Saturday, August 27, 2011
This past week, I made the pilgrimage to the place where, as Portlandia now-famously described it, “young people retire.” I visited Portland, Oregon, to sing praises on its bicycle culture, urban planning policies, environmental friendliness, and a food scene that prides itself on locally-sourced produce and sustainability. And the coffee: Portland is the Mecca of caffeine and local (coffee bean) roasting. As it turns out, Stuffwhitelikepeopleville, with its high livability, is a great place to lazily spend a few days or, possibly, a few months.
With a compact footprint, and a population of ~600,000, Portland felt downright cozy. People are approachable and helpful; on public transit, people struck up conversations and commented on my hair - which nowadays, is long, unkempt and curly. I was impressed at how sincere people were in their liberalism and eco-friendliness, unlike LA, where limousine liberals take up interests out of trendiness. City-wide composting, ubiquitous bicycles, and a emphasis on sustainability and all things organic all reflected this. Even in restaurants, you make and bus your own tables, a sign of the prevalent DIY ethic. And the air really is that much better.
Biking the city was a dream come true. Traversing a city by bike has never been easier. Bike-only lanes, sharrows, and esplanades criss-cross the city, and bike parking is ample. My favorite was the Waterfront Esplanade, a series of pedestrian and bike-only trails hugging the Williamette River, including dedicated levels on the bottom of an old, freight train bridge. Bicycles are used as a mode of transportation by all walks of life, from hippies, to hipsters, to family-friendly Dads, to suit-wearing Downtown professionals. Accustomed to the only cyclists being Lance Armstrong enthusiasts, homeless, and Westside Midnight Ridazz fans riding $1000 road bikes, it was revelationary.
In addition to being the most bike-friendly city, Portland also has the distinction of being the only city I have been to where newer, multifamily architecture looks better than old, pre-war single-family homes. Typically, that is not the case, as I prefer historic buildings. But in Portland, I had trouble finding historic buildings worth writing home about. A city of 1890s-1920s homes, most lacked ornamentation and detail, and were not much different from the simple Craftsman homes that dot much of Northeast LA. A sign of its modest, lumber town roots, perhaps?
The new buildings, however, are wonderful. All-around quality materials, along with designs that, while sharp and cutting edge, remain unobtrusive, mean Portland has some of the best new architecture. Good enough to the point that it hurts to think that a city smaller, poorer, and less relevant in the global spectrum (no diss) can design far more innovative, much better-looking buildings, at cheaper price-points to boot. And most, if not all, were LEED certified, with elaborate greywater recycling and waste-reduction systems, along with numerous windows, to best make use of (the rare) natural light. Especially inspiring was the Pearl District, a former neighborhood of low-slung warehouses and light industrial uses, transformed into neat blocks of stellar-looking 6-8 story mid-rises, streetcars, bike lanes, and spendy restaurants.
About restaurants, for a city lacking a rich immigrant tradition (Portland is 78% white, the whitest major city in the US) or many outside culinary influences, Portland was one of the best food cities I have visited. To feed its huge population of food-hungry, quasi-employed 20-something year old’s, Portland has looked inward for innovation. Restaurants offer extensive selections of local, organic, made-in-Oregon fare, appearing to compete over who can be the most “sustainable.” On several occasions, I would walk into a restaurant expecting there to be no napkins. German restaurant Grüner’s potato bun hamburger, topped with smoky bacon, pickled red onion, aioli, arugula, and house-made ketchup, was quite possibly the best hamburger I’ve had.
While arugula, spinach, aioli, grass-fed beef, and free-range chicken were all common on menus, in a stark contrast, bacon, biscuits, gravy, and, in general, pork, all seemed to be just as common. In fact, looking at the menus of one of the city’s myriad good brunch places, one feels as if they are south of the Mason-Dixie line. At Pine State Biscuits, I had the “Chatfield,” a biscuit with (boneless) fried chicken, bacon, cheddar, and apple butter. At another popular place, Tin Shed, I had biscuits smothered in white gravy and smoked applewood bacon, and cheese grits. Sweet tea was, of course, also present. The big dining trend seemed to be gourmet twists on “homeland” style meals; hearty, filling, unhealthy meals once eschewed in favor of then-new, healthier fusion and international options.