Saturday, April 13, 2013

Go: Portland Redux

    Of all the city's extensive green spaces, none is better than the Portland Japanese Garden in Washington Park in Southwest, a transformative descent into the intricacies of the spiritual landscape.
    There's the Stroll Garden—one of five blending seamlessly, this one populated by colorful koi finning under the Moon Bridge—and the Natural Garden, a wondrously realistic mimicry of waterfalls and sylvan paths bordered by smooth stones and Japanese maples, engendering repose in everyone who pauses to look. The Portland Japanese Garden manages to accommodate 200,000 visitors a year without losing its air of remoteness and discovery.
    Trade the tranquil Japanese Garden for the busy streets of "The Pearl," epicenter of Portland's thriving art scene. This gentrified warehouse district brims with restaurants, cafés, and upscale chain stores, as well as Portland's legendary bookseller, Powell's. On the first Thursday of the month, a crowd of art lovers moves at a measured pace from gallery to gallery. Everett Street has edgy, electronic offerings, such as the interactive art exhibited at ON Gallery, while the streets around the Pacific Northwest College of Art are dense with middlebrow landscape paintings, sculpture, and crafts of all sorts, from cast temple bells to knives made from motorcycle chains. Gawkers—and buyers—on the Pearl's First Thursday may live in expensive condos overlooking Jamison Square, a handsome local park, but more come from highly individualistic neighborhoods in other sectors of the city connected to the center by light-rail. Lovely, Czech-designed trolleys trundle over rails in a modern mode of travel reminiscent of an earlier age. There's bus service, too.

    On the northern edge of the Pearl District take a seat in Portland's old Armory for some lively evening entertainment. "It's… it's…" "Live Wire!" screams the audience, in response to a card held aloft on stage by the prompter, filling the old stone fortress with an enthusiasm that makes Prairie Home Companion fans seem blasé. Recorded here in the Gerding Theater—a stunning architectural redesign of concrete, steel, and glass—Live Wire will be broadcast later on Oregon public radio. The audience is fashionably eclectic—spiffy grunge to quasi-professorial—but mostly just relaxed and warmly responsive to jokes, a performance artist, the mellow Portland Cello Project, and homegrown alt-rock band, the Dandy Warhols.
    At intermission, people make straight for the state-of-the-art espresso machine in the lobby, which also features interactive monitors and a Wi-Fi system. The theater's community programs manager ticks off the building's environmental street creds: "the only sustainable theater renovation in the country with a LEED Platinum certification by the U.S. Green Building Council; an outdoor 'bio-swale' landscaped with native species; irrigation by captured rainwater, which also feeds the minimum-flush toilets. These [features] give people things to think about." He's dressed in black shirt and charcoal jacket, also reviews restaurants and dance performances, and plays drums in a jazz band, "including sustainability, good air quality, and smart design." In tonight's printed program for Live Wire is a "Green Cleaning Guide" foldout. References to environmental concerns throughout the show get the biggest applause. Sustainability, it seems, is not just a mantra here—it's a social imperative.

    Another version of Portland's creativity in the Mississippi Avenue neighborhood is the Re-Building Center, a cavernous repository of used building parts and materials of every imaginable description. The exterior is a medley of whimsical mega-sculptures made of found objects, but inside it's all business: lumber, plumbing fixtures, barn siding, doors, flooring, railings, shutters, bathtubs—in short, a universe of building remnants turned into a $3-million-a-year business and a sight no visitor should miss, both for its astounding variety and variation on the Portland ethic. It's included in the itineraries of visiting VIPs "from New Orleans to Kosovo. It's really the small stuff like this that will save society, not technological breakthroughs. People all over the world want to see what we do and how we do it. We let them hang out and learn these skills."
    The 32-year-old artist and clothing designer who works as a barista for Stumptown Coffee Roasters, knows something about good water—and the other ingredients that make for a stellar brew: "The beans here are a mixture of Latin American, African, and Indonesian. The blend changes every year, depending upon the harvest," although the exact mixture is tantamount to a state secret. Stumptown's a homegrown coffee roaster that started on Division Street in Southeast and now has five locations around town. From these emanate the satisfying whoosh behind a crema or a soy latte and the aroma of Stumptown's unique, mahogany-hued brew wafting into the subconscious of anyone within nosing distance. This Stumptown café's attached to the Ace Hotel, in Southwest. Pass into the lobby and sit on a sofa covered in recycled green army surplus ponchos, listening to the chatter of a manual coffee grinder.
    "Stumptown is fast-paced, but you learn to pull the perfect shot on a beautiful Mistral machine, which has lots of controls." Jobs like hers are highly sought after by young creatives who want time off to go to the beach or to one of the many handy mountains for hiking, skiing, and snowboarding or just to stay home and work on their own projects, which, in her case, are fashion shows put on by boutique designers.
    The Ace Hotel may not be strictly sustainable, but it tries, with bookshelves full of used volumes of Johnson, Tolstoy, Wilde, and Bret Hart. The rooms upstairs are decorated in the latest in eco-chic: pipe fixtures to hold the toilet paper, recycled paint buckets for wastebaskets, custom made, pure wool Pendleton blankets on frameless beds. The hotel traffic is mostly young, hip, and apparently happy in cut-offs, porkpie hats, and long chains, with not a tucked-in shirt in sight.
    The lobby feeds into the Clyde Common restaurant next door, which is part of the scene, a kind of moveable feast where customers dine well together at big tables, and the bar offers everything from homemade, nonalcoholic lemon-ginger and lavender sodas to absinthe, that formerly forbidden fin-de-siècle libation served mixed with water—which turns it cloudy—poured from a vintage silver dispenser. Sustainability, like social responsibility, is admirable, but can highly competitive businesses like gourmet restaurants, coffee shops, and brewpubs toe this line?

     So leave Stumptown, the Ace, and Clyde Common and head to the Hopworks Urban Brewery, on Powell Street in Southeast, to sample Portland's favorite drink: the microbrew.  Take a seat at the bar, which has a trellis of lovely old bike frames strung overhead. The spigots for draft beer made on the premises are designed to look like Allen wrenches, and banana bike seats decorate the men's room. Hopworks' west parking lot is made of permeable pavers. Rainwater feeds old metal kegs sawed in half to serve as planters for native species of grasses and flowers. The burners under the brewery's kettles are fueled with biodiesel, as is the owner's old silver VW Golf. The fuel includes "SVO"—straight vegetable oil—from Hopworks' own fries cooker. The refrigeration here is high-efficiency, and the furniture is made of recycled wood with low volatile organic compounds in all the finishes.
     "The main thing," the owner says, "is that you're criticizing convention every step of the way. Hopworks is the first eco-brewpub making certified organic beer, and it serves only local produce in the restaurant. Initially it was more expensive to do all this, but the long-term paybacks mean real money." Meanwhile, dozens of people get to work in an attractive setting, serving customers with something ineffable in common. "Portland revolves around things that are thoughtful. We're just local people trying to make a living responsibly, doing something we love."
     From National Geographic Traveler

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Jim, for posting this remarkable travel guide to Portland! From beautiful gardens to thought-provoking art, from live entertainment to a book-filled room to stay, and from coffee to a local brew, you've covered everything a tourist - or local - could want! I enjoy sitting at an outside cafe on some comfy, not-too-hot-from-the-sun patio furniture and just people-watching when I go to a new place. Are there a lot of outside cafes in Portland, as well? Thanks again for all the must-see tips!