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Portland, Oregon

April 2024
12min read

It's a city framed by the breathtaking peaks of Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood, only a 30-minute bike ride from the lush farmland of the Willamette Valley, and driven by a powerful sense of community that allows its citizens to hold on to the best of its pioneer past while collaborating on the future. Randy Gragg explains why American Heritage’s Great American Place Award goes to...

ON THE LAST THURSDAY OF EVERY MONTH, ALBERTA STREET in Portland, Oregon, turns into a long buffet of grass-roots creativity. The energy was equaled only by the diversity on a recent spring night, when a Coltrane-blasting saxophonist led a parade of eco-activists dressed as endangered fish, and steps away, in front of a newly opened eighties-vintage glamour-rock fashion shop, a man blowing a long Aboriginal didjeridoo waved halos of sound over the heads of passersby. Across the street protesters played clandestinely acquired films of medical experiments conducted on monkeys on a TV screen on the side of a van.

Called simply Last Thursday, the event began five years ago as a group opening night for a handful of art galleries setting up shop on a street most Portlanders avoided. Twelve years ago Portland’s major banks were caught illegally redlining the neighborhood, refusing new mortgages for houses or businesses. Street vendors on Alberta Street mostly sold drugs or their bodies. Now the atmosphere is a vigorous blend of neo-sixties and turn-of-the-new-century cultural eclecticism.

The reasons for the district’s comeback are many, ranging from the last decade’s high economic tide, which reached even the city’s bleakest shores, to the fact that the 20- and 30-somethings who are gaining on baby boomers in Portland have made Alberta Street a central gathering spot. But the longer historic view might credit the new liveliness to the period in the 1920s when the streetcars that had begun running down Alberta Street in 1903 spawned its apartment-topped storefronts. In 1993 the city, collaborating with the neighborhood, adopted the Albina Community Plan (the area was once the City of Albina). Soon the area, ravaged by years of disinvestment, began supporting burgeoning life again with the nutrition of a little public investment and a lot of well-aimed private initiatives like Last Thursday.

Portland's gentle civitas is relatively recent. In its early years it was as boisterous as any Western city.

Much of what both visitors and locals come to cherish about Portland dates from the city’s early era of building and its more recent period of urban planning. When in 1845 Portland’s founders first platted the city in 200-by-200-foot blocks, they mandated an easily navigated layout of small buildings, a configuration celebrated today for its human scale and pedestrian friendliness. Virtually all of Portland’s first-generation neighborhoods grew up, like Alberta Street, around streetcar lines. But after watching the same slow drain to the suburbs most central cities suffered in the years after World War II, a group of young activists gained control of Portland in the early seventies and made the city a textbook on urban revitalization. They replaced the riverside highway with a waterfront park, created historic districts and vibrant new public spaces, lured retailers back to downtown, wrote strict urban design rules, and built light rail lines and new housing.

Few cities in the world, and certainly none in the American West, have created a tourist industry with their city-planning achievements. In downtown Portland, however, it is surprisingly common to see a city commissioner or bureaucrat guiding a delegation from another American metropolis or from Europe, China, or Japan to the town’s most important “historic” sites, like Pioneer Courthouse Square, Tom McCall Waterfront Park, light rail and Portland City Streetcar, all built in the last 30 years.


Two years before the 1972 Downtown Plan was passed, the New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable described Portland as a collection of “towers, bunkers and bombsites.” To celebrate the plan’s thirtieth anniversary, the city could adopt a new motto: “We planned. It worked.”

Like any city, Portland has its celebrated attractions, from the Oregon Zoo to Powell’s Books to the Classical Chinese Garden. But visitors and locals alike tend to savor the places to go less than the places to stroll, window-shop, drink coffee, and sample microbrews and wines. Routinely snubbing the proponents of large-scale urban visions, the city has made community-based planning an ethos, knitting together district, neighborhood, and street plans. As Charlie Hales, Portland’s former city commissioner—and sharpest crafter of sound-bites—likes to put it, “Other cities do things to be seen by the world; Portlanders do things for themselves.”

