City of villages

December 19, 2011 at 7:08 pm | In cities, jane_jacobs, land_use, Portland | 1 Comment

A city of villages: that’s what they call Portland, and it’s true. Clustered along most major corridors, it seems, nodes of vibrant market activity suddenly appear – and if the shops are indies, they look to be thriving and attracting lots of customers.

I wrote previously (here and here) that the city strikes me as a predominantly yin sort of place, with not too much yang energy. But following up on the whole yin-yang analogy, I should add that it’s all about balance, right?

Portland has its edgier, more yang-energy infused places, and they’re exactly where you’d expect to find them: downtown, in a busier commercial district that includes industrial areas in transition; plenty of tall buildings, old and new; and great stores, including department stores that actually have a good selection of merchandise (full disclosure: I love department stores).

Downtown is a contained area, though, with the Willamette River on the one side and the West Hills on the other. If you leave the downtown core to head east to cross over the river (perhaps passing a couple of freeways and railroad tracks), you will quickly find yourself in one of the many “villages”: in the Northeast where I’m staying right now, there’s Mississippi Ave., N. Williams, Martin Luther King Jr. (aka MLK), Alberta, NE Fremont, and NE Killingsworth for starters. In the Southeast, there are more and larger clusters, particularly along Hawthorne and SE Division (haven’t yet explored Broadway, Steele or some of the others yet).

The economic range of these nodes is interesting. You could argue that N. Williams in the 3700-3900 blocks was …well, what’s the right word? gentrified?, yuppified? But those words suggest that people were displaced, although I’m not sure that was the case. (The 3-story condo-plus-retail building I’m living in right now was built in 2009 on a vacant lot. The surrounding streets look like a pretty mixed bag in every respect.) Instead of displacement via gentrification, commercial clusters like the newest one on N. Williams, or more established ones like Mississippi or Alberta (not to mention really established ones like SE Hawthorne) provide entertainment (pubs, cafes, restaurants) and recreation (need I say yoga?) and services (lots of bike repair shops!) and goods (locally-sourced fashions, books, and food) for both its nearby residents as well as for people who come from outside the immediate neighborhood to sample the vibe.

Lifestyle

A focus on lifestyle can get a bad rap. I remember watching a video of a tech event in Seattle where Mike Arrington railed against the (in his opinion) lazy Seattle bastards and their fixation on lifestyle. He excoriated the lot of them (in what I gather is the Arrington way), and his criticism suggested that you can’t eat your cake (lifestyle) and have it (be economically ahead), too.

It’s a valid critique – up to a point. But if all you’re doing is having your cake, while you never get to eat it, what’s your quality of life, anyway?

Hungry and hungrier

Looking at the economic activity generated by Portland’s neighborhood clusters, it struck me that the more “indie” a node was, the better that cluster seemed to be doing. And it massively attracts people from outside the neighborhood – precisely because it embodies lifestyle.

I’ll voice an observation: in neighborhoods that appear to be less economically resilient and less vibrant, commercial activity reflects a more mass market retail bent: from relatively upscale-ish Starbucks (I have nothing against Starbucks, but the chain doesn’t deliver the way a really stellar indie cafe can: Ristretto on N. Williams beats the pants off anything from a chain) to 711-type corner stores, the retail is more generic and depersonalized – the sort of thing you can find Anywheresville. It serves the residents of that neighborhood well enough, but it’s not interesting enough to draw outsiders to the street.

Does that mean that the cake is more nourishing and better for you (and your neighborhood, your community) if it’s a lifestyle cake, versus an economically more fast-food-mass-produced-all-work/no-play-bottom-line kind of cake?

The indie businesses seem to be doing a better job at feeding the people, and the people seem to be willing to pay more for that particular kind of nourishment. I don’t know how else to explain to myself what I see here: cafe upon cafe upon restaurant upon bistro upon brewpub upon hand-made-local-vegan-shoes-and-screenprinted-t-shirts-artisan-letterpress-learn-collage-classes shop full of people actually paying for what looks like a pretty interesting lifestyle.

I’d love to hear from people in the Boston area – especially on the North Shore (Cape Ann, Gloucester, Beverly, Salem), which seems to be less resilient/ more economically depressed than some other Greater Boston areas – whether that sort of return on investment in lifestyle is happening there. I don’t remember seeing it when I lived there, and I don’t see it when I use Google maps to “travel” virtually along those streets. What makes the difference, what creates the tipping point in favor of lifestyle? Is it temperament? Age? Weather? A municipality’s support for non-car infrastructure (i.e., biking and public transit)?

As long as Portlanders have it figured out, though – and they keep supporting indie businesses – they might just be able to eat their cake while actually having the bulk of it, too.

Some photos I took today on Alberta Street, in the blocks around 16th to 18th: an indie commercial node, no chain or outlet in sight, but even on a grey Monday afternoon, cafes and shops were doing alright. Go there or to any of the other clusters on a weekend, and the streets are clotted with people.

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There are a few other photos – I’ve created a public album on Picasa for them. Will try to keep adding to it (always difficult to take photos with a dog leash in the other hand…). Picasa adds geographical data, so you can see a Google street map location of each shot, too.

1 Comment

  1. I had nver been in Portland, but i always think that is big and modern city. After watching a photo i think that Portland look like small town in deep of the state 🙂

    Comment by Chi — December 22, 2011 #

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