Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland by Rail, Bus, Streetcar, and Foot: Part Three

Portland, Oregon

The first part of this series was on Seattle, the second on Vancouver

My first trip to Portland was over Labor Day weekend a few years ago for my wife’s 30th birthday. It was the quintessential Portland vacation, or at least the quintessential Portland vacation as espoused by tourism offices, travel magazines, and websites. We stayed in the trendy Ace Hotel, lost ourselves in the stacks at Powell’s City of Books, caught an indie flick at Living Room Theater, bought local art at a fair on the North Park Blocks. We ate every meal at a different local eatery, took the streetcar when our feet gave out, and only left the Pearl District or its immediate surroundings to wander Washington Park’s hilly paths, its rose and Japanese gardens. When tired, we sat on a bench or a curb and people-watched. How nice to find a place full of the educated, the literate, the tattooed. We spoke of relocating. In the idyllic weather of late summer, Portland, or at least the small bit we sampled, was intoxicating.

The Pearl District

The Pearl District, take two

Lobby at The Ace Hotel

I didn’t make it back to Stump City until November, 2009. My longtime interest in cities had become an increasingly formal study of the urban condition, and I had come to the Pacific Northwest to spend three days in each of the region’s three principal cities, lodging in hostels and moving about via transit or foot power. Seattle was first, Vancouver second, and so it was at a cold and rainy predawn hour that I found myself in Canada boarding a bus bound for Portland, my train having been cancelled by mudslides.

The sun is making a brief appearance when I disembark in Portland—two hours late—and catch a bus to the edge of fareless square. A short walk takes me to HI’s Northwest Hostel, a converted Victorian-style house at the corner of 18th and Glisan where I would spend the next three nights. I score a prime bunk, drop my gear, and head out for a stroll along 21st and 23rd avenues, the primary commercial thoroughfares of the neighborhood. Both streets are reasonably attractive and pleasant to walk. Upscale chain retail, eclectic boutiques, cozy restaurants, and neighborhood services commingle while people of all ages share the sidewalk; low building heights and numerous street trees cultivate a suburban leafiness. I scarf down a meal and get a truly colossal slice of French silk pie to go.

Activity levels plummet as soon as I turn a corner. Side streets are dark and deserted. The quietness is odd. When walking in a city, ambient noise serves as a safety monitor. Deep quiet is often only found in places best avoided. Or during a snowstorm. The neighborhood here doesn’t seem dangerous, and it isn’t snowing.

During my stay I wear out Portland’s sidewalks, criss-crossing the Pearl, Northwest, Downtown, Old Town, and the PSU campus. I hop the streetcar a couple times, when the rain returns or my feet go on strike. Portland’s streetcar is an interesting case. It is probably the most visible manifestation of urban planning in a city renowned for its prescient planning practices, and it is undeniably cool, the mere sight of it reaffirming Portland’s, well, Portlandness. But the city’s urban core is so small I can cross it on foot with ease, and at an only slightly slower pace. The streetcar’s single looping line doesn’t enhance its utility, and judging solely by the ridership that I saw it replaces paratransit trips more than it does automobiles. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

One evening a couple of Portlanders organize an excursion from the hostel to the Kennedy School in Northeast. Shutdown in 1975 due to disrepair and a lack of funds, the Kennedy School was purchased twenty years later by local company McMenamin’s and repurposed as a mixed-use community hub. I love the idea behind the place, but something about it reminds of Main Street, USA, at Disney World. Retaining many of the school’s original features, including the principal’s office sign, the School now features several restaurants and bars, a movie theater, a hotel, a concert hall, and a pool. Hundreds of people join us, parents with kids, couples, a smattering of grandparents, and of course the ubiquitous hipsters.  

Bar at McMenamin's Kennedy School

Much has been made of Portland’s hipsters. The enormous concentration of like-minded, like-styled, like-aged folks acts like a black hole, its vacuum sucking in more of the same from elsewhere, its pull irresistable. Having the most well-educated waitstaff on earth is something of a local joke, as paying jobs, creative or otherwise, are hard to find here. It does seem like two out of every three people in Portland are in their early 20s, wear black peacoats and skinny jeans, sport a mustache (the guys, at least), and have a penchant for artfully-homemade accessorizing. The funny thing is that none of the hipsters I spoke with consider themselves to be hipsters, including the couple that brought us to the Kennedy School. The homogeneity does get a bit monotonous, but at least everyone I encountered was nice enough.

Sizable chinks in the armor of Portland’s vaunted transit system reveal themselves tonight. Northeast is only a handful of miles from downtown, but we have to walk ten minutes to the Max (light rail), ride the Max for fifteen or twenty minutes, and catch a bus for another ten or fifteen minute ride to get here. All the kids I ask scoff at transit. They get everywhere on bicycle, and can apparently get from point to point much faster that way. They also don’t have to worry about the MAX switching lines without notice, shutting down at one am, and dropping them on the wrong side of the Willamette River without a bus or taxi within hailing distance.