When I moved to Portland 12 years ago to take a job as the daily newspaper’s art critic, I arrived imagining the place as merely a slightly less developed Seattle, where I had lived for a decade. Very quickly I learned that even though Seattle and Portland are envisioned synonymously in the Saul Steinberg version of the West most Easterners hold in their minds, the northern “Emerald City” and its southern neighbor, the “Rose City,” are as different as minerals and vegetables. Portland’s late bon vivant historian Terence O’Donnell saw it this way: “Seattle and San Francisco were settled by people looking for gold. Portland was settled by people looking for Eden.” Melissa Rossi, chronicler of grunge-music culture (a movement that Seattle made famous but Portland started) offers an update. “Seattle,” she says, “is the guy you sleep with on the first date who never calls you again. Portland is the guy you go home with and then just move in.”


My initial frustrations with the city’s collective self-satisfaction and provincialism have been balanced by my amazement at its powerful sense of community. Despite a population of just over 500,000 (within a metropolitan area of two million), nearly anyone with the will, time, and collaborative spirit can have an effect. Whereas Seattle is a town that thinks it’s a city, Portland is a city that thinks it’s a town. The architect Louis Kahn, in fact, once called Portland’s downtown “lilliputian.” Visitors frequently refer to it as cute. A better way to think of it is as intimate.

What moved the founders Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy in 1845 to divide Portland into 200-foot squares? No one knows for sure. The decision probably was as arbitrary as the selection of the city’s name, the Maine-born Pettygrove’s Portland winning over Lovejoy’s Boston in a coin toss. Some historians claim the narrow grid grew from a mercantile urge to create more lucrative retail corners. Others think the densely forested site was simply too difficult to clear more than a little at a time. Whatever the reason, the resulting plat has imposed a certain modesty on Portland. Among large American cities only downtown Fort Worth shares such small blocks, and that Southern cousin quickly abandoned some of them as it grew. Despite the considerably lowered economies of scale in developing housing, offices, or even parking garages on 200-foot blocks today, Portland still treats its grid as if it had been divinely ordained.

PORTLAND’S GENTLE CIVITAS IS RELATIVELY RECENT. IN its early years it was as boisterous as any Western American city, celebrated for landmarks like Erickson’s, “the world’s longest bar,” and a floating whorehouse moored in the Willamette River. An early nickname was Stumptown for the considerably less than Edenic haircut the founders gave it.

As the first entrepreneurs grew rich selling supplies to the gold miners to the south, a New England-toned society of aesthetes, boosters, and patrons gradually emerged. Still, in most ways the forested frontier town didn’t really blossom until 1905, when to celebrate the centennial of Lewis and Clark’s epochal journey, Portland held the West Coast’s first major exposition.

With more than 3,000 citizens pledging money to mount the fair, the organizers transformed a 400-acre swamp in northwest Portland into a Spanish Renaissance-styled White City in the spirit of Chicago’s 1893 fair. John Olmsted, stepson of Frederick Law Olmsted, designed the site, and one of the architects was John Knox Taylor, who built the U.S. Treasury. The fair was packed with exhibitions from across the country and around the world—particularly the Far East—and drew more than a million visitors.

A growing number of restaurants have joined in a “Chefs Collaborative” to help support small local farms.

But whereas Philadelphia and Seattle retained elements of their Beaux Arts-inspired fairgrounds, Portland erased most of the evidence. The Olmsted brothers’ plan for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle became the core of the University of Washington campus, but Portland’s original Lewis and Clark grounds are submerged by an industrial area. A few structures were moved to other locations, among them the National Cash Register Building, now in business across the river as the St. John’s Pub.

Nevertheless, the fair’s impact as a catalyst for physical and cultural growth is visible everywhere in Portland. During the decade immediately following, the city’s westside neighborhoods grew by more than 50 percent, to 96,000 residents, the eastside by more than 500 percent» to 178,000. A city core once dominated by houses gave way to a financial district and a downtown of terra-cotta department stores. This was the era that spurred the growth of Portland’s interconnected streetcar neighborhoods.

During the three decades after the fair, Portlanders exhibited a worldly and ambitious streak rarely seen since. This was the period when a group of citizens banded together to build the Columbia River Highway. In the brief time before it became clogged with automobiles, its picturesque curves and basalt tunnels and guardrails (the latter built by imported Italian stonemasons) instantly made it known as one of the most beautiful roads in the world. As cars got faster in the 1930s though, the winding road became obsolete, and in the subsequent decades several sections were destroyed or abandoned to make way for what is now 1-84. There are parts of the original highway that you can still drive, bike, and even hike. Worth seeing for its craftsmanship alone, the roadway also marks the beginning of efforts to preserve and beautify the Columbia Gorge.

