Photograph by Susan Seubert
From the November/December 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler
This Oregon city gets almost everything right: It's friendly, sustainable, accessible, maybe even a model for America's future.
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 of 575,930 so appealing.
Portland is so thoroughly trendy these days that at times it seems, 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.
Portland is all about sustainable, low-impact living, including getting from here to there. So I 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 I reach the river, it's raining. Ah, Portland.
As often happens in this city, there's a place nearby where I can have a meal—in this case, the little Produce Row Cafe, set amid warehouses. The rain stops as I finish my beer-battered fries, and I 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. I steer away from the water toward Mississippi Avenue, where I find a Laughing Planet Café, one in a local chain, whose owner—former bike shop proprietor Richard Satnick—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. Satnick, struck by the "wonderfully cohesive neighborhoods," decided Portland is a model city, showing "how it has to go if we're to survive as a nation."
Every day, cyclists make more than 16,700 trips across Portland's four bridges, says Roger Geller, bicycle coordinator for the city government. Geller's trim white beard and straw hat stand out as he pedals his old two-wheeled "beater" to city hall. He's one of the 8 percent of Portlanders who usually bike to work. "Bicycles succeed here because we've built the facilities—bike lanes, parking places—and our distances are relatively short."
Local tourism agencies are in sync, offering 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," says Geller. Doesn't public nudity violate a city ordinance? I ask. "Yes," Geller says, "but what can you do with 5,000 naked people on bicycles?" Now that's Portland.
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 Michael Jones, demonstrating, "like a scooter, and then hop on."
Red-bearded, energetic, the technology director of a small social media company, Jones prefers the moniker "transportationalist" to "young modern," a common reference to thirtysomethings 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 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," Jones 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.
But of all the city's extensive green spaces, my favorite is the Portland Japanese Garden in Washington Park in Southwest. The garden provides a transformative descent into the intricacies of the spiritual landscape. "What makes a good Japanese garden is the placement of stones, shrubs, trees, and water to emphasize the subtle asymmetry of nature," says Diane Durston, the garden's curator of culture and art.
Durston and I move from the Stroll Garden—one of five blending seamlessly, this one populated by colorful koi finning under the Moon Bridge—to 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.
"I feel like I'm in the warm sunshine of Japan," adds Durston, who lived for 18 years in Kyoto and chose Portland on her return to the U.S. "because the city's so rich in cultural and natural assets, and because it tries to be conscious of future generations."
I 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.
The creative arts are a way "to explore environmental issues and to inform people about specific landscapes," Tom Webb tells me. Webb, the editor of The Bear Deluxe Magazine, grew up in Portland and remembers "when people were leaving, not arriving." The timber industry had crashed, and so had the job market. "But when quality of life became an issue in this country, the Portland renaissance started. Now we all want to maintain the city's livability."
The 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.
I arrive at the northern edge of the Pearl District to take a seat in Portland's old Armory for some lively evening entertainment.
"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. Tim DuRoche, 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." DuRoche, a multitalented chap 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."
Included 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.
Next day, I'm introduced to another version of Portland's creativity in the Mississippi Avenue neighborhood, at the ReBuilding 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.
"We employ 45 people and move eight tons of product a day back into structures housing Portlanders," says the founder, Shane Endicott, burning with conviction in his old T-shirt. "The idea is to take what society says is waste and turn it around so it can be used."
His goal, he says, "is to create a nonprofit model that can be given away to other places." 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."
April Melnick, a 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 is 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. Melnick and I are in the Stumptown café attached to the Ace Hotel, in Southwest. We 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," Melnick says, "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 Melnick's case, are fashion shows put on by boutique designers.
Our cups rest on a big industrial door turned coffee table that might have come straight from the ReBuilding Center. 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, I'm thinking, but can highly competitive businesses like gourmet restaurants, coffee shops, and brewpubs toe this line? Leaving Stumptown, the Ace, and Clyde Common, I head to the Hopworks Urban Brewery, on Powell Street in Southeast, to sample Portland's favorite drink: the microbrew.
I 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. Owner Christian Ettinger, who wears hiking shorts and sneakers, tells me he "didn't do a marketing study because I'm just passionate about the outdoors, beer, pizza, and bicycles. I thought there had to be people in Portland who would want to put them all together, and the response has been incredible."
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 Ettinger'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," Ettinger goes on, "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, 62 people get to work in an attractive setting, serving customers with something ineffable in common. "Portland revolves around things that are thoughtful," Ettinger says in that quiet moment before Hopworks throws open its doors to the noontime pedaling public. "We're just local people trying to make a living responsibly, doing something we love."
Intelligent Travel: Portland, Oregon
Portland, Oregon, is on Pacific standard time.
Ace Hotel 1022 S.W. Stark St.; 1 503 228 2277; www.acehotel.com/portland.
Beast 5425 N.E. 30th Ave.; 1 503 841 6968; www.beastpdx.com.
Clyde Common 1014 S.W. Stark St.; 1 503 228 3333; www.clydecommon.com.
Departure 525 S.W. Morrison St.; 1 503 802 5370; www.departureportland.com.
First Thursday Gallery Walk N.W. 23rd St. and the Pearl; 1 503 295 4979; www.firstthursdayportland.com.
Gerding Theater at the Armory 128 N.W. 11th Ave.; 1 503 445 3700; www.pcs.org.
Hopworks Urban Brewery 2944 S.E. Powell Blvd.; 1 503 232 4677; www.hopworksbeer.com.
Laughing Planet Café 3765 N. Mississippi Ave. (and five other locations); 1 503 467 4146; www.laughingplanetcafe.com.
Nines Hotel 525 S.W. Morrison St.; 877 229 9995.
ON Gallery 321 N.W. 6th Ave. #101; 1 503 313 5379; http://ongallery.org.
Pacific Northwest College of Art 1241 N.W. Johnson St.; 1 503 226 4391; www.pnca.edu.
Powell's City of Books 1005 W. Burnside St. (and four other locations); 800 878 7323; www.powells.com.
Portland Farmers Markets (five markets at various locations on various days of the week); 1 503 241 0032; www.portlandfarmersmarket.org.
Portland Japanese Garden 611 S.W. Kingston Ave.; 1 503 223 1321; www.japanesegarden.com.
Produce Row Cafe 204 S.E. Oak St.; 1 503 232 8355; www.producerowcafe.com.
ReBuilding Center 3625 N. Mississippi Ave.; 1 503 331 1877; www.rebuildingcenter.org.
Stumptown Coffee Roasters 1026 S.W. Stark St. (and four other locations); 1 503 224 9060; www.stumptowncoffee.com.
Tanner Springs Park N.W. 10th Ave. and Marshall St.
Travel Portland www.travelportland.com.
Bike Portland http://bikeportland.org.
Shift PedalPalooza and other events; www.shift2bikes.org.
Contributing editor James Conaway wrote about London in our March 2009 special issue on cities. Photographer Susan Seubert, a Portlander since 1988, says the city’s farmers markets are among the nation’s best.
2015 Traveler Photo Contest
Explore the top photos, share your favorites, and browse all entries.