Portland, Oregon


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.