A principal sponsor of the highway, the lumberman Simon Benson, also made his mark in Portland when he built one of the city’s finest hotels, the terra-cotta-laced Benson. The four-armed fountains he donated to the city stand on many a downtown corner. Known as “Benson bubblers,” they are one of the great symbols of both Portland’s hospitality and its closeness to the natural world, running continuously (except in freezes and droughts) with the waters of the city’s pristine reservoirs at Bull Run.

Protofeminists like the librarian Mary Isom and the museum curator Anna Crocker broadened public accessibility and educational programming at their institutions, which were housed in bold new buildings designed by Albert E. Doyle and his associate Pietro Belluschi. Belluschi’s 1932 Portland Art Museum, with its skylights and its big windows that allow passersby on the sidewalks a glimpse into the galleries, was easily the most radically modern museum in the country. With his equally progressive residential and church designs, Belluschi, together with a small group of colleagues, pioneered the Northwest’s only native architectural movement. The Northwest regional style, a homegrown version of European modernism, blended cool, functional forms with the warmth of wood and careful siting of the buildings in the landscape.

Completed in the early 1920s, the Columbia River Highway is one of the world’s most beautiful roads.

A LONG, STEADY RELATIONSHIP WITH THE LAND AND, IN particular, with volcanoes, created twentieth-century Portland. Ancient basaltic flows from eastern Oregon shaped much of the western part of the state, including the ridges that rise immediately adjacent to downtown. The later eruptions of volcanoes dotting the Cascade Range, including, of course, the most recent explosion of nearby Mount St. Helens, have turned the Willamette Valley into some of the most productive land in the world. The ability to grow almost anything in that soil is partly what drew Oregon’s Eden-seekers in the first place. The urge to protect the land is what brought on the urban-planning decisions the state and city have made.


In 1973 a Republican-led state government adopted Senate Bill 100, which led to the establishment of Portland’s famed “urban growth boundary” and, eventually, to the creation of Metro, the regional government that, among other duties, guides growth for the 24 municipalities in the Portland metropolitan area. Land outside the boundary is zoned exclusively for farming, forests, and, accordingly, taxed much lower. The result has made the state a pioneer in so-called (and, ironically, usually liberal) “smart-growth” controls of suburban sprawl.

Besides making possible a compact city where farm-lined roads can be reached in a 30-minute bike ride from the city center, Oregon’s controls in recent years have seeded a culinary revolution. Greens, vegetables, and herbs plucked in the morning can be served for lunch in downtown Portland. Restaurants like Paley’s Place, Higgins, Wildwood, and Bluehour are turning up on national critics’ top-10 lists. Gourmet magazine recently devoted a 10-page spread to Portland’s restaurants and neighborhood farmers’ markets. Hillsides that could easily have become targets for housing developers are covered in grapevines that in just a few decades have sprouted a $200-million-a-year wine industry that now routinely competes for top awards with California’s.

The Downtown Plan’s most significant accomplishment may be its taming of the automobile.

The picturesque monoliths of Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood have affected the city in other ways as well. Portland is distinguished by its “view corridors,” whereby city zoning establishes maximum heights for buildings to preserve views of the mountains and other scenery. These allow those postcard shots of Portland—from Vista Bridge, Washington Park, and Terwilliger Boulevard —in which the skyline shapes a nest for the mountains.

Geology has also played a less direct role in Portland’s revitalization. The development of most American cities has followed a pattern urban planners call the “favored corridor,” with new office parks, housing tracts, and malls leapfrogging one another farther and farther from downtown. In Portland, homes on the ridges have always been prized for the spectacular views they offer. Consequently, their owners haven’t fled to the suburbs, and a strong population of upper- and middle-class families lives just a few minutes’ drive from downtown, attending city schools and shopping in local stores.

A cool way to see all of Portland quickly is to take the Gray Line buses that tour downtown and run up into the hills and out to the city’s lush parks. But another option, unique to any Western American city, is to step off an airplane and onto Air MAX, the newest light-rail spur. Leaving Portland International Airport every 15 minutes, the train quickly intersects with Eastside MAX, which was built in the 1980s, when state and city officials persuaded the federal Department of Transportation to transfer money intended for a freeway.

Half an hour later Air MAX arrives at the Oregon Convention Center and the Rose Garden Arena, the city’s top concert venue and home to the Portland Trailblazers. In 2004 a new light-rail leg will head north from the Rose Garden all the way to the Columbia River, where the city hopes a line from Vancouver, Washington, will eventually meet it halfway across.

