October 09, 2012

Why I Fell in Love with Portland, Part I

by: Taz Loomans


You know that feeling when you fall in love? You know…your senses are heightened, food tastes better, the air feels crisper and your knees feel weak. I didn’t think I could feel this way again, especially since I am wading through the pain of the recent breakup of my marriage. But lo and behold, my heart started beating hard with joy and an ecstasy began percolating in my gut. It wasn’t for any wonderful guy that I had met though. It was for the city of Portland.

I went there for a visit last week and it changed my life.

The first day I was there was a Sunday. My friend Kirby Hoyt had raved about Voodoo Doughnut, and around noon on Sunday seemed like a perfectly legitimate time to try it out and have some donuts. So I punched the address into my phone and found that it was a short walk from the condo in which I was renting a room which was situated in the River District.

My room overlooked the Willamette River.

I got to Voodoo and there was quite a long line of people waiting to order their donuts snaking around the adjacent sidewalk, just like Kirby had described. Because I have a short attention span and I was intrigued by all the activity and people on the street, I decided to hold off on the donuts and keep exploring.

The long lines at Voodoo Doughnut

I quickly came upon a crowd of people standing around some street musicians. It was a lively bunch, full of kids, families, not-families, singles, friends, couples, pretty much everyone.

People crowding around the street musicians.

But that wasn’t the end of the fun. I noticed there was even more activity just beyond these street musicians and there seemed to be an arts fair with tents and people selling hand-made goods. I wandered through this wonderful little market happening in the courtyard between buildings. As I walked through this market, I noticed there was even more activity across the street, so I followed my nose and kept going.

The arts fair.

This is where all the food stands were and there was a huge tent set up with tables underneath for people to sit and enjoy the food. There was a stage in front of this tent with musicians setting up to play. By this time, my stomach was growling and I went and found some Thai food, my favorite, from a couple that was running a stand nearby. (It was VERY good!).

Thai food stand.

I sat on the steps and ate my yellow chicken curry on a bed of fluffy white rice while I soaked in all of the goodness around me. There were SO many people out, people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, economic statuses, ages and styles. (side note: strangely, the diversity of people didn’t extend to ethnic backgrounds because almost everyone was white!) I kept thinking to myself – wow, if we had a single day in Phoenix where this kind of public gathering would happen, I would be happy. Apparently this market and this level of vibrancy happen every weekend in Portland as part of the Portland Saturday Market.

At this point, my stomach was satisfied, but my curiosity wasn’t. So I kept following the throngs of people and came to another arts and crafts market under a bridge, which transformed the space from a left-over, forgetten and potentially scary place into an intimate outdoor shopping experience.

Open-air market under the bridge.

Beyond the bridge I came upon this idyllic river-front park on the Willamette with plenty of shade trees and people sitting or laying down under them. I decided to take a rest and found myself a tree to sit under. Again, I took the opportunity to soak in my beautiful surroundings. I saw people using the boardwalk in front of the river, jogging, biking, walking, talking and enjoying themselves. Here’s a short video of what I saw:

And then it occurred to me that all of these great experiences were connected. I never once felt like I needed to get into a car to experience these things because it was easy to walk from one to another. In fact, I was able to walk from where I was staying to all these places and not break a sweat. Moreover, there were no gaps in the activity, like empty lots, and I was able to navigate very easily from one thing to the next.

Last Sunday, was the beginning of my love affair with Portland. I will tell you more in part II of Why I Fell in Love with Portland.

Photo credit: All photos and video by the author.

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16 Responses

  1. After two visits to Portland, Oregon, I’m still haven’t fall in love. Maybe that’s because my journeys there have been business trips that took me to suburban destinations. What I saw in the environs of Portland looked much like suburbia everywhere else — no better & no worse. I made an effort to escape to more central neighborhoods within Portland city limits, but even those didn’t seem transcendent in the way that I expected. Maybe I just didn’t know where to look.

    I seem some linkage between this post, your comments above about donuts, and some of your recent posts on Firefly Living. Let me explain: Phoenix is a donut — an appealing exterior ring of mountain preserves, hiking trails, residential neighborhoods, and bike paths surrounding a city core that sometimes fails to deliver a walkable, urban experience. Portland might be the opposite: a donut hole of a rich city center (even if I’ve yet to find it) surrounded by less interesting suburbs. Let’s work here in Phoenix to create our donut hole to match the donut we already have.

    Two other notes:

    1) I made a point to say Portland, Oregon above because the other Portland — Portland, Maine — is worth visiting, even if it gets less attention these days.

    2) I am truly sorry to learn of the breakup of your marriage. If hope that travel, blogging, and all the worthwhile things you do help to ease the pain.

    • Taz Loomans says:

      David, thank you for your kind words. Your support is always appreciated. I agree that Phoenix is a donut and I like how you tied it all together with this analogy! 🙂 I have heard good things about Portland, Maine as well and would love to visit.

    • Fantastic analogy, David! Great analogies are priceless.

  2. Suzanne Day says:

    Taz, I’m happy you’ve found a new love but so sorry it’s not in Phoenix. I’m grateful for all you’ve done here and I wish you so much joy!

