Just Big Enough

Portland was a promising and livable city when I arrived in 1978. In 2016 it’s an exciting and livable city.

It helps that it’s bigger. When we got here, I offended people by telling them that I liked Portland because it was a large city. “No!” they said, “No! We’re not a big city. We’re just a large town.” I was surprised. What I thought was a compliment was taken as an insult—as if I were saying that Portland was Los Angeles.

I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, and I’m sticking to it.

Size brings critical mass for businesses and activities. Portland has a vibrant—if constantly shifting—restaurant scene because the pool of diner-outers is large enough to support them. The same goes for music, theater, film festivals, book stores, and other cultural institutions. It goes for themed charter schools, model railroad buffs, fans of 1950s architecture, and every other activity that requires customers or participants. Sports entrepreneurs know what they’re talking about when they rank metropolitan areas as markets to measure their suitability for an NBA or MLS franchise.

Size also lets business sectors develop an abundance of skilled and knowledgeable workers. If the city is large enough to support a wide array of good brewpubs, it automatically has a skilled pool of brewmasters to further advance the art and craft. A flourishing electronics industry depends on the availability of computer engineers who can move from one company to another. Metal fabricators, animators, sound technicians—a large city has pools of talented people who can staff and support new ventures.

How big is big enough? As far as I’m concerned, a metropolitan area of a million people just barely makes the cut (that’s Portland in the 1970s). Two million is a whole lot better (that’s Portland today).

Here are some off the cuff comparisons: Spokane, Boise, and Fresno aren’t big enough. They’re more likely to have one or two of something than a wide variety. Salt Lake City has just edged into OK-ness in the current century, but Seattle passed the two-million mark back in the 1970s and Denver did it around 1990.

More than anything else, size brings variety of people. Cities are huge machines for making connections. You can call a city a market, a switchboard, or a search engine. Whatever the metaphor, we have cities because they make it easy for us to exchange things and ideas, and the build new things and ideas as a result. Big is good because of simple mathematics—more people with ideas mean more possible combinations and permutations of those ideas.

More than a century and a half ago, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill had it down. In The Principles of Political Economy (1848) he wrote: “It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Such communication has always been… one of the primary sources of progress.”

J. S. Mill was a very smart guy, and as far as I’m concerned, he nailed it. We go to the country to relax. We come to the city to get ideas.

How Scanners Democratize History

How Scanners Democratize History

Upstairs at the Rialto Poolroom Bar and Café in downtown Portland, Oregon hip young adults are eating, drinking, and occasionally shooting pool. Downstairs another fifty people are eating, drinking, and listening to me lecture about the Lewis and Clark Exposition, the world’s fair staged in Portland in 1905. The audience includes a few students, some history buffs, and a meet-up group of 40ish and 50ish singles. I click away with my PowerPoint, they eat nachos and sip wine, and we all have a good time.

It’s June 21, 2011, and the first in a monthly series of Stumptown Stories sponsored by the Oregon Encyclopedia, an online project to create a reliable peer-reviewed reference on Oregon history. The encyclopedia’s editors are advocates of public history who see this sort of event as a way to generate ideas for entries, interest potential contributors, and inform the community. Speakers in the series have discussed topics like the Portland Longshore Strike of 1934 and lesbian communes in 1970s Oregon. The presenters have been academics, journalists, students, and history aficionados.
And that’s not all. The Oregon Historical Society sponsors a monthly History Pub lecture at McMenamins-Kennedy School, a trendy bar-restaurant-hotel-theater located in a 1920s elementary school building. McMenamins is a chain of brewpubs that likes to recycle old buildings and has its own skilled historian on staff. The Oregon Encyclopedia has its own arrangements for lectures in two other McMenamins locations in Portland and another series in the central Oregon city of Bend. Portland Monthly, a slick lifestyle magazine, sponsors a monthly discussion in another downtown club on urban design and planning with periodic invitations for local historians to provide historical context for such issues as downtown redevelopment.

Give much of the credit to the folks who developed optical scanners and yes, I hate to say so, PowerPoint for this explosion of historical activity. There has always been an appetite for local history. We might even call it a gateway drug for an interest in wider historical topics (along with the Civil War, of course). What’s new is the ease with which anyone with a computer and internet connection can access scanned documents and images—or perhaps scan their own—and join the public conversation as a blogger, lecturer, web site maven, or gadfly.

Scanners—the machines and the people who like to use them—are democratizing history, opening new opportunities for academic historians like me to reach new audiences and to interact with people producing and consuming history.

