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Portland Comes of Age

On a rain-whipped March afternoon 23 years ago, my family drove out of California and into Oregon. The way I remember it, three things happened at the border: the road became smoother; the evergreens grew thicker; and a large sign appeared that read: "Welcome to Oregon. We hope you enjoy your visit, but for heaven's sake don't come here to live."

The last nine words were not actually printed on the sign. They were spoken, during a 1971 interview, by then-governor Tom McCall. Over time, his remark became so entrenched in state lore that many swore they'd seen it at the border. Even if it didn't say so on the sign, enjoy your visit implied "don't stay." McCall's plea symbolized an impulse to protect Oregon's rivers, forests, beaches, and slow-paced way of life.

My family paid no attention to the governor's message and ended up staying for three years. While we lived there, the state slid into recession, and some locals questioned the wisdom of scaring off newcomers. They needn't have worried. By the late 1990's, Portland had catapulted to the top of best-city surveys across America—including one by Utne Reader, which ranked it among "America's 10 most enlightened towns." And many Oregonians are again worrying that the newcomers streaming in will transform a landscape that doesn't need fixing.

The last decade was Portland's boom time: established businesses like Intel and Nike expanded, while new high-tech companies found a perfect breeding ground in the low rents and educated labor force. The buzz attracted a fresh generation of homesteaders in search of an urban utopia, and although the recent economic slump has caused some businesses to cut corners, the new settlers are not about to go away.

One place where they've made their presence known is the trendy Pearl District, an area full of turn-of-the-century warehouses that is reminiscent of New York's SoHo before the chain stores moved in—although, like everything in Portland, it's far cleaner. The neighborhood's long-standing anchor is Powell's City of Books, which covers an entire block. Having weathered the area's more desolate years, the 1980's and early 90's, Powell's became a catalyst for a pedestrian culture, helping to draw in brewpubs, jazz clubs, cafés—even an Ayurvedic day spa and a Senegalese restaurant. On the first Thursday of each month, the Pearl's galleries keep their doors open late; crowds are entertained by acoustic guitarists and belly dancers on the neighborhood's narrow streets.

The debate over letting in outsiders extends to the Portland art scene. "There's a conservative old guard here," says Paige Powell, executive director of the Pearl Arts Foundation, a private group dedicated to enriching the urban landscape. It recently asked William Wegman to design a bowl-shaped bronze drinking fountain for dogs in the North Park Blocks, a tree-lined city park just east of the Pearl. But Powell (no relation to the bookstore family) recalls what happened when they were installing Pop surrealist Kenny Scharf's Tiki Tote Monikis, four colorful 30-foot totem poles, in Jamison Park: "A man came running out of his new $800,000 condo, saying, 'I was promised earth tones for my view.' On the other hand, we get people who say, 'Thank God. I feel like I'm living in a real cosmopolitan city now.' "

Pearl Arts is also trying to get funding for a fountain designed by French sculptor Jean-Michel Othoniel in the shape of a boat, and for two projects by artist-architect Maya Lin: a playground made of undulating rubber, and a glass box that would be immersed in the Willamette River so people could step into it and watch the fish go by. But it hasn't been easy to persuade resident foundations to support projects involving outsiders, even those by world-renowned artists. "We were turned down a couple of times for one grant," says Powell, "because they said, 'Hey, a local artist could do that.' " Fortunately, being a fifth-generation Oregonian boosts Powell's credibility when promoting non-local talent. (As a Pearl Arts board member told her: "You'd be skewered if you were from the East Coast.")

Yet Portlanders can be incredibly generous to outsiders. After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, 850 Oregonians, including the mayors of Portland and Eugene, the Portland police chief, a state senator, and a school superintendent, boarded planes to New York to spend their money in the city and show solidarity.

