An evening walk on North Williams in Portland
It’s 10pm, I leave the building I currently reside in to take my dog Jigger outside. We walk down two flights of stairs and arrive on the street – North Williams, of which 3 or so blocks are now considered trendy. I walk past Che’s food cart and Soundroots School of Music toward the next intersection.
As Jigger dawdles along, sniffing for edible morsels (road sushi, we call it), I look down at the sidewalk and see the almost knee-high grass growing ragged in the muddy strips along sides of buildings and in the sad little space between paved sidewalk and paved road. It’s nearly knee-high because this is the kind of neighborhood where almost no one does any upkeep.
And suddenly, as I wonder why in hell grass is even growing here (and why does it have to look so scraggly), I’m reminded of my many midnight visits to coffeehouses in Schwabing, a neighborhood in Munich.
No matter what time I visited, the cafes were always filled with people – posers, models, artists, writers, film-makers, business jocks – you name it. At 2 in the morning, skinny city girls with high fashion allure ate luscious tortes, perhaps the only meal they consumed all day. They made a show of it, and it was worth seeing them eat.
For those beautiful girls, a song:
(And for those who don’t get the reference, The Cure set to music a Baudelaire poem about street people looking at rich people feasting in cafés, and a painter named Manet may have been inspired by that poem.)
Meanwhile, back on the sidewalk I’m standing on…
There simply wasn’t any grass, nearly knee-high or not, growing out of place on those Munich boulevards, which were sealed against the elements and designed for city shoes.
Class or race? Class and race.
Looking at North Williams, with its odd mixture of poverty, sad suburbanism, unfinished urbanism and vaguely emerging urban vibe-ness (but still trapped in all the outward signs of decrepitude and a deep and troubling history of racial strife – read, white oppression), I suddenly had to think of that bastard Édouard Manet and his paintings of the Parisian banlieues (suburbs).
The art historian T.J. Clark made a big deal of those unfinished edges of Paris in his book, The Painting of Modern Life, and rightly so. As I walked, taking in that godawful grass, the horrible admixture of muck and vegetation, rotting clapboard on an old house, bits of trash, and the “emerging” hipster vibe emanating from Pix or from The Box Social across the street, I suddenly felt like some displaced Parisian in …oh, Batignolles perhaps, strolling along the Avenue de Clichy when it was quiet – before, you know, that American got there and caused a ruckus. No doubt there was near-knee-high grass on the roadsides there, too, and, mixed in with a sparse sampling of interesting cafes, a bunch of ugly, half-falling apart buildings of relatively recent vintage. Because in neighborhoods like that, nothing is built to last – and it shows.
How to avoid getting bumped? Get there earlier.
Today I was bumped from two events I had hoped to attend. It was my fault, solely: I misjudged how committed Portland residents are to local events.
First, I wanted to sign up to Creative Mornings‘ Portland event, ROUND TABLE WITH THE ADX CREW & COMMUNITY, which was slated to go live for ticket registration at 9am this morning. When I arrived at 10am, the event was already sold out. I got bumped to the wait list. (And, this, for an event at 8:30am on Friday the 13th…)
Next, I wanted to attend an event co-sponsored by the Portland City Club and Portland Monthly Magazine, Bright Lights: Discussions on the City with John Jay, global creative director for Wieden + Kennedy. The event was this evening – but when I got there at start time, the venue was packed, with an overflow crowd plugging up the entry. Couldn’t get in for love or money. Well, here’s hoping it’ll be on Vimeo soon… And next time? Get there earlier!
I briefly consoled myself with another unexpected Portland art gem in my neighborhood: a tiny (unmanned?) art gallery in what looks like a converted garage, up on Mississippi, just north of Prost/ Skidmore: good: an art gallery. The photo, below, gives an indication of its visual heft, albeit without conveying its aural dimension (there was music on the sidewalk)…
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.
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.
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.
So now I’ve been in Portland for about one-and-a-half weeks, and it’s time to ask myself whether I’d want to stay.
Is it pleasant? Yes.
Something I want to embrace? …Not so sure yet. (Not to mention vice versa: would Portland want me? Where do I fit in??)
Portland reminds me of Victoria BC – which is pretty funny, because everyone I told in Victoria that I would go to Portland for a spell squealed about how wonderful Portland is.
Both cities seem mellow, generally speaking. But they also strike me as low in energy: the general vibe is set to yin. Pleasant enough, but what I learned in Victoria is that all yin all the time is a velvet rut.
Just to put a counterpoint to that: Vancouver is brashly all yang, its tall and pointy and sharply glassy highrises a fitting built form mirroring the mountains that reach to the heavens.
Not so Victoria. And not so much Portland, either. Like I said: yin. That’s my impression, anyway. Sue me if I change my mind next week or discover that I’m totally mistaken because the sun might come out, forcing the city to get its yang on.
My impressions so far are based on Portland’s east sides – its Northeast and Southeast neighborhoods, not the downtown business district. I get a “yin” feel from the streets, in the way people dress. I used to joke that in Victoria everyone ends up looking like a schlump because there exists a peculiar kind of fashion entropy: no matter where you moved from, you eventually drift into a variant of the Birkenstock-and-socks mode. In the PNW (Pacific Northwest), which in winter is wet and dank, schlumpy-ness often looks a bit …well, mossy. Think temperate rain forest, spring fiddleheads, and endless vegetative growth with near-zero die-back in winter. It fits with the environment.
Looking sharp just doesn’t rank that high.