From the convention center, the train begins what is in effect a tour of the measures outlined in the city’s 1972 Downtown Plan. The Steel Bridge offers a first glimpse of Tom McCall Waterfront Park, named for the governor who audaciously jackhammered away the unsightly riverside freeway. The first downtown stops are in Old Town and the Yamhill Historic District, which between them have America’s largest collection of cast-iron buildings outside Manhattan’s SoHo. A couple of stops later is Pioneer Place, one of the first of the downtown festival marketplaces that have enhanced so many cities since. Next stop is Pioneer Courthouse Square, which, complete with its speaker’s podium, has become the Hyde Park of Portland.

There, the line connects to the first new streetcar line built in the United States since World War II. It takes you on a 2 ½-mile loop, south to Portland State University or north to the hip new urban village known as the Pearl District, and on to the city’s most popular shopping and restaurant neighborhood, Northwest. Continue on Westside MAX toward Washington Park via the deepest underground transit station in the country, and on to the western suburbs, where the so-called silicon forest of high-tech factories has sprouted. If Portland seems transportation-obsessed, consider what first gave the city its competitive edge as both a port and the region’s top agricultural exporter. Beating all the other little villages along the Willamette River to the punch, the city founders built a wood-plank road through the muddy West Hills, directly linking the Tualatin Valley farms to the town.

BUT THE FORMS OF TRANSPORTATION THAT MOST EN- courage the modern city’s health—that is to say, the health of its citizenry—are foot and, more recently, bicycle. The Downtown Plan’s most significant accomplishment may be its taming of the automobile. Today, thanks to the guidelines first set down in the 1972 plan, virtually all of Portland’s buildings, even its parking garages, feature ground level retail spaces, turning every sidewalk into a true pedestrian experience. Curb extensions throughout the city make the city’s already narrow streets (20 to 60 feet wide at the broadest) yet more crossable. Small wonder Portland is now the sneaker-design capital of the world, headquarters for both Nike and Adidas America. Meantime, the city has become something of a bicycling nirvana. More than 16,000 cyclists turned out for last year’s Providence Bridge Pedal, an annual August event. The city’s 255 miles of bike lanes and dedicated paths have made Bicycling magazine’s annual “best bicycling city” award into a contest solely for second place.

As Portland stacks up prizes and press ranging from Money magazine’s 2000 “most livable city” award to a recent spread in the fashion magazine W, its problems are all too easy to dismiss. During the 1990s the gap between rich and poor grew faster in Oregon than any place in the country except Rhode Island. Recently the state’s unemployment rate slid to highest in the nation, and Portland is suffering from Oregon’s worst recession in 20 years. Andres Duany, the leader of the New Urbanism movement (which Portland started long before it was called that), lauds the city’s downtown but correctly criticizes its outer areas for duplicating “suburban sprawl anywhere.” Some studies peg Portland’s traffic congestion as high as eighth in the nation. Even the city’s light-rail system feels its limits, particularly on weekends when it becomes the shoppers’ commuter line. The trains can be only as long as downtown Portland’s 200-foot blocks, bolstering the rail critics’ argument that they are a toy city’s toy trains.

With new light rail soon to open to the north and the neighborhoods like Alberta Street growing in popularity, longtime residents, particularly African-Americans whose neighborhoods were redlined for 40 years, now worry about gentrification. In many ways the city’s overwhelming whiteness has been as important as its middle and upper classes’ downtown views in creating the culture of agreement behind its urban-planning successes. And that very whiteness is a vestige of an earlier era when the city could simply displace its poorer residents when it chose. Still, compared with Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, Portland has the least expensive housing on the West Coast. That has made it a magnet for youth and for artists, from successful movie makers like Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant (the latter a native who recently moved back) to the scores of younger artists plying their creativity through venues like Alberta Street’s Last Thursday. With more than 70 commercial galleries, Portland’s art scene is already far larger than that of most cities its size.

In the end, Portland, with its tight zoning and design controls, its multiplying transportation options, and its lilliputian urbanity, is just another American experiment. But if a city is best measured by its citizens’ sense of well-being and spirit of community, a telling statistic may have emerged during last Christmas’s shopping season. As an uncertain economy and fears of terrorism kept shoppers at home and sales plummeting across the country, including in Portland’s own suburban malls, both parking and pedestrian traffic in the city’s downtown went up.


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