I grew up in Detroit, where from the 1970s on, essentially nobody from suburbia ventured downtown, because of a fear of crime. As a result, the city withered and largely died, though today there are brave artists and urban farmers and other souls hoping to spur a renaissance of that historic rust belt city.
In contrast, Portland, Oregon, amazes me with its pulsing vision of what a thriving downtown can be. The heart of Portland looks like what Detroit may have been 75 years ago, with good restaurants, shops, hotels, and galleries everywhere. Light rail trains (MAX) and streetcars roll through the city and out to distant suburbs. People are everywhere on the streets, giving pedestrians a feeling of participation, excitement, and safety.
Bicycles are also everywhere. Portland has a slogan, “Bike City USA,” and over 6% of workers commute to their jobs by bicycle–an incredible number! Bicyclists zoom over four bridges crossing the Willamette River, and some cyclists double their green creds by boarding MAX with their bikes.
Hungry? Portland is the nation’s capital for food carts, with over 450 choices available throughout the city. Food carts are usually tiny trailers that each sell a limited menu of often ethnic cuisine. At noon, office workers pour down to the “pods” (pods are groups of food carts, usually set up around the perimeter of a parking lot) to get their choice of Thai, Polish, hippie, Indian, vegan, Mexican, fusion, sushi, and scores of other kinds of food. There is usually no
seating area, so people either stand around eating, take the food back to the office, or walk to a nearby urban park. I did the latter, with my excellent turkey, cucumber, and creme fraiche sandwich on a crusty long bun, where I sat near a group of scruffy teens who came to the city for the day to hang out with friends in the park. It took me back to the hippie days of old, when kids in bell bottoms and shoulder length hair and guitars would gather in parks all across America.
I enjoyed spending the day walking around town, camera in hand. On the other hand, there were all the beggars asking for spare change and foul-mouthed transients and a homeless gathering place along the Willamette. Portland certainly isn’t exempt from contemporary issues of joblessness, homelessness, and hopelessness. But it’s still a very cool city, and is a magnet drawing 20-somethings from everywhere.
The Hawthorne Bridge viewed from Tom McCall Waterfront Park, a park named for a popular anti-growth Republican Governor who famously said, at the height of the first mass environmental movement in 1971, “Come visit us again and again. This is a state of excitement. But for heaven’s sake, don’t come here to live.”
For those who want to know more about the food cart culture of Portland, go to Portland Food Carts
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