Oregon’s largest city sits at the north end of the Willamette Valley, straddling the Willamette River near its confluence with the Columbia, which acts as a natural dividing line between Oregon and Washington. Like Seattle, 178 miles (286 km) to the north, Portland lies in an area of exceptional and easily accessible natural beauty, and this proximity to so many remarkable and varied landscapes adds to Portland’s allure. On a clear day, Mount Hood—the city’s alpine mascot—glows on the eastern horizon, about 90 minutes away. The Pacific Ocean is about 70 miles (113 km) to the west, just beyond the Coast Range. A drive through the Columbia River Gorge takes you, in about 1[bf]1/2 hours, through the Cascade Mountains to the high, dry, and much sunnier desert that covers almost two-thirds of the state. And the rolling hills of the fertile Willamette Valley’s wine country begin right outside the city limits.
On some days, the air in Portland, cleansed by rain and scented with trees and earth, has a clean, sweet fragrance that goes right to your head. That’s because there’s green and greenery everywhere—in magnificent Washington Park, along the riverfront, in parks downtown and throughout the city, and in yards and gardens in Portland’s many distinctive neighborhoods. The city counts some 200 parks, gardens, and wild spaces within the metropolitan area. Vast Forest Park, covering a huge swath of the city’s West Hills, is one of the largest urban forests in the country.
The creation and protection of green spaces is a long-standing Portland tradition, and that includes farm and forest land outside the city. An urban growth boundary created in 1979 prevents urban sprawl—and has led to rapid development within the metro area. This new residential development, more than anything else, characterizes what’s going on in Portland today. As demographics and lifestyles change, Portland is becoming more densely urban than it ever was. “Infill” is the developmental buzzword, as city lots get divided and multi-unit housing goes up everywhere. The old norm of “house and yard” has given way to “condo and balcony” and even “micro-apartment with shared kitchen facility.” There are newly created neighborhoods like the affluent Pearl District and rediscovered old neighborhoods. One thing that urban infill hasn’t changed is the Portland notion of living and participating in a neighborhood. The difference is one of self-consciousness; neighborhoods were once just neighborhoods, and now they are becoming “brands” and destinations. So today you say, “Let’s go over and have dinner on SE Division” or “Let’s go hang out on North Mississippi” or “I know a great food cart on SE Hawthorne.” This would have been unheard of even 15 years ago.
The result is that the city has more vitality as a city than it ever did—or maybe not since World War II, when it was hopping as a hub of shipbuilding. There is more going on now, and it’s not dictated, as it once was, by “Old Portland” institutions and Old Portland money, or lack thereof. For, whether one wants to talk about it in polite society of not, that is one difference between Seattle and Portland—money, and how it’s used, and how it’s spent. Portland has never been as affluent or “showy” as Seattle, and at times it seems to strive to keep things that way. This is the only city where you will hear people say that something is “too spendy.” (At least I’ve never heard that phrase used anywhere else.)
The so-called “creative class”—a definition given to people who move to Portland not because they have a job, but because they want to live there, and create a job for themselves after they arrive—has transformed the city in many ways. When you visit, you will notice a lot of younger people, and a fashion aesthetic that combines grunge and street fashion with sports paraphernalia. Glamor is not something Portland does well, or cares much about. Fashion is much more about comfort and weather conditions.
The TV show Portlandia embraces and satirizes Portland’s new and sometimes quirky urban culture. This is a city where people keep chickens in their backyards (at least on the east side), and not because they are into Santeria. They also seem to spend hours in cafes, microbreweries, and hot new restaurants. Talking. Discussing. Arguing. Theorizing. Yes, it’s kind of cerebral. In a way, it’s nothing but a new version of the old, pot-smoking, countercultural Portland brought into the 21st century.
History is—or used to be—an important part of the Portland mind-set. “I’m a sixth-generation Oregonian” was not an unusual comment to hear. After all, the city was settled by pioneers who trekked thousands of miles by land or sailed around Cape Horn to get here, and their descendants were proud of their heritage. People from all over the country are still moving to Portland—it’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation—but now they are not drawn by the rich farmland and forests sought by the pioneers of old. They come instead—well, why do they come? They’ve heard that Portland is great, that Portland is beautiful, that Portland is hip, and groovy, and cool, that Portland is where things are happening, that Portland is relatively inexpensive (there is no sales tax in Oregon). All of this is true. But you have to come to Portland yourself if you want to experience its new vibe.
I’m not casting aspersions when I say that Portland lacks Seattle’s pulsing, pushing drive. It doesn’t have the industries to support that kind of economic va-va-voom. But it keeps moving ahead, and so far it hasn’t lost its human touch or the “old” traditions and charm that gave it character. It’s always been a city where people loved to live, and where they often chose to stay even if a better offer came along. For all its newfound urban pizazz, Portland is still a city that likes to go to bed early and wake up to hear birds chirping—or chickens clucking—in the backyard.