PROMISING Portland Destination: With lots of greenery, great views, microbeers and specialty coffees, the Oregon city is emerging as the next Great Place.

August 11, 1996|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Could it be that we're too late?

Here we are rolling in from the Portland, Ore., airport, just in time, we figure, to see the flowering of America's next Great Place, the emergence of Portland as the city that's cooler, greener, smaller and cheaper than the last Great Place, which I believe was somewhere north of here, on the coast. Portland, we understand, is nourished by coffee, beer and books, neighbored by forest and rivers, a damp promised land.

But our taxi hasn't crossed the Willamette River yet, and Khalid the driver is already deep into an explanation of how Portland has gone to the dogs.

You have to lock your car when you park in the city now, he says. And the drive in from the airport to the downtown area can take as long as half an hour.

Outside, we see a rain-washed, greenery-draped downtown grid, but Khalid is going on about how cleanliness is down and the freeway design is flawed.

Even the weather, Khalid moans, is getting worse.

"It rains a lot," he says, in the hopeless, awestricken tone of a public-health official describing a cholera outbreak.

At a moment like this, it helps to consider one's source. Thirty-seven inches of rain and 225 days of solid clouds a year can weigh heavily on the psyche of someone raised somewhere drier, and under questioning, Khalid acknowledges that his youth was spent in the Libyan desert.

It helps to look out the window, too.

Above the northern horizon rises snowy Mount Hood, 11,235 feet above sea level. Eighty miles west lies the Pacific, with wine and cheese country in between. To the northeast, about 35 miles beyond the city, looms the west end of the Columbia River Gorge, with 70-odd waterfalls spilling down its slopes. Continuing west and south, the Columbia skirts the northern edge of town. Meanwhile, a few miles south, separating most of the city's residential neighborhoods from downtown, runs the Willamette. (Pronounce it Will-AM-ette or risk scorn by locals.)

Downtown, laid out in 1845, is made up of unusually short blocks (200 feet long), which makes it an urban area that feels more sociable and less like a concrete canyon. Nearby sprawls Washington Park, where the zoo and the city's beloved rose test garden are tended; and farther to the northwest, the 4,600 acres of Forest Park, which include about 50 miles of trails for hikers and mountain bikers.

Half the city's streets seem to end in green hillside. Seeing all this on a visit in 1938, the social critic Lewis Mumford told the worthies of Portland's City Club, "You have an opportunity here to do a job of city planning like nowhere else in the world."

Population booming

Since 1979, an elected body separate from city government has enforced an Urban Growth Boundary girdling greater Portland, a zoning barrier intended to encourage city redevelopment and discourage suburban sprawl. But now the calls by developers and others for an expansion of the urban zone are multiplying, and researchers at Portland State University are projecting that the population of greater Portland will rise from 1.42 million in 1995 to 1.62 million by 2005. At that rate, the population will double in about 50 years.

We settle in at the Fifth Avenue Suites Hotel at Fifth and S.W. Washington Street, a new lodging within the shell of an old department store. After millions in reconstruction and updating under the watch of San Francisco-based boutique-hotel maven Bill Kimpton, the 10-story 1912 building reopened in May, featuring a lobby done up in bright canary-yellow hues and a restaurant, the Red Star Tavern and Roast House, that has been busy since its opening.

There are coffeehouses and microbreweries on all sides and restaurants serving large helpings of seafood and locally grown greens and mushrooms. And at the moment, there are elaborate floral displays on the bricks of Pioneer Courthouse Square. This is because we've arrived in time for the city's annual Rose Festival, which features carnivals, fireworks and parades, and kicks off a summer-long series of civic events and celebrations.

I immediately establish an alternating cycle of depressants and stimulants -- that is, beer and coffee -- beginning with a pint of Nor'Wester Wheat Ale at Jake's Famous Crawfish Restaurant, continuing with a cafe latte later. Then coffee mit schlag. Then Bitburger Pilsner. Then Black Magic coffee. Then McTarnahan's Amber Ale. Then cappuccino. Then a Full Sail Amber Ale. Then a Portland Haystack Black Beer. Then a Nor'Wester raspberry weizen beer. (Yeah, I know, I missed a few cups of coffee in there. These things happen.) My wife, Mary Frances, rebels by occasionally ordering Oregon wine.

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