Escorting two inebriated hostelers back to the bunks, I wasn’t thrilled to have to walk through one deserted area after the next, over the bridge, and back across downtown Portland. One o’clock, and the city is vacant. A few hustlers ignore us, a few indigents whistle, but we are otherwise the only people on the street. Any street. Quite literally, the only part of Portland that looks like a city has been abandoned.

A friend of mine who moved to Portland some years ago explained that everyone moves first to Downtown or Northwest, and then after a year or so they move out to Northeast or Southeast. Near Alberta, Division, or Hawthorne. Away from the streetcar, away from tall buildings, away from renovated industrial lofts. Why? Because there people can afford to rent a house instead of an apartment, can have more space, a yard, parking. There, things don’t feel so much like a city. Strange, I thought. Portland might be the most hyped American city of the past decade, and it turns out that Portlanders just want to live in the ‘burbs.

I enjoyed this second trip to Portland. The hostel felt like a second home, and a couple nights of conversation with fellow travelers stretched into morning. I ate well and inexpensively. I didn’t rent a car and never felt as though I wanted one. I filled a bag at Powell’s. But the sheen of my first visit to Portland was gone. The Pearl was still attractive, but it felt lifeless, even shabby in parts, and populated solely by yuppies where any activity could be found. I saw few families. Few adults. None of the ethnic or cultural diversity one expects in a city. None of the urban vitality. Portland’s urban core is tiny, and though it looks the way one expects—even wants—a city to look, the majority of the people who seem to have committed to it are homeless, addicted to drugs, or newly arrived from out of town.

Portland, like its famed streetcar, is an interesting case. It boasts many of the pieces found in successful cities and some that no other American cities can match. The streetcar. Light rail. Cycle tracks. Skateboard tracks. An aerial tram. Traffic calming. No major downtown arterials. Local music. Local art. Local beer. Great food. Environmental awareness. A history of proactive and progressive decision making. Historic urban fabric. Food carts. Park blocks. It’s walkable. It’s bikable. The DIY spirit is pervasive. There is much to like about Portland, and the hype is not all smoke and mirrors.

Streetcar at Portland State University

Portland Cycle Track

Food Carts

Still, I’m not convinced that Portland is actually a city. Perhaps most telling, Portlanders don’t seem particularly interested in living in a city. Like Seattle, the bulk of its population opts for suburban neighborhoods outside the urban core, but Seattle’s central city is substantially more urban than Portland’s. The City of Roses has little industry, few major employers, and imbalanced demographics. Portland has been called an urban planner’s Nirvana, but what reality will all those plans bear? What lasting impact will all the money spent (on transit, on the Pearl, on advertising, etc.) have? Will Portland be a city that only attracts people but also retains them? Other cities can feasibly replicate many of Portland’s planning triumphs, but can Portland find the economic drivers that fuel other successful cities? Can Portland’s lionized livability sustain itself? The city deserves much praise, but a lot of questions remain.

Seeds of all sorts have been planted, some are already blooming, and I won’t be surprised if Portland burgeons into a truly world class small city. A more bohemian Boston, perhaps. I also won’t be surprised if the honeymoon ends early, the hipsters grow up and get out, and “Portlandizing” becomes a cautionary term for cities that rebuild themselves on the strength of a scene, only to freefall when the bubble bursts.

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20 Responses to Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland by Rail, Bus, Streetcar, and Foot: Part Three

  1. Dave says:

    Interesting take on my home town and current residence. But I’d like to refute the last point you made. There is no reason to believe Portland will lose its sense of community with the eventual loss of the hipsters (and reputation of hipness). Hipsters are a migratory species. Though Portland is popular with the hipster scene right now, the hipsters will move on to the next hip city in the next few years (like they moved from Minneapolis to Seattle to Austin, etc. in my lifetime). This won’t effect Portland’s urban planning and general ability to build consensus around development and other social issue, which began decades before this current crop of hipsters discovered our fair city.

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  4. Mary Sue says:

    I’ve lived off Hawthorne for the last three years, and I can tell you that we still have 200 foot blocks down thisaway, as well as the boutiques and shops and even our own branch of Powell’s. Any weekend spent sitting at a window table at any of the many cafes, you see hipsters, hippies, pirates, artists, grandmas and grandbabies, food carters and fine diners, and not a blessed tourist in sight.

    And that’s the way I like it. Corral all the tourists up in the Pearl and Northwest, please, where a good number of us Portlanders never have any reason to travel to. We know it doesn’t take big buildings to make a big city.