In contrast, consider Joni Mitchell’s The Boho Dance, where she sings about the cleaner’s press that was always in her jeans – you see, LA-based Joni was born a Prairie girl. The Prairies have real seasons, and naturally hard winters with blinding sunshine. The kind of weather that makes you keep your nose clean… or take out your ironing board. But when it’s overcast and drizzling, sharp creases disappear.
What is it about places like Victoria and Portland, I wonder?
Well, imagine my delight when I came across this article in Atlantic Cities, Why I Love My City: Carrie Brownstein on Portland. Who hasn’t seen Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in Portlandia, and laughed along? Her observations about Portland resonated with what I’ve often thought about Victoria.
On the landscape / creativity interchange, Brownstein notes, “It’s really about what the Pacific Northwest is. There’s a relationship between the internal and external landscape that inform the creativity.” Check.
On city rivalry (and here the interviewer is asking about Portland’s relationship to Seattle, but if you know about the Victoria-Vancouver rivalry, this will really register): “One trait people in Portland [insert Victoria] have is that we feel very special. I think both cities [Portland + Seattle / Victoria + Vancouver] have a strong sense of entitlement and uniqueness. Portland [Victoria] has perhaps more sensitivity.” …Oh, …yeah. Big yeah.
On newcomers and NIMBYs (well, that’s not what Brownstein calls them, but, you know: people who come to a place, changing it the way anthropological observers change their objects of study, but then insisting that the place has to stay as it was in perpetuity now that they’ve arrived and that it cannot bear additional change): “People discover Portland in a certain way and resent what it becomes later. Everyone has this insecurity about Portland like, ‘when does it arrive?’ and that comes with growing pains …”
On Portland’s work ethic: “There are a lot of people who are here to do less work. [laughs] You can stall out quickly in Portland if you’re using a coffee shop as an office. If you’re trying to get something done, you have to be careful not to hold a meeting at a bar or making a point of seeing three movies a day. The city really enjoys its downtime.”
Yin. Very very yin.
My updates have lately dwindled to practically zero. I’m in limbo of sorts, arguably a continuation of life-as-usual, but now in a different place.
For the time being, I’m in Portland Oregon. Interesting city. Been here for about a week, busy settling in and heading out when possible. My little furry friend, Jigger the Dog, makes things a bit tedious, since I have to travel by car to the various neighborhoods I want to explore. Public transit would take him, IF I had a pet carrier – and IF he tolerated being put in one… But I don’t, and he doesn’t. So we drive, in Portland. Yeah, I know…
Yesterday, I drove to one of Portland’s southeast neighborhoods to check out a house that was featured in the Wall Street Journal‘s real estate section: A Bicyclists’ House Built For Two. The article (by Nancy Keates), not to mention the comments, are fascinating. There’s a picture slide show, as well as a video. Long story short: pro-cyclist and financier husband build themselves a rather expensive and very modernist-in-style house in a neighborhood that’s otherwise pleasant, but unassuming – both in price and style. The result: a certain kind of polarization. Some people love the house, others loathe it – and loathe what they perceive as the owners’ hubris and sense of entitlement. (The house came in at ~$1.5million; the neighborhood clocks in at about 1/3 that price.)
So, yeah, it’s partly a NIMBY issue. Here’s a screen shot from Google maps of the street view:
You can see that the bungalow on the right (the house’s left) is well and truly dwarfed by the new addition to the neighborhood, but contrary to what some of the comments on the Wall Street Journal article’s board would suggest, there are a number of 2 to 2 1/2 story houses in the neighborhood, which are easily as tall as this new one.
The difference is that the other tall (or big) houses have a traditional shape (no flat roofs), whereas this one doesn’t.
It seems to be the Dwell Magazine look that sets some people’s teeth on edge, which is really too bad. It’s a handsome house, if you’re a fan of that aesthetic. But given that Dwell has inspired satire sites (see Unhappy Hipsters), it’s an understatement to say that the style is not universally loved and has to be handled sensitively when introduced into an established neighborhood. On the other hand, my gut response wouldn’t include defending the bungalow on the right… I think I’d prefer comparing and evaluating this house’s aesthetic (and other) merits by comparing it to the best of what’s already in the neighborhood.
Regarding the perception by some that the owners have an altogether too well-developed sense of entitlement, the comments board points to an interesting story: the owners held a charity fund-raiser in conjunction with one of the local brew houses. The goal was to raise money to send the professional cyclist to Germany for a world cycling event. Not sure about the details around that, but people will jump on something like this as proof of social disingenuousness. The gist of that argument runs approximately like this: If they can afford to build themselves a $1.5million house to satisfy their cycling passions [sic], why do they need to appeal to the public to raise funds to travel to competitions?
Based on my visit to the street yesterday, my impression was that the house does “stick out,” which suggests it’s out of scale. And yet it’s really not the scale that’s salient, but rather the house’s style. If it were in a traditional style, hardly anyone would balk at its scale (which, as I noted, is matched by a number of other houses in the neighborhood). No one would be talking about its price tag, either. But because its style is very salient, the issue of the fundraiser comes to serve as “proof” (however spurious) of its perceived effrontery.
One last thing: nowhere in the article is there any mention of a very interesting public feature I noticed on that street: it’s lined with bioswales. I haven’t seen those on any other residential street in Portland, and in fact haven’t seen too many of them anywhere. Portland has a page about its use of bioswales, but this street isn’t actually mentioned. I wonder if there are other examples in the city?