    David, I love your comments! I’m committed to staying in Phoenix and working toward a more vibrant, inclusive, and sane reality. I hope to meet you and work with you soon.

    • Taz Loomans says:

      Thanks Suzanne, you are such a wonderful friend and colleague. Oh my God, you haven’t met David? You have to! He’s such an amazing transit/bus advocate and he walks his walk. If you haven’t met soon, I will make sure you meet!

  3. Heather says:

    I am so glad you liked Portland! We met at the Lux in Phoenix, sharing space at the counter one day. Yes, it is a pedestrian, cyclist, town. I rarely drive on the weekends. The suburbs aren’t Portland but Tigard, Beaverton, Hillsboro, etc..

    Next time you will have to venture more into the NE and SE neighborhoods. You can rent a bike or take the bus. These are still very much walkable areas.

    My love is in Phoenix but my heart is here.

  4. Steve P says:

    Can’t wait to read more Taz.

    I like David’s donut analogy. I think Portland is more congested which makes commuting from place to place much easier. Phoenix should have implemented growth restrictions years ago because I don’t see Phoenix having a donut hole any time soon. There are too few people who want this here. The people of Portland LOVE their city and they’re committed to making the mom and pops work there. Whereas here, most people just want to know where the nearest Walmart or Starbucks is.

  5. Will Novak says:

    Portland, Oregon, especially its core is a very beautiful city. Though like Taz says, it is overly white, which is a major turn off for me. I also find the City to be overly young. Thats perhaps odd considering I’m only 28, but when I’ve been in PDX I kept thinking “where are the grown ups!?” the whole town feels like the island of misfit toys.

    I think PHX and Southwestern cities in general have a lot to learn from our Northwestern brethren. But for me, when I visit a cool urban place like Portland I don’t come back thinking “I have to move there!” but rather “oh wow now I have all these great ideas we can copy back home.” I hope Taz and other creative types can see their visits through that prism as well.

    And while we can learn a lot from Portland I don’t think its entirely a model PHX should follow. Portland is already much smaller than Phoenix and culturally quite different. I think a city like Chicago makes a better model for what Phoenix could potentially be “when we grow up.”

    • Interesting comments about age. Many cities are perceived as younger than Phoenix when in fact they’re older. The median age in Phoenix is 31.4, and for the entire Phoenix Metro Area it’s 33.7. The median age in Portland is 35.3, and for the entire Portland Metro Area it’s 36.4.

      Source: American FactFinder http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml

      Phoenix is often stereotyped as an old city based on a few retirement communities on its fringes, but it actually has one of the youngest populations among U.S. metro areas. Portland is now stereotyped as “the place where young people go to retire,” but its population is a bit older.

      Maybe the “misfit toys” impression about Portland comes more from attitudes and behavior than number of birthdays celebrated. Of course, I’m an old man in either city, so I’ll just hide my silver hair under a bike helmet no matter where I go.

  6. Lisa Parks says:

    Thanks so much for writing about your trip to Portland. I look forward to reading part 2 and 3! I thought about moving there before I moved to Phoenix, even though I’ve never been (but look forward to visiting one day). It just seems like a place that I would like.

    It’s funny you should mention connectivity because I was just thinking about that the other day as I was walking up 5th Avenue from Van Buren and past an empty lot and no other people at 5:30 pm. I was working at a photo studio that day and sometimes we order take out from Cibo for lunch just a few blocks away. It occurred to me that, even though Cibo is so close, someone always drives to pick up the food. As I walked, I realized that it’s because there are so few pedestrians and there are empty spaces which makes it seem like a much longer stretch than it is.

    I look forward to a day when there are lots of people walking in Phoenix as we get more storefronts and restaurants and such. It’s starting to happen and it’s exciting to see.

    And I’m so very sorry to hear about your marriage, Taz.

    • Taz Loomans says:

      Hi Lisa, thanks for your kind words! Yes, right now Phoenix is just not that walkable. The scale of our city is just not set up for pedestrians. Empty lots, empty streets, and a lack of close adjancencies kill walkability here. Yes, it’s getting better, especially in the Roosevelt district, which is becoming very walkable and vibrant! Exciting to see for sure.

      • Lately, I’ve been reading about the distinction between “walkability” and “walk appeal.” The former can take the form of sidewalks, signaled crosswalks, and other infrastructure that allows pedestrians to travel safely. The latter can take the form of streets that keep the pedestrian motivated to continue from one block to another. When a walk involves passing by vacant lots or buildings that fail to address the street, then walk appeal is diminished. If, on the other hand, each block in a walk brings a continuous experience of passing by active structures and maybe even a few serendipitous discoveries along the way, then walk appeal is enhanced.

        Block length also matter. One of the challenges of the northwest part of Downtown, where Cibo is located, is that block length is excessively long there. Many of the avenues in that area have no intersecting streets between Van Buren and Fillmore, a distance of a quarter mile. I remember once having dinner at Cibo and then seeing a show at the Comerica Theater. We walked between the two places, but the distance seemed greater than it would have east of Central, where Taylor and Polk break up the long stretch between Van Buren and Fillmore.

        • I now realize that it what one of your Firefly Living posts where I first learned about the concept of walk appeal. I apologize for not acknowledging that and feel silly for telling you what you already told me.

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