Scanners Democratize Access

Like many historians, I have somewhat fond memories of sitting in real archives on very hard wooden chairs paging through old books and opening folders stuffed with potentially fascinating letters and memos. The Newberry; the Huntington; the Library of Congress; local history rooms in public libraries in Washington, Norfolk, Denver, and other cities—they’ve all contributed to my historian persona.

But isn’t it nice to call up documents on screen? From the National Archives to university special collections departments, from state historical societies to custodians of archeological sites, keepers of historical information are scanning vast quantities of documents and images for their web sites. What historian of the United States hasn’t clicked into the American Memory site of the Library of Congress or other similar web sites to grab a map or picture for a lecture, identify documents for class assignments, or find an illustration for a book? And more to the point, what “amateur” history blogger hasn’t done the same, with exactly the same access and ability to dig up gems as someone who used to be privileged with access to academic archives?

I’ve written two studies of the development of cities in western North America, each peppered (or spiced?) with visual images.1 For the book that I wrote in the early 1990s, I was lucky enough to receive a small university research grant that let me visit photo archives around the West—the University of Washington Special Collections, the Montana Historical Society, the Denver Public Library, the Los Alamos Historical Society. Fifteen years later, I sat at my computer and clicked through menus of scanned images helpfully posted by the same historical organizations and many others. It was a great road trip the first time around, but the new technology would now allow anyone to replicate my search without putting expensive miles on their car.

Private collections of images and letters as well as the contents of public archives can now be made readily available. I recently wrote an overview history of Portland for general readers.2 Half the pictures came from private collectors who have assembled thousands of images: One buys up the files of defunct photographic studios and newspapers. Another scours garage sales and used book stores. These collectors have digitized their photographs for quick sharing with students, bloggers, and other people with the history bug. One of them commented that he simply wouldn’t be able to inventory and share his materials so generously if they weren’t in electronic form.

One of my students, Tanya March, recently drew on these same private collectors in researching her doctoral dissertation about the construction and social life of a World War II housing project for shipyard workers in Portland. She also monitors eBay for relevant images and creatively tapped new sources by sponsoring reunions of residents—who of course were children in the early 1940s. Many of them brought out photo albums from their attics. Tanya borrowed and scanned photos, posted some on a web site that attracted more people for interviews, and thus uncovered more images to scan and post. Her scanner was an important tool of research that helped to make the former residents co-producers of the community history.

Scanners Improve Lectures

Does PowerPoint make for more engaging lectures than a carousel of 35-millimeter slides? A few years ago I was skeptical, particularly after reading Edward Tufte’s denunciation of PowerPoint as a cognitive straitjacket.3 Now I’m converted for the simple reason of ease and richness of imagery. One of my special interests is the history of the Columbia River Gorge, its development for tourism, and its regulation as a National Scenic Area. Last year when I did one of those McMenamins lectures, I put the presentation together by scanning some black and white glossy prints that have been in my files for 20 years and pulling other images from half a dozen different web sites (special appreciation to the staff historians at the Oregon Department of Transportation). The message was my own interpretation of the role of “imperial” urban centers in the development of tourism, but the medium was a PowerPoint drawn from open access websites.

We can generalize. Our local proliferation of lectures and history nights wouldn’t be possible without the wealth of images on the web. Some of the presenters have their own collections. Others pick and choose from the millions of images online. Audiences come to learn from words, but they also expect pictures—and lots of them. When I talk about Portland’s changing neighborhoods, do listeners come for the carefully gathered statistics on ethnicity from the 1900 census that I find so interesting? Or do they come for the pictures of vanished houses and turn-of-the-century trolley cars? The whole, I hope, is more than the sum of its parts, but it is the abundance of scanned images that grabs the attention.

The availability of images is a great equalizer that smooths the disconnect between academic and popular approaches. It’s one thing for me to talk about Henri Lefebvre in a graduate seminar, another to use “before and after” images of a vanished African American neighborhood to help an audience think about Lefebvre’s “right to the city” without necessarily using those words. Moreover, audiences at the various presentations find it hard to tell the difference between university historians, public historians, and community historians if we all have decent PowerPoints.

