Lines on the land, castles in the air

Drive up Burnside to Skyline Drive, head north for a few hundred yards, and park by the State of Oregon sign on the west side of the road. At the bottom of a winding path is one of Oregon’s more curious state parks. A marker in the middle of a concrete pad commemorates the “Willamette Stone.” That’s not the famous meteor, but the remnant of a granite post that marked the zero point for dividing Oregon and Washington into saleable real estate.

Portland’s founding generations staked their claim to the city and state by literal inscription. Starting from the Willamette Stone, surveyors ran a grid of range and township lines that parceled out the face of the land itself. They followed by clearing pathways on the valleys and hills that quickly grew edges of stone, brick, and mortar and soon enough with railroads that left traces of steel across the landscape. . With land survey lines and then rail lines, our predecessors marked the face of the Oregon and anchored those marks with monuments in stone, brick, and mortar.

The central survey meridian runs north and south (crossing the Columbia just west of Vancouver Lake). The east-west baseline runs straight and true from the Pacific into Idaho. It’s unmistakable in Portland because it lives an active life as Stark Street from Burnside Street past the Benson Hotel, across the Willamette through Southeast Portland and on to Mount Hood Community College. Across the Sandy River it ducks into the forests on Mount Hood’s north flank but suddenly reappears in Hood River County as Baseline Road cutting straight as an arrow shot past the Parkdale post office and McIsaac’s store and on another 300 miles to Hell’s Canyon. Looking west we can follow it through the centers of Hillsboro and Forest Grove and on to Bay City. Back in town, we all recognize the streets that count off in mile increments from the baseline—Division and Holgate in one direction, Fremont, and Killingsworth in another.

As 19th century wore on, Westerners began marking the land more vertically. The Union Pacific smokestack, for instance, rose brick by brick from the Albina railyards in North Portland in 1887. It anchored the freight yards where railroads from California and transcontinental lines through the Columbia River Gorge first linked up. On a busy day in the late nineteenth century, up to a thousand rail cars rolled in and out of Portland. Nearby was the Pacific Coast Elevator, whose 1,000,000 bushel capacity was unrivaled this side of the Twin Cities, able to simultaneously unload grain from eight rail cars while loading it into two ships. The smokestack for the railroad shops and roundhouse was built, said the Pacific Monthly, on “a foundation that would last for all time.” It has its counterpart in the Garibaldi smokestack along highway 101, the last remnant of the Hammond Lumber Company’s mill.

Skip a century to 2009 and we make our claims differently, not with lines on the ground but with ephemeral traces in the air. There are still points of physical attachment—microwave relays on lonely mountain tops, cell phone towers, the PDX control tower—but spaces they define are virtually invisible.

We know that jets have flight paths that keep Alaska 123 from bumping into United 456 and Southwest 679, but we can’t see them. Sometimes we may hear them, like Horizon flights that sometimes swoop low over my Northeast Portland house or the big bellowing jets when storms force use of the crosswind runway, but where exactly are their paths. All we can see are contrails high in the sky, pointing toward Dallas or Denver but already melting into air. Even the new control tower seems to float against its blue backdrop, a big knob at the end of a thin pillar

The mysterious cells of phone coverage are even less palpable. Has our phone started to roam? Is our call breaking up? Where are we? Where’s our service coming from? We can see transmitters perched on towers and rooftops, but which satellites they talk to? Who do they serve?

Back on the crest of the West Hills, the Willamette Stone rests in the shadow of a cluster of Portland’s tallest red-and-white broadcast towers, where television and radio stations have been transmitting since 1956 (with a brief interruption when the Columbus Day storm of 1962 toppled the first KGW tower). The centuries meet here, the solid stone that anchored pioneer settlement and the soaring steel lattice work that casts its intangible network of information across the same landscape.

Families in Bronze

Who do we see when we wander through Portland’s parks? We encounter joggers and walkers, dogs on leash and off, kids and picnickers, soccer players and softball players, and an occasional homeless person salvaging returnable cans or curled up in a quiet corner. We see individuals. We see teams. We see families—families in the flesh and, if we’re in the right places, frozen families cast in bronze.