    • Josh Grigsby says:

      Thanks for pointing out my oversight (re: 200 ft blocs)…I’ve amended the article. However, while Hawthorne does still have some 200 foot blocks, the grid is badly fractured. Some blocks run for over a thousand feet. And tourists, like ’em or not, are a vital part of any city. A staunchly anti-tourist attitude is also an anti-urban attitude.

  5. John says:

    “Still, I’m not convinced that Portland is actually a city.”

    This is just silly. Other than NYC, Chicago, SF, Boston, Philly, what other American places do you consider to be cities?

    I lived in Northwest (near your hostel) for six years before moving into a giant house with a big yard in the suburbs a 750 sq ft condo in Southeast. I think a big difference between Portland and countless other midsize American cities is that our close-in residential neighborhoods were not abandoned or destroyed in the 20th century. Just because they’re not Tribeca doesn’t mean Portland isn’t a city.

    Anyway, some of us like to sleep at 1 AM.

  6. Mike says:

    Great post but incredibly dubious suggestion that the various Named eastside neighborhoods are the burbs or are in any way, shape or form like the burbs. The statement actually destroys the authors’s credibility.

    The most appealing thing about Portland is that you can live in great neighborhoods that are nothing like the burbs, have components of urban living (especially the businesses – virtually no chains) but are stll a awlk, quick bike ride or quick ride to the urban core or another of such neighborhoods.

    These neighborhoods are quintissential parts of the Portland lifestyle choice. Suggesting theyares the burbs or outside the urban core indicates that the author missed the essence of what makes this such a great place to live.

    • Josh Grigsby says:

      I’m not saying the neighborhoods beyond Portland’s urban core aren’t great places to live; I’ve found few places as passionately and vociferously beloved by their residents. I am saying that the population density and built environment are both sub-urban. In my opinion, they feel like lively suburban villages. Cities—and this statement of course opens up a different debate as to what constitutes a city—are something else entirely.

  7. Evan says:

    I only know four people who live west of the river. If you actually came and spent time in Woodstock, Clinton/Division, Hawthorne, East Burnside, NE Broadway, Alberta, Mississippi, St John’s, or any of the other east side neighborhoods, you would have a much better feel for what Portland is like. You went to Ballard and discovered that’s where people live in Seattle, well, Portland is even more like that. Just because there are single family homes doesn’t mean it’s the suburbs. I can walk ten minutes to several bars, two grocery stores, five convenience stores, and much more. I don’t usually get defensive about Portland, but I wouldn’t have to defend it if you had found a couple hours to hang out in SE.

    And by the way, Portland barely has half a million people. It’s not a big city, so I don’t know why you expected everyone to live in apartment buildings. If you could live a 20 minute door-to-door bus ride from work, be surrounded by stuff to do, and still find a 2600 square foot duplex unit to rent for $1100 in New York, I bet you would do it too.

    • Josh Grigsby says:

      I don’t claim to be an expert on Portland. As the article states, my impressions are from two short trips. I saw very little of the city beyond the downtown area, largely because I wasn’t compelled to. The Kennedy School felt (to me) like it was out in the middle of nowhere. That said, I have no doubt that these areas have much to offer. I hope to explore them more on future visits.

      Portland’s population, both city proper and metro area (580K, 2.2M, respectively), is almost identical to Vancouver’s, and comparable to that of Baltimore. City of Portland’s population is only slightly less than City of Boston, and on par with that of Minneapolis-St.Paul. It isn’t a megacity, but it isn’t that small, either. What I find interesting is that while media hype is centered on Portland’s most urban aspects (the streetcar, the Pearl, etc.), residents seem to prefer the less urban neighborhoods in Northeast and Southeast.

      To address your last point, I’ve found that 800-1200 square feet is plenty for my wife and I plus our dog and cat (the four of us spent six years in less than 600 sq ft), though you’re right that if I could find that in New York for $1100 I would certainly be tempted to take it.

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  9. Nick says:

    Gotta say, it is interesting to hear an outsider’s perspective on all three of these cities. I was born and raised in Portland, however did live in Seattle (some Portlanders like to call it “Shittle”) for three years.

    I agree with most of what you’re saying. However, like someone said about London, it takes one year to appreciate it. I think that is true for most places.

    Portland, Shittle and Wankouver (sorry, I’m a soccer fan) are three special places in North America. Far from the urban wonderland of Manhattan or San Francisco, but their own unique take on Urban living. I go to Salt Lake City, Denver and LA every few years, and Can’t wait to get away from the suburban sprawl these cities have become.

    Finally, it is funny to hear someone’s take on the East-side of Portland as a suburb! LOL! I have been telling people the same thing who live there for years, and they always throw their noses up in the air and deny it.


