Portland, Oregon

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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.”