Compared to most American cities, Portland has grown organically and logically, especially in the past few years. Since I lived there, dilapidated buildings have been renovated, and neighborhoods once considered dangerous have morphed into desirable residential and shopping areas. Early on, Portlanders figured out the importance of preserving the past in order to enhance the future. So while it's a forward-looking city that votes down new freeways, adds bicycle paths, and installs electric car—charging stations, at the same time, it harbors a strong nostalgia. Portlanders obsess about historic streetlamps the way Memphis residents fixate on Elvis.

Still, some old traditions have been nudged aside for new ones. Like food. Gone are the days when I'd cast about bleakly for a mixed green salad; now Portland restaurants use locally grown seasonal produce and regional wines to exquisite effect. Most foodies agree that the change began in 1990, with the opening of an upscale Italian bistro called Zefiro. Owner Bruce Carey (Oregonian by birth) speaks of the Portland scene back then as early explorers might have described a desert land. "Everything people now take for granted just wasn't there," Carey says. "We wanted our waiters to wear bistro aprons, and no one knew what they were. We wanted to do arugula and pear salad, and arugula just wasn't available." Carey and his partner talked local growers into expanding their repertoire, and the restaurant was a hit.

Yet during the boom that followed, Portland's cuisine retained a distinctive regional character. "In this city, if there's any hint of pretension or ostentation, it doesn't work," Carey says. "People are fond of earthy flavors. They're willing to pay the difference for organic produce."

Some Portland chefs have become minor celebrities. Caprial Pence, co-host of the popular television series Cooking with Caprial and John and author of seven cookbooks, opened Caprial's Bistro in 1992. There, grilled pork loin chop arrives with squash and hazelnut bread pudding; salmon is lightly smoked, grilled, and served with crustacean aioli, green tomato coulis, and polenta. Last year's James Beard Award for Best Chef in Hawaii and the Northwest went to Philippe Boulot of the Heathman Restaurant & Bar, where breakfast waffles are dressed in crème Chantilly, fresh figs, and the "last raspberries of the season." At Higgins Restaurant & Bar— owned by organic-food advocate Greg Higgins—Alaskan halibut comes with polenta, parsley pesto, and cherry tomatoes. And theirs isn't just any crème brûlée—it's infused with coffee and cardamom.

Bluehour is an industrial-chic Mediterranean restaurant in the slick new Pearl District offices of Wieden + Kennedy, the ad agency behind Nike and Amazon.com. It's Bruce Carey's latest baby (Zefiro closed in 2000); the candlelit tables are set in a converted warehouse with soaring ceilings. Sitting at a plate-glass window overlooking the darkened street, my friend Brian and I order poached oysters in a dry vermouth nage with leeks and tomato caviar, and silk snapper with roasted acorn squash, fennel, and a Chianti butter sauce. There is no limit to our waitress's patience; she satisfies our curiosity about each dish, offering detailed descriptions and honest, opinionated reviews.

Actually, Portland's friendliness extends far beyond the restaurant walls, and it takes some getting used to. As Brian and I stroll downtown, it seems everyone says hello. We crack a few Pleasantville jokes—but the goodwill is infectious. During breakfast at the Heathman, our waitress brings the chef out to recommend his favorite Columbia River Gorge trails, just a half-hour away. We take his advice, and not much later we are clambering through prehistoric-looking valleys, past foaming waterfalls that drop far down into icy black pools.

Inspired, I slip into Pollyanna mode. I start a Great Things About Portland list: pristine air; no sales tax; free downtown trolleys; a view of four volcanoes; new light-rail service to the airport, a newspaper for dog and cat owners; a vibrant music scene; ski slopes or beaches just 90 minutes in either direction; used books for sale at the airport; a program that leaves free bikes around town for anyone to use.

Does all this make people friendlier?Or are their good moods just temporary side effects of this week's unusually clear weather?My old Portland schoolmate David, who still lives here, rejects the second theory. In fact, he says, "On days like this, everyone becomes a little frenetic. You feel obliged to get out there and take advantage of the sunlight."

