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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Grab a Book and a Beer, and Toast Portland

April 25, 2001|JOHN BALZAR

PORTLAND — Forgive me, neighbors, for what I am about to write. You see, people here in the Pacific Northwest tend to be thin-skinned. They react forcefully to criticism. But they get even angrier if you dare say something nice about the place.

My heavens, they might ask, would you tell people about your favorite fishing hole, too?

I'll say it anyway: Portland is special in the family of American cities. For nearly three years I've lived here. Today I'm saying goodbye. This Southern Californian is moving home where the weather is better. It is a melancholy parting.

No, Portland doesn't always live up to its motto, "The City That Works." It can be, like other mid-size communities, insufferably parochial and inbred. But there remains a can-do civic sensibility here that other communities could emulate.

For instance: When developers threatened the "feel" of Portland's in-town residential neighborhoods, the city shut them down. Tear-down contractors were replacing old-style houses that presented their porches to the street with the contemporary abominations that put their garages forward. Portland called them "snout" houses and said they reduced the sociability of the community.

In the last decade, I've lived in Fairbanks, Nairobi, Seattle and Los Angeles. I guess I'd forgotten that it was possible for a whole city to assert itself for the common architectural good, insisting that homes be pleasant for those who stroll the sidewalks as well as those who live in them.

A neighborhood could, perhaps. But not a fast-growing city with a population of 1.4 million. That's a European sensibility, not necessarily an American one--and surely not part of the wide-open traditions of the West, where a man's property is his to do with as he damned well sees fit, and don't go sticking your nose in another fellow's snout house.

Long ago, Oregon saw the boom coming. It decreed limits on how much open space could be developed. Then, overcoming naysayers, the metro region built the foundation of a light rail system. In tandem, these forces of management and mass transit have turned the corner on sprawl: The inner city of Portland is getting more and more urban, and at the same time more and more desirable as a place to live.

Now, light rail is expanding again, and in just the short time I've been here, the city designed, approved, built and is about to inaugurate an ancillary rail-trolley system downtown.

Portland's charms extend to its pastimes too. I'll mention two that have cast a spell on me: books and beer.

Every July, 90,000 people crowd the downtown waterfront to sample the 72 best beers that American brewers can concoct. The Brewers' Festival is the way beer-makers say thank you to their most important and knowing customers, the citizens of Portland.

All over America the idea is spreading that beer can be something more interesting than what they drink at fraternity houses. Here, it's gospel. Twenty years ago, Portland's Horse Brass Pub was the first to put America's post-Prohibition microbrews on tap. Today, there are 26 breweries in town. Some, like Hair of the Dog, are among the most creative in the world.

Does beer shape community? Actually, yes. Beer is a beverage of pubs. Portland is the kind of place where it's considered progress to transform an empty public school into a vast, multi-room pub, right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. That's because Portland understands that pubs bring people together--retirees, college students, doctors, tree-trimmers, families and singles. And from this pleasant proximity, I believe, people here draw a measure of their cohesiveness, just as happens in London neighborhoods and Irish villages.

Then books. There simply is no place in America like Powell's. No bookstore is so big or so meticulously organized, and none has such a psychic hold on so large a community. A line forms each morning a half hour before the doors open. At night, they have to ask people to please go home.

Smelling of ink and sweet paper, Powell's rises four stories and covers a city block, with 800,000 to 1,000,000 volumes on hand on any given day, new and used. Authors on book tours have been known to ask for an extra day here just to wander its aisles. Powell's is Portland's shrine to the imagination.

So farewell, City of Roses. And relax. Next time, I'll write about the soggy shoes and moss on sidewalks that come with eight months of gloomy rain, the traffic tie-ups at the drawbridges, the gay-baiting police chief, the new toxic Superfund site in the river and the limited fashion possibilities of fleece. I might even mention that Portland's rat population is among the nation's largest.

For now, I just wanted to share the lesson of my time here: What holds a community together is the faith of citizens that they can shape their destiny. That, a good book and wee draught of ale.

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