, Portland becomes a rod with which local transit and low growth proponents flog their adversaries. Clean, green, and not mean. That's what the world needs. It's a Portland paradigm. The biggest town in a state famous for masterful construction of a green and technology rich economy, Portland is also home to liberalism so soft and bountiful that it makes even left-wing Democrats blush. Canada's many socialist factions would probably love to have their conventions here, were it politically correct to do so. This is the town that once provided free yellow bikes for all to use and drop off where they might. This burg gives green a chance, yet still seems to do all the modern economic and financial things citizens expect. Third way; not third world. That's the Portland we come to see and experience.
At the historic forks of the Williamette and Columbia rivers, Portland is the sine qua non of the Cascadian metropolis. Futurists once suggested the western states and British Columbia and Alberta might create a country of their own when Canada broke up and western alienation in the U.S. became acute enough. Cascadia would develop a new age economy, based on natural resources from rocks, trees and the water, combined with tonnes of high technology to drive conservation, low emissions and lots of ecological good deeds. It would be capitalism all dressed up in a politically correct, recyclable suit. That talk is past, a wistfully irrelevant fragment of impractical political dreams a decade ago, but still, Portland retains the smell and feel of older, if slightly damp, bucolic dreams. Oregon stills flogs logs. But with the correct attitude.
And so off we went, down Interstate 5's deadly daisy-chain, cheek to jowl with thousands of trucks and cars hurtling north and south, east and west, and every point between. Unremittingly dense traffic plunges to and fro from the north edge of Seattle, without let-up into the inner tangle of road junctions at Portland's edge. Hurdling along bumper to bumper at 110 klicks, or alternately crawling along slightly closer at two klicks, we make our knuckle-whitening way to the city-on-the-hill-by-the-rivers, a town founded as an early 19th century anchor for American expansion into western British and Spanish territory. Lewis and Clark and all that - the history of westward ho is ubiquitous in and around the town. On Portland's edge, where I 5 gives way to the Interstate 405, we jump off into the quiet south-west edge of downtown, and find our way to a hotel near the Willamette River, in the heart of the green light districts of the inner city.
So here we stroll (stagger, in fact, after 6 hours glued to a car seat) about a few hours later, our car tucked away in a hotel lot, in the downtown's leafy sanctuary, the roar and tension of freeway traffic a dimming memory - but off in the distance, beyond the bridges across the Williamette, we can hear and see melee we left.
Heading further southward along the eastern edge of the university campus, between 1st and 4th, and south of Market Street and North of Lincoln, a walker comes across an urban landscape of park, apartments and business buildings. Beautifully tended fountains, statuary, pathways, stairs and greened and festooned alleyways, framed by sleek concrete, invite the pedestrian through an eerily vacant track. One finds hardly a soul, except for a few shabby men, hunkered down in a doorway, or a group of ragged youth playing in a fountain, skateboards nearby. Where is everyone? Middle class civilians, that is. We reach a hotel at the southern reach of this green and shiny stretch, and turn north and east toward the Williamette River and its commercial and apartment development at the Hawthorne Bridge area. Along the way, we meet the occasional exemplar of local colour.
Not all is sunshine on green-dappled excursion. As so common elsewhere in Portland's heart, the urban ghosts haunt the urban hollows. A few zoned-out and ragged zombies wander among the languid activity, apparently refugees from some other dimension entirely, poking their elbows into middle class concourse only long enough to beg or make nuisances of themselves.
Bums are familiar in Portland. Camps of what modern parlance calls "street people" or "homeless" play, disport , beg and occasionally bump up against the tourists and earning locals in various areas of town. The bums are harmless, one supposes, though would a person bet her life on it? In Portland the gainfully underemployed gather in particularly large clumps at the northern end of Tom McCall Waterfront park, a mile-long, grassed strip running just south of the Hawthorne Bridge up to the Steel Bridge. They lie on the grass edge of a large paved pedestrian and bike track that runs between three bridges on the Williamette River's shore. It's pretty easy to shrug and point out that most lovely spots harbour unlovely wildlife. And Portland's spectres can be wild. Sometimes they yell at passing runners, walkers and bikers. Occasionally they will take a run at a member of the passing parade. Tolerance is queen here, though. Not a cop in sight. Are they undercover? Writing parking tickets? Checking political correctness elsewhere?
