Portland, Oregon


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.