Oregon’s largest metropolis 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 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. For those of us who have lived in or known Portland for a long time, it’s frankly unbelievable what has been happening over the past decade, and really, over the past 5 years, since the end of the recession. Portland hasn’t seen a building and population boom of this magnitude since World War II, when 100,000 people poured into the area to work in the shipyards. It’s exciting for the newcomers, who get to discover a wonderful city, but disorienting (and yes, annoying) for many old-timers, who simply are not accustomed to crowded sidewalks and perennially clogged streets and highways. Portland never wanted to turn into a big city like Seattle; now, it has no choice but to embrace change. 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.) But Portland’s old modesty is changing, too, as affluence moves in and upscale “hipness” takes over. Sophisticated new hotels (four opened in 2017 alone) with trendy bars serving “craft cocktails” are springing up all over town.
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.
And to give you an accurate picture of Portland today, I have to mention the homeless situation. Frankly, no one knows what to do about it. Homeless camps, with the problems that go with them, have sprung up and been dismantled and discussed and argued about . . . with no solution. The homeless have become a presence, as they have in San Francisco, and Portland, like San Francisco, simply cannot figure out what to do to help them.
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. Only now the pot is legal.
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. It’s never going to be a totally anonymous vertical city because the height of its new buildings cannot exceed 450 feet. 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.
Everyone and her brother now knows that Portland has become a foodie mecca. This is one of the greatest benefits of the “new” Portland, at least for those of us who remember all too vividly when the city had four decent restaurants. The ingredients for great meals were always here—the Pacific Ocean is only 90 minutes away; salmon and steelhead swim up the rivers; just about anything will grow in the fertile Willamette Valley; the vast forests are forageable; and fruits, berries, and nuts have long been staple crops—but it took new chefs with new ideas to turn this local and regional harvest into the kind of exceptional meals that can be had in Portland today. With exceptional Oregon wines to go with them, I might add. Less than an hour away in the wine country, some of the best pinot noirs in the world are being produced. The simple idea of food carts—not just one cart selling hot dogs but dozens of carts selling every kind of cuisine imaginable—also got its start here. But don’t assume that all the food in Portland is organic, fat-free, gluten-free, low-salt, vegetarian, free-range, or vegan. Sugar still rules—look at the lines in front of Voodoo Doughnut if you don’t believe me—and there’s plenty of fat in food cart hits like grilled cheese sandwiches and hot, gooey mac-and-cheese.
Gardens & Parks
One of the great things about Portland is that it fosters a green thumb. A visitor can’t help but marvel at the beauty of home gardens, and the variety of trees, shrubs, and plants that grow in them. This is the City of Roses, after all, with a yearly Rose Festival complete with floral parades and a fun fair. Travelers should make a point of hanging out in some Portland gardens while they’re here. The city has three world-class beauties: the International Rose Test Garden, the Portland Japanese Garden, and Lan Su Chinese Garden. Washington Park and Hoyt Arboretum are endlessly explorable, and Forest Park, which just happens to be the largest urban forest in the country, is crisscrossed with trails that begin at the end of city streets in Northwest and Southwest Portland. All the greenery, and the rain that supports it, is why the air in Portland sometimes smells so sweet and clean.