A Website of One’s Own

Web sites and blogs are easier than old-fashioned self-publishing. If you have amassed interesting information that you couldn’t fit in your MA thesis, post it on a website. If you want more than a dozen people to read your actual thesis, post it as well—a good alternative to going through the scholarly publishing routine if you are not aiming at an academic career. This sort of posting, of course, is far more attractive if it includes lots of scanned images and documents. Graduates of Portland State’s MA program in public history sometimes supplement their thesis with a web site.4 While she works on shaping her dissertation research into publications about the history of childhood, Tanya March maintains a web site on her housing project.5

People who have never been interested in a graduate history degree can also take their collection of postcards, scan them, and put them up. If you are fascinated with old buildings or old neighborhoods, put up pictures and scan in old documents… blog about what you know… invite comments to fill in details and start a discussion. Portland has half a dozen interesting history blogs, all relying on scanned images for much of their impact. They’re not always interested in how the details fit into larger narratives, but they repeatedly teach me new things about a city I’ve been studying for three decades.6 They’re also a reminder that I need more pictures for my own web site where I’ve largely been posting op-ed columns and shorter magazine writing.

Historians All

here is even more community history going on, of course. As I write, historic preservation activists have just completed a neighborhood National Register Nomination to which I’ve contributed. Community historians have recently published several solidly documented architectural and neighborhood histories. Graduates of Portland State University’s public history program are preserving documentaries made in the 1970s and presenting them with framing commentary by architects and historians—sometimes with their own sets of scanned images. Historical walking tours are available in flavors from traditional to twenty-something hip. Residents and tourists can visit not only the Oregon Historical Society but also the Architectural Heritage Center (which has its own public programs), Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, and Oregon Jewish Museum (which recently cooperated on very cool programming about Mel Blanc, the Portland native who voiced Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig).

Carl Becker delivered my favorite American Historical Association presidential address eight decades ago, reminding his audience that we are all historians in the most basic sense of constructing temporal stories from the chaos of events:

Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research. Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history.7

Becker was thinking in theoretical and political terms about the production and validation of knowledge, but the ubiquitous scanner is now helping to give concrete form to his point about the democratic basis of historical understanding. Scanners are an active technology for research and dissemination of historical information. They are also a metaphor for a changing world in which the historical enterprise is increasingly available for everyone. The result, at least in my city, has been burgeoning popular consumption and production of history. I find it exciting. Without abandoning specialized academic and monographic history, we have great opportunities to encourage, cooperate, and partner with the non-academic and community historians to help history do its work in the world.

1. The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993); How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008).
2. Portland in Three Centuries: The Place and the People (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2011).
3. Edward Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press, 2003).
4. Sarah Paulsen. ” The Oaks in the Progressive Era.”
5. Tanya Lyn March. “Guild’s Lake Courts.”
6. Examples from Portland include the very interesting blog Cafe Unknown, the extensive Historic Photo Archive, and the historic photo blog Vintage Portland.
7. Carl Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian,” American Historical Review, 37, no.2 (January 1932): 234.
Copyright © American Historical Association

Science fiction cities

I’ve recently finished a book about science fiction cities–the urban types that appear and reappear in science fiction novels, films and television. It’s in the hands of Wesleyan University Press for publication in a year or so (academic publishing is not quick). In the meanwhile, you can find a preview of my ideas in an article on “Science Fiction Cities” in Deletion: The Open Access Online Forum in Science Fiction, Episode 2. Deletion is a fascinating online journal out of Australia. My piece is here: http://www.deletionscifi.org/episodes/episode-2/science-fiction-cities/

Distributed Cities

We are accustomed to thinking of cities as occupying a single contiguous stretch of landscape. But what if future cities might consist of separate pieces, separated by distance but functioning as a whole. In an article on the online magazine Clarkesworld, I explore a few examples from the world of science fiction novels and television (think Battlestar Galactica). The article is at www.clarkesworldmagazine.com/abbott_01_14.

Portland the TV Star

A few months ago, a writer for Portland’s Metroscape magazine interviewed me and Karin Magaldi from the Portland State theater department. The topic was Portland’s new-found presence in television shows filmed here: Leverage, Grimm, and, of course, Portlandia. The city doesn’t yet stack up to Vancouver, BC, but it is still an interesting development in Portland’s evolution to a sophisticated metropolis.

Read the article here: http://www.pageturnpro.com/Inst-Portland-Metro-Studies,-Portland-State-University/47669-Metroscape-2013-Winter/index.html#1

College football and American regions

I recently published a blog on the way that the lure of BCS dollars has undermined the historic connection between college athletic conferences and traditional American regions.

See it at http://hnn.us/articles/why-penn-state-playing-football-midwest-anyway.

The Best Thing about Portland

The Best Thing about Portland

What’s in common among East Burnside Street, Lombard ,Sandy, Belmont, Hawthorne, NW Twenty-First, SE Milwaukie? The answer: neighborhood movie theaters that have survived suburbanization, television, and Netflix.

