Thursday, April 11, 2013

Go: Best b'god city in America

    There are at least three things you can do especially well in Portland, Oregon, and they're all important: eating, drinking, and getting around. Here in the self-proclaimed "city that works," restaurants pride themselves on their fresh, locally grown fare, and you're never far from inspired coffee or innovative brew-pub beers. What's more, few cities in the United States are as bicycle friendly. Add to this the ubiquitous local art and a widespread recycling ethic, and you've hit upon much of what makes this verdant, forward-thinking city so appealing.
 Portland is so thoroughly... well, retro. It's among just a handful of American cities that have managed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Friendliness and civic involvement thrive here even as they decline elsewhere. The downtown farmers market on Park Avenue is jammed every Saturday morning with shoppers dedicated to buying organically grown arugula, Willamette Valley hazelnuts, and artisanal cheeses while listening to bluegrass and folk music. People live in town and in the suburbs, but farmland around the city has been preserved; and skiing and surfing are little more than an hour away.
    It's all about sustainable, low-impact living, including getting from here to there. Climb aboard a shiny red bike in the Southeast section of town and angle west toward the Willamette River, through a loose network of neighborhoods both funky and high-end. The bike's long, raised handlebars elicit appreciative bell tinkles from other riders. By the time you reach the river, it's raining. Ah, Portland.
    As often happens in this city, there's a place nearby to have a meal—in this case, the little Produce Row Cafe, set amid warehouses. The rain stops as you finish my beer-battered fries and mount up again and take the riverside bike trail north. The path follows the fast-flowing Willamette in its last northward stretch before its confluence with the more powerful Columbia River.

    Steer away from the water toward Mississippi Avenue, and the Laughing Planet Café, one in a local chain, whose owner wears Bermudas and a New York Yankees cap. "I realized Portland was home within 20 minutes of first arriving and riding around on my folding bicycle," the ex-New Yorker says. Struck by the "wonderfully cohesive neighborhoods," he decided Portland was a model city, showing "how it has to go if we're to survive as a nation."
    Every day, cyclists make more than 17,000 trips across Portland's four bridges. Eight percent of Portlanders bike to work. "Bicycles succeed here because we've built the facilities," says the bearded bike facilitator in City Hall, "bike lanes, parking places—and our distances are relatively short." Local tourism agencies, in sync, offer cycling tours. And then there are some 4,000 organized bike rides each year, including one in which riders pedal "as bare as you dare." Doesn't public nudity violate a city ordinance? "Yes, but what can you do with 5,000 naked people on bicycles?"

    Every year the PedalPalooza festival hosts 270 events over 17 days; on Fridays, a supportive citizenry hands riders free pastries and mugs of coffee as they pedal past. Cyclist types range from Zoobombers—punks racing madly downhill—to cyclo-cross racers, who pedal up steps and over barriers, to a female dance troupe called the Sprockettes. One participant adapted a bike into a machine for making daiquiris.
    An unusual contraption dear to many Portlanders is the "tall" bike, which consists of one bike frame welded atop another, with vertical and horizontal chain drives and a seat six feet high. "You have to kick it off," says one rider, demonstrating, "like a scooter, and then hop on." Red-bearded, energetic, the technology director of a small social media company, he prefers "transportationalist" to "young modern," a common reference to thirty-somethings drawn to Portland. He owns six bicycles of various sorts, plus five unicycles—one of which he rode 50 miles to the beach—but at the moment he's making an arc in the middle of 4th Avenue in Southwest.

    A block away, I can see the food carts, kitchens on wheels that serve good Eastern European, Thai, Mexican, and other ethnic cuisines out of trailers to a hungry midday workforce. “Tall bikes have the same appeal as SUVs," he calls out. "You can see over things. Stopping is the problem. You have to get off, or put your foot on a lamppost, or"—he laughs—"on a car roof."

    To navigate Portland, by bike or otherwise, you have to master some basic geography. First, imagine the Willamette River neatly cleaving the city, south to north, with the northwest and southwest (home of the city's downtown) sectors on one side, the north, northeast, and southeast sectors on the other. The east-west dividing line, which extends to both sides of the river, is Burnside Street. Forest Park, a 5,156-acre urban retreat, gives the city's western horizon a wild, deeply green aspect. In 1903, John Charles Olmsted designed a system of open spaces for Portland so it could accommodate rapid population growth. Parkland took on an intrinsic value, as did relatively small city blocks and building plots, office buildings of limited height, and broad sidewalks that would encourage vibrant street life.
    And thanks to former governor Tom McCall, Portland also has an outer greenbelt, one of many in the state. Back in the late '60s, Governor McCall challenged every community in Oregon to come up with a plan for controlled growth and to establish no-build greenbelts to limit sprawl. These belts redirected growth back into the cities instead of onto farmland, emphasizing density over trophy houses—and helping to empower communities. A proposed interstate highway that would have wiped out whole neighborhoods, for example, was defeated. Money went into a light-rail system and other public transport.
    Nowadays, in new developments, shops are built at street level with apartments and condos above, reflecting a European model. Environmental sensitivity has become part of Portland's social fabric. Portland's Tom McCall Waterfront Park honors his legacy. The park's sinuous green ribbon draws walkers, skaters, bikers, and some sleepers; and on a clear day, it provides a glorious full-on view of the snow-creased mass of Mount Hood in the distance.

Coming: Portland Redux

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