He's right—rain gives you time to lose yourself in a café or bookstore, but these brilliant days demand that you race out to the rivers and mountains. And so we do. We hike past shimmering waterfalls and watch salmon swim upstream in the Columbia River Gorge. We drive around Sauvie Island, where farmers are harvesting pumpkins and hydrangeas. We bike to Forest Park, a wooded crest above the city with 70 miles of trails. Lacy chartreuse leaves glow against the dark fir trees, and Portlanders of all ages cycle, jog, and stroll down the paths. We stop to eat blackberries from the bushes and gaze across the Washington State border to Mount St. Helens, which blew its conical top when I was 13. Today the gray, flat-topped volcano is silent, but a faint smoky smell reminds me of that time, and of the fall, when the fathers used to burn damp leaves in my old neighborhood over the hill.

Yes, it rains here. A lot. You can tell from the lushness of the slopes, from the tangle of ferns and moss under every tree, from the flowers that give the city its nickname—the City of Roses—and bespeak an abundance of water. Elegant multi-spouted drinking fountains gurgle it up constantly, obscenely, whether or not someone is there to drink. How must that look, I wonder, to a visiting Californian who has spent summers forbidden to use sprinklers or flush the toilet?

"Don't Californicate Oregon." The bumper sticker is plastered onto an old station wagon on Hawthorne Boulevard, a main strip rolling east from the Willamette River. Over the past 10 years, its 1920's-era storefronts have been reworked into cafés, bookstores, and restaurants, as well as a restored Arabian Nights—style movie theater. Surrounding Hawthorne are narrow residential streets with stately old houses and mature trees, where young couples plant gardens and sand window frames.

"Apparently, this area used to be trashy," a twentysomething woman at an east side café tells us. "I wouldn't know; I've only been here a year."

But she's right. Middle-class Portlanders abandoned these neighborhoods decades ago in an exodus to newer suburbs on the west side of town. The only time my family ever crossed the river was to visit a row of Victorians that housed antiques stores where my parents would troll for furniture. Otherwise, to me, the east side meant rough high schools and chain-link fences. I saw no reason to go there.

I do now, and so does the new flock of young professionals who have been buying up houses at bargain rates. "There's a sense that this is an environmentally and socially responsible way to live, to keep using older neighborhoods, not to throw them away," says Portland State University historian Carl Abbott. Today, the eastern districts of Hawthorne, Irvington, Belmont, and Sellwood are thriving social and commercial zones. They form what Abbott calls a self-sustaining loop, helping to support the nearby downtown while profiting from their proximity to it.

Interestingly, every person I talk to on the east side is originally from out of state. Old biases must run deep: of my school friends who are still in Portland, almost all live, work, and dine on the west side. Meanwhile, at the Alameda Brewhouse in northeast Portland, a skinny, long-haired Kentuckian named Phil with skull tattoos on one arm tells me he doesn't run into many natives.

"Everyone seems like they're from somewhere else," he says, handing me a steaming bowl of corn chowder. He calls out to a burly young man at the end of the bar. "Hey, Jeff! Why'd you come here?" For Jeff, who is from the Bay Area, the answer is simple. "Portland's the last bastion of affordability between the Bay Area and Seattle," he says. "In Portland you can still get a house for $100,000." "Where?" counters Heather, a Michigan native with cropped blond hair.

It's all relative. My friend Ariel, who moved recently from Oakland, says Portlanders get mad when they hear how much she pays for her apartment. "They tell me paying so much will ruin things for everybody else," she says. Portland is much cheaper than the Bay Area, but salaries are lower too, so it's proportionately expensive. And proportionately crowded. "Traffic's getting a lot worse," Jeff frets. He frowns at a large silver beer vat, then looks at me. "Write bad things, so no one will want to move here."

That's the quandary: how to maintain the balance, how to keep the good life good. Portland's unusual urban growth boundary, established in 1973 under Governor McCall, was created as part of a statewide land-use planning program. The idea is to separate rural land from urban land, promoting the efficient use of facilities and services without creating an L.A.-style sprawl.