When I arrived in 1978, neighborhood theaters were the second distinctive thing I noticed about Portland distinctive (all those bridges were the first, of course). Neighborhood theaters are signs of a vibrant city. They’re the spotted owls of urban life, an indicator species for a rich ecology of neighborhood oriented businesses and services. Local theaters that still showed family films were already extraordinary for most cities by the 1970s, but not in Portland. Many of the theaters are still here, admittedly improved by beer and pizza and augmented by cool conversions by McMenanins.

The neighborhood business districts are still here as well. They’ve changed—no surprise—starting with Southeast Hawthorne. Twenty-five years ago I told students that Portland would be “fixed” when Alberta Street was thriving. North Mississippi as a hip hotspot didn’t occur to me. Neighborhood business strips are such a strong component of the Portland economy that we’re not only recycling the streetcar era districts but creating new ones from whole cloth—North Williams, go figure.

I’ve been able to watch the transformation at NE Fifteenth and Fremont, a five minute walk from my house. This corner was up for grabs a quarter century ago–where the working class Sabin neighborhood bumped up against middle class Irvington, where African American Albina met the white world of Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby.

The corner’s retail history dates to the 1920s, when new drugstores, groceries, and barber shops served the growing streetcar neighborhoods.

Forty years later, as suburbs boomed and city leaders worried, the city helped developers clear two blocks for a suburban style strip mall. This was supposed to be a Good Thing, like a micro version of the half-assed Renaissance Center in Detroit, but the main tenant was a ghetto grocery where lettuce went to die under the watchful eyes of security guards.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the ghetto grocery is now Whole Foods. The Albina Branch Library does a thriving business. The very basic dry cleaner and Laundromat have given way to a bird seed shop, veterinarian, and computer repair. Police officers hang out at Starbucks (so much for doughnut jokes). The storefront church and the African American barber shop have been replaced by restaurants, gift stores, and a holistic counselor.

So what’s happening? Gentrification? For sure. There was a tipping point about a dozen years ago when we began to see more white people than black people along Fremont east from Fifteenth. Then there were as many white guys as black guys playing basketball at Irving Park. And a resale store aimed at 20ish people trying to furnish their apartments replaced Mrs. C’s Wig Shop at Fremont and Seventh. There’s only one black-oriented business remaining.

But commercial gentrification is also neighborhood recycling. The 1920s storefronts have different businesses, but they have also survived, and the blocks are a walking destination for two neighborhoods—a model of sorts for the post-petroleum city.

Oregon Transportation and Land use Tales

Oregon’s Transportation and Land Use Tales

To look at how buses, light rail, street cars, and bicycling have all become prominent modes in Portland, you need to trace back to important land use decisions made three decades ago. In 1974, Oregon adopted statewide land use planning goals. These goals shifted planning efforts away from freeway-building, toward investment in alternative forms of transportation. Since then, Oregon has been a leader in pushing back against car-centric landscapes and lifestyles. In this OTREC project, Professor Carl Abbott and Sam Lowry of Portland State University traced the history of land use and transportation planning in Oregon from 1890-1974. One of the project’s aims is to make transportation planning relevant and compelling to a broad audience. To do so, Abbott and Lowry gathered stories and information from a wide range of sources who enthusiastically shared their knowledge of transportation history. You can download the report to read more: Final Report: http://otrec.us/project/138.

Local comment on a controversial highway project

The Oregonian, September 27, 2011

One More Columbia River Crossing Idiocy

Portland’s leaders have rejected an opportunity to save hundreds of millions of public dollars to protect a speculative private investment of $30 million.

That’s what The Oregonian reported in its front-page story on Sept. 25. A massive new Hayden Island interchange will wipe out dozens of existing businesses for the potential benefit of a long-marginal Jantzen Beach shopping district. Meanwhile, the far more economical option of zapping the new interchange and building a separate, smaller bridge for Hayden Island access is off the table because of pressure from the Jantzen Beach investor.

There are many, many things wrong with the Columbia River Crossing project (it doesn’t exactly fix Marquam Bridge congestion or Rose Quarter congestion, for example), but this latest report is one of the stupidest decisions in a long time. The region does not need Jantzen Beach shopping, as evidenced by the struggles of its stores. Washingtonians who want to duck sales taxes can easily drive to the Delta Park big-box center, where Walmart may soon appear, and to what I call the Ikea Corridor, where big-box stores have been sprouting like mushrooms (check it out if you haven’t been there in a couple of years).

