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.
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.
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.
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.