Who are these silent families who have become our permanent neighbors? What were they up to? Would we want to invite them home for dinner? Whether we look at them in passing or pause to ponder them, what do they tell us about ourselves and the way we understand our community?

In the very center of Portland is “The Promised Land,” an imposing curiosity that has finally found a home in Chapman Square. It was commissioned in the 1990s by the Oregon Trail Coordinating Committee, funded with private contributions, and deposited on the doorstep of a somewhat surprised Oregon Historical Society. Pioneer father, mother, and son stand together peering toward their future home in the Edenic Willamette Valley at the end of the Oregon Trail. Portlanders did not universally applaud either the sentiment or its sculptural expression. Some thought it a heroic tribute to undaunted pioneers. Others wondered where the daughter was hidden, where the Indians might be, and where their emaciated and exhausted ox team had been parked. Still others thought it just plain schmaltzy.

When official commemoration of the Oregon Trail faded after 1995, the family relocated to the Lloyd District adjacent to the light rail tracks. Still looking westward, the installation might have been titled “We should have taken MAX.” It’s now moved a third time to Chapman Square to be viewed by people scurrying to the Court House for jury duty. The father still bears a striking resemblance to the fiery fanatic John Brown, who had nothing to do with Oregon but plenty to do with the Civil War.

The pioneer family would certainly be an anomaly if their metallic forms came alive today. According to the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau, married couples with children under age eighteen make up only 15 percent of Portland’s households (those are 2003 figures). More than one third of Portland’s households with children have only a single parent present, suggesting that we might want to saw the statue down the middle to represent twenty-first century divorce and separation rates.

The obvious contrast to “The Promised Land” on many dimensions stands in Washington Park, where Sacajawea cradles her son Jean-Baptiste. The Women’s Committee of the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition commissioned the Sacajawea statue As historian Deborah Olson has shown, these women worked long and hard to see that Portland business leaders did not completely ignore women as they mounted the first world’s fair on the west coast. They thought that a statue of the famous Shoshone guide would fill two gaps in the fair’s program. Its dedication brought together noted women’s rights leaders including Susan B. Anthony and Oregon’s indomitable Abigail Scott Duniway.

So Sacajawea stands simultaneously for the native peoples pushed aside by the pioneer family and women who played central roles in the history of the Northwest. In “The Promised Land,” mom stands carefully protected by dad (to the side with his arm around her) and junior (in front). Sacajawea has no one to fend off the unknown dangers of yesteryear and the pigeons and picnickers of today. She stands on her own. Have we been pedaling backward from and inclusive to an exclusive vision over the last century?

And speaking of Abigail Scott Duniway, her bronze brother Harvey, a firm opponent of woman suffrage, stands steadfast on the top of Mt. Tabor. Abigail was an adamant advocate for women’s rights (as well as a novelist and journalist). Harvey, editor of The Oregonian, was a rock-ribbed conservative who deplored everything Abigail worked for. Atop Mt. Tabor his bronze gaze is steadfastly eastward, toward the American past rather than its future. That’s an odd stance for one of the state’s biggest boosters and a curious contrast with Sacajawea, who looks toward the setting sun (even if the sunset is obscured by the high ridge in front of her).

There’s another curious connection between Portland’s statuary and a public art controversy in Santa Fe, one that involved an improbable confrontation between future president Harry Truman and the famous writer Mary Austin, author of Land of Little Rain and other portraits of the Southwest. As a rising politician in the 1920s, Truman was all in favor of improved roads for the coming age of automobiles. Missouri boosters had joined forces with the Daughters of the American Revolution to place copies of a pink-hued concrete “Pioneer Mother” at multiple sites along a historic set of roads and trails that spanned the continent—starting with the Cumberland Road in Maryland and ending with the Spanish Trail into California.

Most cities liked the free statuary, but not the self-consciously sophisticated Santa Fe arts community. These are the folks who were cultivating a hybrid “Santa Fe style” and imagining a romantic Spanish-Indian past that they much preferred to the history of American Manifest Destiny. They raised a fuss—Mary Austin haranguing the future president—and the statue intended for Santa Fe ended up in Albuquerque.

