Portland, Oregon: Can a Place Be Too Perfect?

In recent years, Portland has acquired a reputation as a big city with a small-town quality of life: The air is fresh, the food is organic, the streets are paved with good intentions

Washington Park

(John Clark)

When I first heard Loretta Lynn sing, "Well, Portland, Oregon, and sloe gin fizz / If that ain't love, then tell me what is," I wanted to write her a letter. "Dear Loretta," it would say. "Have you ever considered Havana, Cuba, and a bottle of rum? How about Madrid, Spain, and a lusty Rioja?" As far as I could tell, there was nothing particularly seductive about a city where plug-ins for electric cars were installed nine years ago, where the most prominent new building was made with recycled material, where you'd be hard pressed to find a street without a clearly marked bike lane.

There's an admirable, almost intimidating conscientiousness to the way people in Portland live, which has little to do with sensual abandon. Not only does a spotless, fast, and cheap ($1.70) light rail run from the airport to the middle of the city, but there was also a guardian angel posted near the ticket machine to facilitate the process. Forty minutes later, I was on the tree-lined, cobblestoned streets downtown. A policeman on a mountain bike directed me to the Hotel Lucia, where the staff offered me a tart green apple and plied me with maps and restaurant recommendations. Wandering around, I noticed kiosks stocked with brochures. They were manned by sidewalk ambassadors, armed with pocket PCs, posted specifically to answer tourists' questions. It was like Disneyland with more overt politics.

But every time I thought I had Portland figured out, something came along and turned my theory upside-down. It can be as arch as it is earnest, as sophisticated as it is folksy, as obsessive as it is easygoing--and although it may lead with its utopian aspirations, it has plenty of dystopian secrets. Portland, I was surprised to learn, has more strip bars per capita than any other U.S. city.

Maybe Loretta was on to something.

It started, as these things do, with smart planning. Twenty-five years ago, the regional government created an urban growth boundary, confining new development to established neighborhoods in order to minimize sprawl. The result is a city unfettered by strip malls and prefab developments; instead, Portland is a patchwork of neighborhoods, each a sort of self-contained, distinctive ecosystem.

The Willamette (rhymes with "Damn it") River snakes through the city, separating the east side from the west; Burnside Street divides north and south. Most of Portland's traditional attractions are on the west side, including its downtown. At lunch hour, Pioneer Square--an amphitheater smack in the city's center--is filled with professionals eating delicious tacos and Ethiopian food sold from hand-painted carts. But unlike so many American cities, downtown Portland continues to live and breathe at night and on weekends. Every other evening in Pioneer Square, weather permitting, there's a symphony or a youth choir or an Italian cultural festival--or at the very least, a street musician banging noisily on plastic buckets.

Most of downtown Portland is shiny and new, but there are vestiges of the 19th century, when it was a brawny logging town. In the lobby of the Governor Hotel, leather couches and armchairs cluster around a huge marble fireplace. The hotel restaurant, Jake's Grill, is a classic steakhouse: mosaic floors, stiff martinis, and Frank Sinatra on the sound system. Wilf's, in the city's fin de siècle train station, transports guests to an even earlier era, a time when train stations were associated with passionate farewell kisses. It's a piano bar with flocked wallpaper, chandeliers, and huge velvet banquettes. The night I was there, a woman in cat glasses, accompanied by a pianist and a conga player, crooned torch songs and bossa nova for an eclectic crowd--commuters killing time, couples in their 60s, hipsters titillated by living an anachronism (many of whom she greeted by name).

A good number of cast-iron buildings in downtown's Old Town still bear their old signs, mostly for theaters and western outfitters, but inside are some of the city's most interesting shops. Portland may have more vintage clothing stores per capita than any other American city--and one of the best, if the most expensive, is Torso. Michellie, the imperious chatelaine who runs the place, talks as if each piece is a beloved child. "Those darlings won't be with us for long," she purrs, waving a bangled arm toward a row of Dior and Valentino gowns. Around the corner at The Monkey and the Rat, there are antique walking sticks, Indonesian marionettes, gleaming mango-wood vases, and intricately carved Thai spirit houses. In one more instance of Portland's good intentions, the owner tells me that he prices his Asian imports as reasonably as he can, since he gets such good deals on them abroad.

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