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Why Portland Appeals

What's the allure of that city of the moment up in Oregon? Well, there's the air, the greenery, the coffee--and a certain attitude.

June 23, 1996|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

PORTLAND, Ore. — Could it be that we're too late?

Here we are rolling in from the airport, just in time, we figure, to see the flowering of America's next Great Place, the emergence of Portland as the city that's cooler, greener, smaller and cheaper than the last Great Place, which I believe was somewhere north of here, on the coast. Portland, we understand, is nourished by coffee, beer and books, neighbored by forest and rivers, a damp promised land.

But our taxi hasn't crossed the Willamette River yet, and Khalid the driver is already deep into an explanation of how Portland has gone to hell.

You have to lock your car when you park in the city now, he says. And the drive in from the airport to the downtown area can take as long as half an hour.

Outside, we see a rain-washed, greenery-draped downtown grid, but Khalid is going on about how cleanliness is down and the freeway design is flawed.

Even the weather, Khalid moans, is getting worse.

"It rains a lot," he says, in the hopeless, awe-struck tone of a public health official describing a cholera outbreak.

At a moment like this, it helps to consider one's source. Thirty-seven inches of rain and 225 days of solid clouds a year can weigh heavily on the psyche of someone raised somewhere drier, and under questioning, Khalid acknowledges that his youth was spent in the Libyan desert.

It helps to look out the window too.

Above the northern horizon rises snowy Mt. Hood, 11,235 feet above sea level. Eighty miles west lies the Pacific, with wine and cheese country (Tillamook) in between. To the northeast, about 35 miles beyond the city, looms the west end of the Columbia River Gorge, with 70-odd waterfalls spilling down its slopes. Continuing west and south, the Columbia skirts the northern edge of town. Meanwhile, a few miles south, separating most of the city's residential neighborhoods from downtown, runs the Willamette. (Pronounce it Will-AM-ette or risk scorn by locals.)

Downtown, laid out in 1845, is made up of unusually short blocks (200 feet long), which makes it an urban area that feels more sociable and less like a concrete canyon. Nearby sprawls Washington Park, where the zoo and the city's beloved rose test garden are tended; and farther to the northwest, the 4,600 acres of Forest Park, which include about 50 miles of trails for hikers and mountain bikers.

Half the city's streets seem to end in green hillside. Seeing all this on a visit in 1938, the social critic Lewis Mumford told the worthies of Portland's City Club that "You have an opportunity here to do a job of city planning like nowhere else in the world."

Since 1979, an elected body separate from city government has enforced an Urban Growth Boundary girdling greater Portland, a zoning barrier intended to encourage city redevelopment and discourage suburban sprawl. But now the calls by developers and others for an expansion of the urban zone are multiplying, and researchers at Portland State University are projecting that the population of the five counties of greater Portland (Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, Yamhill and Columbia) will rise from 1.42 million in 1995 to 1.62 million by 2005. At that rate, the population will double in about 50 years.

Crime is an issue too. Though the most recent FBI figures show that Portland's rate of violent crime remains less than half the rate in Los Angeles, its rate of reported property crimes (such as burglary and auto theft) was substantially higher. In fact, 1994 FBI figures showed that the Portland metropolitan area's increasing overall rate reached 6,539.9 reported crimes per 100,000 inhabitants per year--a higher overall crime rate than that of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, where the 1994 figure, down from 1993, was 6,425.1 reported crimes per 100,000 inhabitants.

So do I feel less safe in Portland? Nah. And if this friendly, green corner of Oregon is hell, I've spent far too much time worrying about the Golden Rule.

We settle in at the Fifth Avenue Suites Hotel at Fifth and Southwest Washington Street, a new lodging within the shell of an old department store. After millions in reconstruction and updating under the watch of San Francisco-based boutique hotel maven Bill Kimpton, the 10-story 1912 building reopened in May, featuring a lobby done up in bright canary-yellow hues and a restaurant, the Red Star Tavern and Roast House, that has been busy since its opening.

*

There are coffeehouses and microbreweries on all sides helping to circulate what our Oregonian friend Shawn calls "the bodily fluids of Portland." There are restaurants waiting to serve us large helpings of seafood and locally grown greens and mushrooms. And at the moment, there are elaborate floral displays on the bricks of Pioneer Courthouse Square. This is because we've arrived in time for the city's annual Rose Festival, which features carnivals, fireworks and parades, and kicks off a summer-long series of civic events and celebrations.

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