What’s the connection? The women of the DAR asked sculptor August Leimbach to model “Pioneer Mother” after a photograph of Portland’s Sacajawea . . . completing a circle back to Chapman Square and “The Promised Land.” This is not to mention that Portland’s statue commemorates the Oregon Trail and the DAR’s project memorialized the Santa Fe Trail as part of their “Pioneer Memorial Highway.”

This brief excursion suggests that we can and should actively look at public art for the cultural claims that it embodies. It is easy not to. Riding MAX we may take a quick glance at station art, but we’re more likely to worry about finding a seat. Running late for an appointment in a public office, we don’t look long and hard at the installations in the lobby that are the fruit of Portland and Multnomah County’s “percent for art” program for all public construction projects.

When we do look, we see a lot more Nature than people. There are petrified trees, aluminum feathers, bronze swallows, an oversized elk, granite diatoms, vines on glass, and many other variations. In Oregon it’s also hard to go wrong with fish, or with cute animal families like the peaceable kingdom of seals, otter, beavers, and bears around the Pioneer Courthouse (make that semi-peaceable, since mama bear is noshing on a salmon).

But even animals can be trouble. A few years back, Dallas real estate mogul Trammel Crow funded a massive bronze depiction of dozens of supersized Texas longhorns in perpetual stampede near city hall. Texas. Cattle. What’s the problem? Neighboring Fort Worth had a fit, that’s what. Dallas was never a cowtown! That was Fort Worth’s claim to fame (along with being the city “where the West begins”). Not only was Dallas bigger and richer, but it was stealing Fort Worth’s history. Better for Dallas than longhorns, said Fort Worthians, would be dozens of bronze oil derricks or jumbo Neiman-Marcus shopping bags.

Portland recently went through a minor version of this controversy when the Chinese American community rejected a dragon designed for the Northwest Davis “festival street” because its head seemed improperly and insultingly ensnared in a wok.

In its turn, the reluctant dragon leads back to another story of families in public art. At the terminus of the Interstate MAX, Valerie Otani constructed traditional Japanese gates hung with simulacra of internee identification tags. The adjacent Expo Center, home to many a boat show and RV extravaganza, was the assembly point in 1942 for Oregon’s Japanese Americans in their way to wartime internment camps.

Internment, as we know, was an intensely family experience. Parents, children, and grandparents were collected and tagged as family units, transported as families, housed at Manzanar or Tule Lake as families. Otani’s installation may not be instantly recognizable as a family portrait, but if we look . . . observe . . . consider . . . we see that it is as much about family as the Chapman Square bronze.

In the total mix of public art, families are few and far between. Teddy Roosevelt overlooks the Park Blocks without the help of his numerous relations. Portlandia is imposing a she kneels to roll dice across Fifth Avenue, but she has neither consort nor progeny (although she’s presumably fairy godmother to everyone in the city).

Maybe one reason is the barbed reception of the forty-year-old curiosity in front of the Standard Insurance Building, the three sinuous bodies officially titled “Quest” but known widely among Portlanders as “Three Groins in a Fountain” and “Family Night at the Y.” More seriously, representations of nature are more comforting to look at, raising no troubling questions of racial absence and gender hierarchy.

Nor does our last quasi-family raise these questions. The Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden in Grant Park gives us three characters from the perfect time—from the 1950s when the United States still seemed hopeful and innocent, from elementary school years before the tree of knowledge is fully sampled. Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Henry’s dog Ribsy aren’t exactly a family (where’s Ramona’s older sister Beezus?), but they come close to forming a community of values and experiences.

As we look at Portland’s frozen families, what’s our inclination? Self-reliant, isolated individuals staring solemnly at a land to be conquered? Kids whose kinship comes from the experiences of everyday life?

Here’s my preference. Census data tell us that there are still traditional Ozzie and Harriet families to be found in the United States, complete with mom, dad, and two children living at home, but they’re more likely to be Asian Americans or Latinos than the traditional European Americans who pioneered the Oregon Trail and television sitcoms. What we need is two more families meeting to shake hands in Chapman Square—new Americans from Southeast Asia looking east toward political freedom and Mexican Americans (fully documented, of course) looking north to the promised land of Oregon opportunity.