I fear that City Council may not get a basic fact about retailing that even Henry Ford understood: Retail space does not create retail jobs; customer demand creates retail jobs.

When Walmart opens in a small town, it does not create new jobs — it relocates them by forcing the downsizing or closure of smaller existing stores. Business consultants have simple formulas that translate disposable income into support for retail floor space category by category (100 families can support more grocery store space than bagel shop space). I’ve been teaching about this at Portland State University for three decades in a class on “Downtown Revitalization.”

The way to get more retail jobs is to get more basic jobs. Increase employment in basic industries like manufacturing or even university graduate programs that attract students from out of the region (just to put in a plug) and there will be more consumer dollars to spend on microbrews, bicycles, food carts … and Walmart and Target and Ikea and on and on.

The Greatest Hits in Urban Theory

A couple years back, the somewhat opinionated website Planetizen asked its readers to nominate “top urban thinkers” and compiled the resulting list of votes from Jane Jacobs at Number 1 (no surprise here) to Henry Ford at Number 100 (his “thought,” presumably, being to sell Model-T’s cheaply).

There’s nothing scientific about the poll. It was subject to the peculiar tastes of the respondents and, possibly, to vote packing like the old system for choosing the baseball All-Star team. In retrospect, were fans paying attention in 1955 when they picked Don Mueller and Del Ennis to start in the outfield ahead of Willie Mays and Henry Aaron (I’m fine with Duke Snider in center)?

There are plenty of curious omissions to complain about—Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Christopher Wren, Jean Gottmann, Catherine Bauer, Jane Addams, and Saul Alinsky to name a few. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. got votes but not his brother John Charles Olmsted. For my own taste as a historian, the list is excessively present-minded. There are too many transportation planners and urban morphologists and not enough activists of the Addams or Alinsky sort, almost no historians of cities, and curious omissions from the social sciences such as Louis Wirth.

It is also tempting to rant about the rankings. Should Clifford Alexander’s neo-Platonic ideas about idealized and abstracted design principles really outpoint the practical wisdom of Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham, with their rich experience of actually making urban spaces? Should polemicist James Howard Kunstler, who is stronger on sound bites than analysis, or parking specialist Donald Shoup, whose excellent ideas have yet to be implemented, come in above the hugely influential Ebenezer Howard?

It’s more instructive, however, and much more fun, to use the juxtapositions in the list as thought experiments.

My own Congressman Earl Blumenauer, an effective advocate for rail transit and compact cities, comes in one notch above Thomas Jefferson. I personally prefer Earl’s pro-urban ideas to Tom’s anti-urban bias, but the ex-president has surely been the more influential over the centuries—there is not yet a Mount Blumenauer or Blumenauer County in Oregon or a Blumenauer High School in Portland. Maybe we need to run Earl for President so he can catch up.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant comes in just above George-Eugene Haussmann. Well, they were both French, and both helped to shape national capitals, but we have to admit that Haussmann got more done and almost certainly influenced more city planning and reconstruction than L’Enfant. If Haussmann, moreover, perhaps the list also needs Albert Speer.

I see some battles shaping up if we were to think of the list as a queue of experts waiting to get into an urbanology convention. The patrician top-down designer Edmund Bacon would find himself standing next to radical rabble-rouser and critic Mike Davis. It would be fun to listen in on their argument. Equity planner Norman Krumholz would be sandwiched between global theoretician Saskia Sassen and Frank Lloyd Wright. Could Norm’s arguments for equity penetrate Wright’s enormous armor of ego?

And what about numbers 58 through 63. Think about gathering Walter Benjamin, Walt Disney, Buckminster Fuller, James Rouse, Henry George, and Wendell Berry (how is he an urban thinker???) around the same table. Would Disney and Fuller strike up an alliance of the technocratic utopians? Jim Rouse and Henry George both shared the goal of social justice, but what would the real estate developer have to say about a single tax on land? And wouldn’t it be fun to hear what Benjamin might have to say about Euro Disney. S.C.A. and the possibilities for the flaneur at Disneyland Paris?

We haven’t exhausted the possibilities. In fact, I’m thinking about a new way to organize my class on the “History and Theory of Urban Studies” around the debates implicit in the next-door neighbors on the list: Jacob Riis versus Prince Charles, Henri Lefebvre versus Richard Florida, Paolo Soleri versus Anthony Downs, Robert Moses versus Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio versus Ernest Burgess. Let them have at it, in English or in Latin.