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Author Archive: "Carl Abbott"


What is it about this city? What makes Portland so Portlandy... Portlandish... Portlandian...?

It's not what you might think.

Despite Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen and the Portlandia spoofs, this is a conservative place.

That's not Jesse Helms and Michele Bachmann conservative (No!!). It's literal conservatism — Portlanders like what they have and they want to keep it.

We want to keep old neighborhoods viable for new generations rather than throwing them away. We want to keep a strong downtown that recalls the best of the 1950s. We don't have any dead zones of abandoned buildings (that's why it proved so hard to identify a good site for a new baseball park). We've struggled to preserve the surrounding farm and forest lands that add so much to the ambiance of the metropolitan area. Portlanders are trying to roll back the clock with streetcars and bicycles. The city government has protected older industrial districts through industrial sanctuary zoning (one of the best ideas Portland planners have ever come up with).

Portlanders have long had a tendency to define the city ...

McCarthy Park and the Working City

Portland has lots of great parks. Oaks Bottom is great for an October afternoon. Kelly Point is fun when auto carriers and container ships are inching their way into Terminal 6. My golden retriever prefers the dog zone at Fernhill Park off NE 42nd because the hills and dips make tennis balls do interesting things. Lawrence Halprin's Lovejoy Fountain is a gem amid the surrounding buildings.

These are great places, but the park I want to highlight scarcely merits the name. McCarthy Park is a quarter-mile strip of concrete along the edge of Swan Island, tucked behind the Freightliner office building. When I visit there may be nobody else around , or a couple guys with fishing rods, or someone scrounging driftwood to keep their house warm.

The view is not spectacular, but it is a reminder about an essential side of Portland that too many of us forget or ignore.

A few weeks ago I was back in my home town of Dayton, Ohio, in the heart of the rustbelt. Dayton is not Detroit, but it has lost people and neighborhoods along ...

Libraries and Cities

I'm recently back from a week in Birmingham (England, not Alabama). Birmingham is the Chicago of Britain — its second largest city with a transitioning economy, racial divisions, and a surprisingly strong city centre.

What was new on this return visit was the Library of Birmingham now under construction. In 2013, a stylish new building will replace the old city library. It will be physically integrated with the city Repertory Theatre and be the centerpiece not only for the city's cultural district but also for its "Big City Plan" to reposition the urban core for the 21st century.

I was more than pleased — delighted — to discover the Library of Birmingham because I've been fascinated by the phenomenon of new city libraries in our almost-post-book era. Look around North America and Europe and there are new central libraries everywhere. The kickoff for this wave was Chicago in 1991. Now there's a new central library in Denver, in San Francisco, in San Jose, in Salt Lake City, in Indianapolis, in Nashville, in Minneapolis, in Amsterdam, in Copenhagen , in Melbourne. There's one going ...

The Best Thing about Portland

What's in common among East Burnside Street, Lombard, Sandy, Belmont, Hawthorne, NW 21st, SE Milwaukie? The answer: neighborhood movie theaters that have survived suburbanization, television, and Netflix.

When I arrived in 1978, neighborhood theaters were the second distinctive thing I noticed about Portland (all those bridges were the first, of course). Neighborhood theaters are signs of a vibrant city. They're the spotted owls of urban life , an indicator species for a rich ecology of neighborhood-oriented businesses and services. Local theaters that still showed family films were already extraordinary for most cities by the 1970s, but not in Portland. Many of the theaters are still here, admittedly improved by beer and pizza and augmented by cool conversions by McMenamin's.

The neighborhood business districts are still here as well. They've changed — no surprise — starting with SE Hawthorne. Twenty-five years ago I told students that Portland would be "fixed" when Alberta Street was thriving. North Mississippi as a hip hotspot didn't occur to me. Neighborhood business strips are such a strong component of the Portland economy that we're not only recycling the streetcar ...

Just Big Enough

Portland was a promising and livable city when I arrived in 1978. In 2011, it's an exciting and livable city.

It helps that it's bigger. When we got here, I offended people by telling them that I liked Portland because it was a large city. "No!" they said, "No! We're not a big city. We're just a large town." I was surprised. What I thought was a compliment was taken as an insult — as if I were saying that Portland was Los Angeles.

I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, and I'm sticking to it.

Size brings critical mass for businesses and activities. Portland has a vibrant — if constantly shifting — restaurant scene because the pool of diner-outers is large enough to support them. The same goes for music, theater, film festivals, bookstores, and other cultural institutions. It goes for themed charter schools, model railroad buffs, fans of 1950s architecture, and every other activity that requires customers or participants. Sports entrepreneurs know what they're talking about when they rank metropolitan areas as markets to measure their suitability ...

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