They Have a Needle, But We Have Another Roadside Attraction

Some cities have icons of engineering to put on the covers of their tourist brochures. The Eiffel Tower celebrates the century of steel. Bilbao snagged Frank Gehry’s first anthem in zinc in its Guggenheim Museum. The Golden Gate Bridge shouts “San Francisco.”

But other places have roadside attractions. Has anyone driven I-94 past New Salem, North Dakota and not turned their head at the 38-foot-high fiberglass cow that stands sentinel on a rolling hillside? Giant fish seem to migrate over Canada—a musky at Kenora, Ontario, a catfish at Selkirk, Manitoba. North Dakota has a turtle made from 2000 tire rims, South Dakota has a pink and yellow prairie dog . . . you’ve all captured their images with your cameras.

Often size matters most in determining which cities build what. But for two premier cities of the Northwest, the equation is more complex. Consider the stories of how Seattle got the Space Needle and Portland, Paul Bunyan.

Up until World War II, Seattle and Portland had been fairly evenly matched. Then in the war years, Seattlites turned out airplanes and Portlanders built cargo ships, a premonition of things to come. In the late 1950s, Seattle was busy reinventing itself, building on Boeing and casting off its gritty timber-town past for a cosmopolitan future. The University of Washington was grabbing scientific research money and turning itself into one of the top-ten research universities in the country. The Port of Seattle invested in new technologies to handle containerized cargo. Boeing hit the jackpot with its first commercial jetliners.

Both Oregon and Washington were hatching plans for big events that attract national attention and tourism and during the mid 1950s—a state centennial celebration for Oregon and a world’s fair for Seattle. Oregon got cranked up first and Seattle, which had wanted to do something in 1959 (fifty years after their Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition that gave the University of Washington its campus), postponed its event to 1962.

The resulting Century 21 Exposition was designed to put Seattle on the map, “recapturing prestige. . . as the gateway to the Orient.” The global theme was “the wonders of the ’space age’ science.” Approval by the Brussels-based Bureau of International Expositions allowed the planners to attract exhibits from around the world and to draw on national expertise that ranged from the Walt Disney organization to the Na¬tional Science Foundation. Reams of favorable publicity, the exciting new monorail, and 9,600,000 paid visits made it the most successful of all post¬war American world’s fairs, teaching outsiders that the Northwest’s metropolis started with an “S”.

Oregon, in contrast, had already mounted the Oregon Centennial Exposition on the cheap. The 1959 event in North Portland started ambitiously but ended up more like local “pioneer days” than a world’s fair. The frugal legislature doled out $2.6 million in grudging installments, barely in time to remodel a livestock exhibition hall into display space. Portlanders themselves quickly learned to stay away from what turned out to be little more than an interminable county fair. Paul Bunyan was its most enduring legacy.

The statue was a typical Portland DIY project before anyone knew the initials. Because Oregon’s celebration of a century of statehood took place at the Portland Expo Center, members of the Kenton Business Club decided to greet visitors driving up North Interstate Avenue with some local color. Volunteer iron workers fabricated and erected an I-beam skeleton, covered it with wire mesh, and troweled on concrete skin and clothing.

Today the Space Needle still stands against the backdrop of Mount Rainier as a symbol for Seattle’s forward-looking aerospace and software industries, its global trade and finance, and its cosmopolitan character. Ambition and impressive civic emblems, however, may not necessary ensure civic success. Seattle continues to built icons—the Experience Music Project, public library, huge stadiums—but ambitions are sometimes short lived. Boeing headquarters have moved, the SuperSonics no longer play in the shadow of the Space Needed, the monorail keeps breaking down, and light rail is just now under construction after many fits and starts.

Meanwhile, Portland recycles the old—library, city hall, armory—in preference to paying for icon—and passes on big league baseball. The Kenton Neighborhood Association, which owns the statue, has taken steps place Paul Bunyan on the National Register of Historic Places. His stout presence is a reminder of the past, even as Tri-Met nudged over by a few yards to make room for the fourth spoke of our light rail network– the light rail tracks.