But the growth boundary doesn't limit the number of people who arrive in droves from other states. My former neighbors in southwest Portland aren't thrilled by the population explosion. Driving near my old house, I'm amazed at how many shops and houses look exactly as they did when I was in high school. But then I spot Susie, the mother of my friend Steve, crossing the street. She asks if I can believe how much the neighborhood has changed. "Did you notice the new town houses?" she says. "They can't build out, so they're building up." Last year, an angry storm erupted over the construction of a new recreation center in a nearby park.

"There was a lot of resistance to taking a piece of greenery away," Susie says. "Many people like the center now, but some won't set foot in it." Like the rivers and mountains of Native American tribes, parks, to Portlanders, are sacred.

Back in the Pearl District, on our way to an Asian fusion restaurant, Brian and I pass the hulking ruin of a longtime icon: the Henry Weinhard Brewing Co. Recently sold and relocated, the company once dominated the neighborhood with its blackened bricks and Dickensian smokestacks. The land is slated for retail, housing, and offices, but for now the empty blocks look haunted, with the lone shell of one building standing like an extinguished volcano over its lost domain.

Despite the disappearance of Weinhard's, beer is still a mainstay of Portland life. In recent years, the city's brewpub tradition has gained national prominence. Inscribed in windows all over town is the name McMenamins. Mike and Brian McMenamin, Portland-raised brothers, have been buying up historically interesting sites around the city for 15 years. Today their empire includes pubs, breweries, nightspots, restaurants, and hotels—all serving their signature handcrafted brews. They are the force behind the restored 1920's Bagdad Theater & Pub, where patrons can drink microbrews as they watch movies, and the Crystal Ballroom, a vast 90-year-old nightclub with a bouncing wooden floor and a beer vat emblazoned with a portrait of Jerry Garcia. In fact, we soon realize that almost every cool, funky spot we step into is a McMenamins joint. It's a bit like seeing Mao's face everywhere in China, but the beer—and the décor—is so good that we're happy to be indoctrinated.

The brothers' coup de grâce is the Kennedy School, a 1915 schoolhouse in a residential area that has been transformed into a school on hallucinogens—a colorful warren of hotel rooms, bars, and restaurants. There's also a pub, a theater showing classic and second-run movies, a garden with a mosaic hot tub and an outdoor fireplace. The guests, a mix of young rasta types and graying yuppies, sleep in converted classrooms (still with blackboards) and roam the halls in the evenings, contemplating eclectic wall art and downing—you guessed it—McMenamins at late-night flicks. "It's a dangerous combination," David says sagely of the beer-at-the-movies tradition the brothers have fostered around the city. "It has to be a highly civilized place, for that to work."

My last night in Portland, on a whim, I buy a ticket to the convention of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America. Inside the Oregon Convention Center, a glass-towered temple that will double in size by 2003, the regional championships are at stake. Men in CASCADE CHORUS polo shirts slap one another on the back; young couples with cowboy boots and fluffy hair hold hands between the folding chairs; retirees roar when the emcee jokes, "Middle age is when you know all the answers but nobody's asking the questions!"

I watch as groups of men in tuxedos croon songs like, "Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time." Then I wander outside, where singers in spats are smoking furiously. "Doesn't matter," rasps a white-haired man in a canary-yellow vest when I ask if he's worried about damaging his vocal cords. "We already won." I return to the show, struck by the fact that in this hip town of the future, in this model of urban evolution, a convention center can still fill up with hundreds of barbershop quartet fans. They've been here all the time, of course. Below the sheen of organic coffee and cadmium-red mountain bikes, the old lady with the fuzzy perm is still bringing her watch to the Queen of Diamonds jewelry shop for repair, and the ranch-house dweller is still driving to Fryer Tuck's for chicken dinner on a Friday night.

"Where the sun shines bright all day, and the breezes play tag with the niiiiiight." The four men at the mikes draw out their last note, then bow in sync. The audience leaps to its feet, stomping and whistling, the fuzzy perms now backlit by stage lights. And I want to tell Tom McCall not to worry. Portland's bucolic past is alive and well. It's standing out in the warm night air between sets, chain-smoking menthol cigarettes and feeling just fine.

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