Speedboats spin by noisily along the river route, while parallel to the river walk a steady stream of auto traffic winds its way between the road and rail bridges along a tree-studded artery called Naito Parkway. At intervals the parkway spins off to winding roads with access to the westerly bridges to Interstate 5, or eastward along Interstate 405, skirting the city to the west. The quiet core of city center is never far from suburban escape off to the west and east. We turn into the heart of town, the center of center.
Pioneer Square, an amphitheatre-shaped area with an old courthouse at its side, draws a large and polyglot group of individuals, including some who play chess at a large stone bullet proof board at the edge of the square. The shabby, scrounging ghosts of the river walk are here, too: "Hey, you dropped something! Ha-ha." "Can you spare some change?" "Hi-ya doing, today?" The square is a large amphitheatre. Tents and tables dot the scape on our day there. Coffee shops, big retail stores, restaurants (with the so evitably west-coast sour-syrupy microbrewery beer, big wine list and French-Italian cooking) and specialized clothing outlets and pharmacies dominate the streets in this stretch, from Burnside on the north to Salmon's treed and lawned fringes on the south, and east to west from Naito Parkway to 11th, backing onto Interstate 405. South, A giant health club dominates an entire two storey block, with restaurants and a bakery sharing about a third of the street level space. Northeast, an Irish pub and restaurant resides in an ancient, refurbished retail building, across from a street level parking lot. Curbside dining and drinking is not quite as common as one might expect. Southeast, the gigantic Wells Fargo Center stands next to a new and old city hall, to the Keller Auditorium, and to a convention center. Commerce and chic play fine music together here.
Heading off east and west from Pioneer Square is MAX, the light rail transit system crossing the river at the Steel Bridge north of the river park and to the eastern suburbs. Pointing west from the Square, MAX traverses Washington Park, then the zoo and heads on out to the suburbs. A decade ago, downtown denizens could appropriate a yellow two-wheeler and pedal about, then drop the simple, environmentally righteous device at a convenient stall. They are gone. Some social engineering projects simply take on too sanguine a set assumptions about human nature, I guess. However, other bright hopes for humankind persist.
On Saturdays, a giant 60's style hippy market finds refuge on the northern edges of the waterfront park, and under the Burnside Bridge. The food is fast, modern and greasy. The merchandise, from candles, to jewelry, to signs to soaps to handmade artifacts of every description, with the customary dreadful "art" of every genre on earth (with a few from other planets) takes a visitor back to, well, not to Woodstock, but certainly to substrata and political mindset, and its fantasies and political biases.Here is Oregon's green and liberal heart, pumping at exultant full tilt. More Cheap Crap than New Age, actually. Still, the 60s was always more about having your heart the right place, beyond all other sensibilities. Moreover, the dope goes down better inhaled through a bong hand-carved by a third-world artisan who lives close to owls, trees and whales.
Burnside Street itself is a dividing line for Portland: north lies industry, torn-up streets and shabby shops that make up the Pearl District. On Burnside's west-central edge lies Powell's, Portland's emblematic block-square bookstore. It's all quite appropriate, of course: a hippy market at one end of Burnside, on the water's edge and next to the ragged and raging street people. West ten blocks lies a Powell's gigantic emporium, a monument to literacy. Getting in touch with oneself, that's Portland's way. And, of course, if that isn't enough self-exploration for you, then step up into the porn shops just north of Burnside in the old, ramshackle remnants of Chinatown that moulders there.
Portland's go-green, transit-focussed inner city (south of Burnside, at least) has become a poster child for cities resisting high intensity transit and car intrusions on inner cities. Proud as it should be, Oregon's big city is still a work in progress. Free bicycles are gone. Many of the high tech businesses have died or fled, leaving some of the leaf-framed, bicycle-pathed office complexes to various ghosts and shabby street denizens. The New Jerusalem is not yet. Still, Portland's quiet civility and relaxed opulence will remain an attraction, and a paradigm for other, ruder places, such as a Vancouver stampeding toward a MAX of its own, to be built through a public park to accommodate an idiotic Olympics bid. For us, it's back northward on the Interstate 5's corridors of bright lights and moving steel, thinking of our Portland adventure as we grip our wheels. I still miss the yellow bikes. They represent a tiny bit of lost hope, a wisp of memory of more golden times. The other ghosts, I could do without.
by Brian Buchanan