Portland’s Most Important Street

This article was previously published in the Oregonian on August 20, 2006.

82nd Street Bar in Portland, OR

82nd Street Bar in Portland, OR

The Pearl District may be fashionable, and North Mississippi Avenue may be extremely cool, but 82nd Avenue is necessary. This corridor of asphalt, car lots, and old-world politics keeps Portland honest.

I’ll admit that it’s not beautiful. I know that it doesn’t have the hottest clubs or gallery-hopping First Thursday crowds. But 82nd Avenue from Sandy Boulevard south across the Clackamas County line does things that no city can do without.

First, the street reminds us that our economy still requires things. Words and ideas may be the stock in trade of college professors and the creative class, but cities need places to find used travel trailers, scout out discount appliances. and get new sound systems to install in beat-up Toyotas.

A couple years ago I bought a small pickup and wanted to cover the cargo bed so that my elderly twelve-year-old golden retriever could stay dry when we drove around on errands or headed up Mount Hood. The Qwest Yellow Pages list four firms on 82nd Avenue that fabricate and install pickup canopies, including Canopy Corner and Canopies Unlimited, and two more within shouting distance.

Every city needs a place for its own version of Canopy Corner and similar businesses that need affordable space and lots of elbow room to sell things that aren’t available on The same goes for start-ups. Fifty years ago, companies like Tektronix and Electro Scientific Industries could get their start in cheap space on the inner east side. In these days of inner city gentrification, their best bet would be low-cost commercial buildings on streets like 82nd.

82nd Avenue also runs through the heart of the multicultural city. A few years ago, the irascible urban critic Mike Davis wrote a short book called “Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City.” As I think we all know, the title should have been “Magical Suburbanism”– because the suburbs are where most immigrants now choose to settle.

Portland’s real Chinatown is now growing around 82nd, not in Old Town with PDC’s streetscape project is hoping that curb extensions and exotic trees will substitute for a lively, growing community. If we expand our vision from 82nd itself to the swathe of neighborhoods from Mount Tabor east to Gresham, we’ll also find many of the city’s Vietnamese, Latino, Russian and Ukrainian businesses, markets, and churches.

Numbers confirm the impressions rolling past our windshields. According to the 2000 census, Multnomah County has eighteen census tracts (out of nearly two hundred) where at least 20 percent of the residents are foreign born. Half of these tracts border 82nd. These are the neighborhoods where you might hear Russian, Vietnamese, and Spanish spoken on one block, Chinese and Ukrainian on another, Spanish again if you’re toward the north end of the street or Rumanian if you’re further south.

Immigrant populations are young populations. It takes gumption to change countries, and immigrants typically arrive in their twenties and thirties and raise relatively large families. Madison High School at 51 percent minority is one of the most ethnically diverse high schools in the state (it has a higher minority percentage than Mount Angel and Hood River high schools, for example). A little further east, Parkrose High School is 42 percent minority.

This brings up a third way that 82nd and its neighborhoods keep Portland honest. When these kids grow up, they’ll be a potent force in Portland and Multnomah County politics. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, Portland annexed a large chunk of eastern Multnomah County (while Gresham took in much of the rest).

The result has been to dilute the political clout of the comfortable West Hills and the trendy inner East Side. The precincts east of Mount Tabor are consistently more skeptical about government and more forthright about bread-and-butter issues. They voted overwhelmingly for a conservative view of property rights (Measure 37) and against renewal of the Multnomah County income tax for schools and social service. They are also conservative on questions of cultural values like the definition of marriage.

It’s no surprise that Portland’s religiously conservative colleges and seminaries concentrate around the 82nd corridor–Multnomah Bible College, Warner Pacific College, Cascade College, and Portland Bible College.

This political and cultural divide is a reality check. It brings Portland’s political profile a bit closer to the rest of the state–not to mention the nation–and pushes candidates toward the middle. It keeps Portland progressives from being too satisfied with themselves.

You might think of this as Randy Leonard country rather than Vera Katz country. To put it another way, it prevents us from turning into Santa Monica or Santa Cruz.

