Monday, March 31, 2008

Portland is Nifty

I've never been to a Nordic city (Stockholm, Helsinki, or Copenhagen, for instance), but here's how I picture them: brisk, gray, clean, high-functioning, orderly, artistic and (ahem) white.

Portland is all of those things. The city doesn't make you feel insignificant, like Manhattan. The buildings are built to a more human scale, and the city blocks are scaled down to half the size of typical big city blocks. Walking is a pleasure; the sidewalks are made with neatly arranged red bricks rather than aggregate concrete. Drivers are passive, not aggressive. Pedestrians and bikers seem to rule the roost.

The weather was typically Pacific Northwestern: daily periods of rain, sun, rain again, only now mixed with slush, then sun, then, is that hail? Wise Portlanders wear sensible shoes and hats; foolish Portlanders wear high heeled pumps and silk blouses. When riding public transit, you notice other riders entering the train with pant legs completely soaked from knee to shoe.

Now, about the whiteness: Portland is by far the least racially diverse major city I've ever visited. I'm not exactly sure why it's so white; it just is. Chinatown was notable for a curious lack of Chinese. The few black folks I saw looked more like Bobby McFerrin than say, Bernie Mack. Is this why Portland is often called America's "Most Livable" city? Are headlines like this really secret code for "Psst... you'll like living here, it's really white"? You'd expect a lack of racial diversity in an isolated city like Reykjavik, but c'mon, in Portland, Oregon?

Still, the city works magnificently. Bikers pedal to work in special protected lanes; pedestrians hoof it through the sporadic rain squalls in the North Face outerwear (who needs an umbrella?) and the light rail system slips through town with barely a sound. Portland city planners certainly have a vision, and it's working.

One thing thankfully lacking in Portland are churches. Oh, you'll see the occasional steeple downtown, but one gets the feeling that Portlanders would rather spend time in a bookstore than in a church. The latter tells you what to do, the former let's you figure it out for yourself, if you're even interested.

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