Portland, Oregon


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.