The political effect is currently muted because close-in Portlanders are more likely to vote than those in the outer east neighborhoods. But as immigrants become accustomed to American political styles and as their children grow up, however, the effect will accelerate.

The real problem with the failed City Council run of Emilie Boyles is not the misuse of campaign funds but the partially lost opportunity to bring more eastern European immigrants into the political process.

So hop in your pickup, crank up the stereo, and drive out to 82nd Avenue–or Foster Road or far NE Glisan or the outer stretches of NE Sandy–to see one of the most necessary parts of Portland and check out a street where the future of Portland is being shaped.

Portland’s Working Rivers: The Heritage and Future of Portland’s Industrial Hearltand

This working paper was prepared for the Working Waterfront Coalition. Below is the executive summary from the paper. A full draft can be downloaded from the Schnitzer Steel website.

Portland is one of a handful of U.S. cities whose riverside location is nearly as important to prosperity and growth today as it was a century ago. The water, rail and energy complex that converges around the lower Willamette River has long supported several industrial sectors, especially primary metals, machinery and equipment manufacturing, distribution and logistics.

Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of the general public isn’t familiar with Portland’s industrial heart – its history, its function, its importance. If there is a public image of Portland’s working waterfront and heavy industry, it tends to be about problems, such as the Superfund designation or the environmental costs of maintaining the navigation channel.

This report traces the stages of development of Portland’s industrial heartland and industrial mix, identifies current issues and places Portland in a comparative context. The report touches on:

• Portland’s strategic location at the intersection of the Columbia River Valley and the Puget-Willamette Trough.

• The growth of various sectors in Portland: lumber and wood products, agricultural processing, metals and machinery, and electronics.

• Recognition of how the natural river can live in concert with the commercial and industrial uses on the river.

• How Portland’s economy is supported by river-dependent and transportation-oriented businesses.

• Trends in the region’s industrial land preservation and the working waterfront.

• Considerations as Portland plans for the future of its harbor and industrial areas.

The report concludes by offering specific recommendations for planners, governments, employers, investors and the general Portland populations, including some of the following:

• The public sector should continue to recognize the importance of Portland’s industrial heart with supportive land use regulations and protections.

• Portland needs to take extreme care and caution before determining that industrial land is no longer viable for industrial uses.

• It is vital to protect and enhance this transportation infrastructure as an economic asset that would require billions of dollars to replace or reproduce, and to promote public awareness of its value.

• Public agencies and private organizations that promote sustainable development have an opportunity to increase their effectiveness by taking advantage of a supportive industrial base.

• As private activity increases in the first decade of the 21st century, it is important to keep the industrial economy on the public agenda.

• Deliberate efforts to maintain this diversification by supporting the continued development of the waterfront transportation/industry complex should be a central element of all regional planning and development efforts.

Historically, Portland has been committed to investing in its working waterfront and industrial complex. Moving forward, the community should remain committed to preserving the resources the city has built over the last hundred years.

White Like Us

I prepared this essay at the request of Randy Gragg, architecture critic for The Oregonian, as part of a special “Portland” issue of Arcade: Architecture/Design in the Northwest

White Like Us

Portland is a nice city . . . but it’s not an adventuresome city. Its moderately progressive politics and its racial homogeneity make Portland a comfortable place for its majority population, but also a place that may lack the sparks that fly from the clash and contrast of different ethnicities and cultures. The result, for better or worse, is a city that cherishes the public realm but may have trouble reaching beyond the received wisdom of “best practices” in planning and design.

So what’s to like?

We’re such a well-mannered set of folks that Portland ranks high on lists of “most polite” and “cleanest” cities. Portlanders love to recycle, and do so at rates 10 to 20 percent above the national average. They astonish visitors from the East Coast by walking half a block out of their way to find a trash can to pitch their cardboard fast-food boxes (no styrofoam in this town!).

We mind our manners when transacting public business. Civic decisions are made in polite committees where everyone (who knows the rules) has their say. Nobody (who counts) yells and screams–it’s serious, rational discourse from the moment the agenda is opened to the final handshakes.

