The author of Planologie, a blog dedicated to considering the ways we live, build, move, and think, recently spent a few days in Portland, after also visiting Vancouver and Seattle.
It is a rare experience in the United States to travel between cities in a region as well as neighborhoods within cities without requiring an automobile. I recently spent ten days in the Pacific Northwest sans car, flying in and out of Seattle, riding trains between Seattle and Vancouver, Vancouver and Portland, and Portland and Seattle, and utilizing a combination of light rail, streetcars, buses, and my own two feet to explore the cities themselves.
In Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland by Rail, Bus, Streetcar, and Foot: Part One, he recounts his impression of Seattle. Part Two looks at Vancouver.
Part Three, published today, is about Portland.
Though a native, fan of, and defender of Portland, I tend to agree with some of his critical observations and generalizations. Yes, the Portland Streetcar is both a the most visible manifestation of urban planning in a city renowned for its prescient planning practices and at the same time the city’s urban core is so small I can cross it on foot with ease, and at an only slightly slower pace. (Though I dare say the streetcar can be quicker and more pleasant than traipsing from NW Portland to PSU or the South Waterfront in the rain.)
And I can’t much refute this:
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.
Though he dismisses all of Northeast and Southeast Portland, near Alberta, Division, or Hawthorne as suburban and composed of single family homes, and not part of the urban fabric, which makes me curious as to whether he visited any of them. For his next visit I would recommend spending some time in Westmoreland and Sellwood, Woodstock, Hollywood, Montavilla, Roseway, Goose Hollow, Boise, Beaumont-Wilshire, St. Johns, etc. My point being that Portland is a city of neighborhoods. Downtown, the Pearl, and NW are where the tourists generally wander, and most tourists are happy with that. But if a tourist is interested in the real urban fabric of Portland, he has to expand his horizons.
And I don’t see the McMenamin’s Kennedy School as anything like Main Street, USA at Disney World though. Or at least, knowing that the larger body of the McMenamins’ work, which mixes historic preservation with artifice and a dash of authenticity, is so unlike the artifice of Disney which just features . . . artifice, I can’t equate the two.
I do, however, agree with this:
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 in Portland, and the hype is not all smoke and mirrors.
My largest point of contention with the article is the conclusion. Portland is a small city, so comparing its central city with that of big-city Seattle is not interesting outside of that both cities are in the NW corner of the country. The economic woes of Portland the article outlines have been with us for decades now, and the hipsters only for the last decade or so. The economic woes will in all likelihood continue, but the hipsters will eventually migrate to the next hip city. The loss of the hipsters 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.