  10. Sherwood says:

    I think you did a pretty good job analyzing Portland, better than most travel writers. The hipster “issue” should work itself out in the next decade. Either they stay and start businesses and families or they head back to their parents basements and a few restaurants/bars close. Portland will be fine either way.

    The other disagreements seem to be about the definition of suburbia. Portland has streetcar suburbs (mostly without streetcars) with small blocks that are very walkable and have pretty good transportation linking them to downtown. They are very different (and much nicer) than the built environment of much of the west coast and midwest but they do still qualify as suburbs. We do have a decent urban core that, as the cost will tell you, is very popular and growing. Overall a nice balance, although I should point out it rains all the time and nobody reading this should move here.

  11. Josh Grigsby says:

    Good points. “Suburban” is a broad term. And while I maintain that Portland’s outlying neighborhoods are technically sub-urban, they’re a world apart from Levittowns. Also, when you say that nobody reading this should move to Portland (a sentiment echoed in countless comments on nearly every article I’ve read about PDX), do you really mean nobody? Or are you referring specifically to young creative types? I don’t mean that as a dig…what I’m wondering is if Portlanders (in general) are weary of the onslaught of that specific demographic, or of growth entirely. Would you object to an influx of foreign immigrants? Of venture capitalists? Of retirees? If so, why?

  12. Sherwood says:

    We need venture capitalists and more retirees would be nice. I am a foreign immigrant but it would be nice to attract a few more Indian engineer/entrepreneur types. The “creative class” are great, they help to make this the best beer town in the world and an amazing foody mecca, and there is a vast amount of potential contained within it. But, as has been mentioned, there are very few job openings in this town. We are attracting “hipsters” at a rate that only New York or LA could process successfully.

    Full disclosure: my family moved to Portland seven years ago. This was only possible as we bought a good job with us. The wife works for a company based in North Carolina, her home office is in San Diego, her boss is in England and her main client is in San Francisco. The world is shrinking.

  13. Nick says:

    Just to add Josh. Sherwood’s comment about moving here is sort of an inside joke for Oregonians.

    In a 1971 interview, then Governor, Tom McCall, said,

    “We want you to visit our State of Excitement often. Come again and again. But for heaven’s sake, don’t move here to live. Or if you do have to move in to live, don’t tell any of your neighbors where you are going. ”

    It is something we tell outsiders. We like this place because it is small. The City is a small city. When looking at it from across the river at night it is perfectly beautiful. Our Urban Growth Boundry is an expession of that attitude.

    Plus it is funny! :)


  14. Josh Grigsby says:

    I figured it was, but I’m always curious about what lies beneath such oft-repeated phrases. Thanks for taking the time to share (Nick, Sherwood, and everyone else). I appreciate it. You’ve got me thinking about all of this…

  15. KimJSCP says:

    Yes, for a “increasingly formal study”, that whole thing about the ‘burbs could not be further off base. I can’t think of, or find any definition of suburb that fits the areas mentioned. Look it up. Also basing so many or your conclusions on the least “Portland” of our neighborhoods is pretty short-sighted. I am glad you seemed to overall enjoy your 2 stays here, but unless you come and do not leave the Pearl, you might find the rest of Portland a little too funky for you.

    Oh, and what most people define as “hipsters” are just people here. It is not so much that they came, as we always had what are now called “hipsters”, but that the definition came.

    Please come back and see the rest of the city before you complete your formal study. Try hanging out at the food cart pod at 1 AM at SE 12th and Hawthorne for a real look at what the city is like.

    • Josh Grigsby says:

      As I said earlier, suburban is a broad term. Mostly, I’m referring here to the built environment. What is the median floor area ratio? What sort of density does the urban fabric have? How continuous is the street wall? Perhaps more importantly, does it look like a city? Or does it look like something less urbanized, something sub-urban? When you’re in New York or Tokyo, you know you’re in a city. Same with lower-rise, human scale areas like Boston’s Back Bay and nearly all of historic Paris. I tend to view cities as having a minimum population density of 10K/sq.mi combined with a minimum total population of around 500K. This is subjective, of course, and there are always exceptions.

      And what are now called hipsters may have always resided in Portland (though I doubt it—the trend is a recent one), but I spoke with dozens of them during my short trip and few were Portland-born. It’s true that Portland’s 20-29 demographic has actually decreased over the past decade, but the town is still a hipster Mecca. To clarify, I don’t mean hipster as a pejorative term, though I know it has increasingly become one, merely a demographic generalization.

  16. A metro area of 1.2 million people and not a city? If not people and things, by what esoteric standard does he have for what makes a city? If something doesn’t fit the theory, rethink the theory. Clearly he must be making this comment just to provoke.

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