Portland is full of nice neighborhoods that New Urbanists can only dream about–tidy, friendly, Ramona Quimby neighborhoods with miles of bungalows and front porches. New homeowner couples on Saturday morning stroll back from the latte shop before tackling the home upgrade project. Slightly more established moms jog along the streets with tri-wheeled stroller in front and Labrador panting behind. Older kids walk to public schools that still enroll nearly 90 percent of school age children despite a severe funding crisis. Boomers tend their rose bushes and azaleas and think vaguely about moving to a downtown condo.

The city feels snug, bright, tidy–”Scandinavian,” to journalist Robert Kaplan: “With its neat trolley lines, geometric parks, rustic flower pots beside polymerand-glass buildings, crowded sidewalk benches . . . Portland exudes a stagy perfection.”

As Leadbelly might have sung, it’s a bourgeois town.

But as the song suggests, “clean” and “nice” and “polite” can be code words for white. Portland is a great place for white, middle class, liberal professionals like me. What sort of place is it for people of color? Does Portland “work” because it is racially homogeneous?

PDX certainly feels white.

Check out the street scene downtown. Most of the shoppers, movie goers, students, and workers are white. Most of the edgy people and scary people are also white–suburban dropouts in heavily metalled clothes, skater punks, panhandlers. There are a few black and brown faces in the retail core and some Latino drug traders on the downtown fringes. But Portland has nothing to match the bifurcated downtown of Los Angeles, where five p.m. brings “L.A. Law” professionals zooming westward out of their secure basement parking for bucolic Bel Air while African American and Latino support workers wait on the street corners for buses to take them home in the opposite direction. In Portland, even middle income white folks take the bus and light rail.

Outside Portland’s core are a dozen or more old commercial streets that have recaptured the prosperity of the streetcar era with restaurants, galleries, and niche retailers. Here too the proprietors and customers are predominantly white. Even in the city’s North/Northeast quadrant, where the minority population is the greatest, it is arty whites who’ve been making over Northeast Alberta Street and North Mississippi Avenue–with due credit to a sprinkling of tacquerias and black-oriented businesses.

In a city where residential neighborhoods intermix at a fine grain, there is no 98 percent ghetto like Washington or Chicago. There are white faces and brown faces in every “black” neighborhood. The most racially neighborhood in the city is no more that two-thirds African American, and only a half dozen or so census tracts are more than half black.

Total minority population in the Portland region is also small. The 2000 census reported that 1 percent of the residents of the six-county metropolitan area are American Indians, 3 percent are African Americans, 5 percent are Asian Americans, and 7 percent are Latino. The figures record a substantial increase in diversity since 1990, but Portland still has one of the lowest proportions of minority residents among the nation’s fifty largest metropolitan areas. Even Multnomah County, which contains the city of Portland itself, is only 20 percent minority.

The population mix means a small base for ethnic businesses and institutions. Many of the successful black-owned businesses depend on white clientele. African American and Latino civic organizations and community development corporations depend on funds from the larger community of white-controlled philanthropy. Community educational goals are also framed within parameters set by the larger society. Conflict over education is conflict over access to success, not for minority control. There are openings for blacks in ladders of meritt–symphony conductor, school superintendent, university president, parks director, chief of police, City Council, County Commission. But political influence depends on alliances with the city’s relatively progressive power structure, not clout at the ballot box.

Because Portland’s black population has historically been small, it has had difficulty staking its own claim to public space. The first center of black life, near Union Station, was squeezed by development pressures in the 1920s and 1930s. A second center for businesses and organizations flourished briefly in the 1950s but fell to urban renewal and freeway construction. For the last forty years, the alternative spaces for community building have been inside churches and outside on the sidewalks and streets–with little middle ground for constructing a public political presence.

So, yes, Portland is white–demographically and culturally.

And there is also something about the ambiance that goes beyond the census: Portland sits in a white neck of the woods.

Oregon was historically a white man’s frontier whose nineteenth century settlers came, in part, to avoid the problems of living in a biracial nation. They embedded antiblack clauses in the first state constitution. Their descendants made Oregon a KKK stronghold in the 1920s. And their successors defeated a Portland civil rights ordinance as late as 1950.

The entire Northwest, of curse, still suffers this regional racist hangover. In the 1980s it attracted Aryan enclaves and violence, including the brutal murder 1988 murder of an Ethiopian immigrant by Portland skinheads. Behind the headlines is an important but little-remarked migration. Since the 1980s, white Californians have been moving to whiter states–Idaho, Utah, Alaska, Oregon. In Oregon they supplement a population already heavily leavened with white refugees from the blizzards of Montana and the Dakotas.

Portland and its regional siblings sell their woodsy lifestyle. Natural resource issues dominate much of the public discourse: salmon, clean rivers, nature in the city, open space v. new housing. Portlanders are beach walkers, hikers, hunters, and anglers. They are more likely to read field and stream magazines and Organic Gardening than auto racing, golf, or home handyman magazines. Up on Mount Hood the lift lines bear witness to the unbearable whiteness of skiing.

For a black population two or three generations removed from the rural life of the border South, this woods-loving lifestyle may not be a comfortable natch. African American writer Evelyn C. White, in “Black Women and the Wilderness” (1995) reflected on a visit to the Cascade foothills and the “sense of absolute doom about what might befall me in the backwoods.” How to explain to outdoor-happy white colleagues, she wondered, “the memory of ancestors hunted down and preyed on in rural settings.”

While African Americans in Portland have slowly been spreading toward suburban areas from their earlier inner city neighborhoods, Latinos have been moving the other direction. Many were originally attracted to Oregon by the farming economy and settled on the metropolitan fringes, where they share space with urbanizing farm towns (transforming the entertainment program of the Washington County Fair in the process). Many are now moving inward to lower-cost neighborhoods in the city, adding substantially to the ethnic mix and beginning to influence local politics.

These cultural and political realities have design implications:

  • A vanilla city likes understated design–low in gesture and high in references to nature. Compatible buildings are admired. The ensemble outscores the superstar in a sort of chamber music approach to architecture. Water features are always popular. Public artists can’t go far wrong if they work miniature mountainscapes and/or fish into their work. There are “rainbow neighborhood” murals on the back sides of libraries and ethnic restaurants but little “power to the people” art–another sign that we’re closer to Kansas than California. Some of the most successful design projects highlight nature rather than artifice. The Eastbank Esplanade along the Willamette is highly successful in reuniting the city and its river. In a recent design competition for an aerial tramway from Oregon Health and Sciences University to the riverfront, Angelil/Graham/Pfenninger/Scholl won by promising to blend high tech transportation into the landscape background.
  • There is nothing to get in the way of the continued expansion and intensification of Portland’s core. There are no close-in concentrations of minority residents left to replace (urban renewal took care of that in the 1950s and 1960s). Suburbanites and upper crust matrons can use downtown with only a mild distaste for panhandlers, not a fear of racial confrontation. There is every reason to expect that the center will continue to capture all the major institutions and public places.
  • The small totals of blacks and Latinos, and their wide dispersion through the metropolitan area, means that almost every older neighborhood is a target for middle class reinvestment. The last decade has therefore brought booming housing markets to previously ignored neighborhoods on the “wrong” (east) side of the city.
  • Because city-suburb politics are not racialized, there is no insurmountable barrier to regional cooperation on transit, and none of the racially motivated decisions that controlled siting of rail transit systems in cities such as Atlanta and Miami. In contrast to Seattle’s chip-on-the-shoulder politics, Portland’s homogeneity and tradition of civic rationality has allowed city-suburban cooperation over light rail planning and construction.
  • Portland, I think, may be the California’s own new California. In the first half of the twentieth century, Southern California offered an Arcadian alternative to the Mississippi Valley for millions of white Americans. Los Angeles in its Arcadian age was a city of bungalows filled with transplanted middle westerners (remember the settings for Laurel and Hardy shorts). Portland is still a city of bungalows housing similarly homogeneous inhabitants.

    At the start of the twenty-first century, Portland may be the new California, an alternative for Americans who like elbow room, a moderately stimulating level of sophistication, a nostalgic social environment, and a pleasant, comfortable urban setting.