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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 aroundMcCarthy 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 with the factories that once made cash registers, refrigerators, tires, electrical equipment, and dozens of other products of the industrial age.

Many people would draw a sharp contrast — downcast, deindustrialized Dayton and cool, post-industrial Portland. We chuckle and preen over the self-absorbed hipsters of Portlandia because we think that the show has the city down pat.

The view from McCarthy Park sends a different message. Look across the river and see barge builders and steel fabricators. Look upstream to railroad yards and grain elevators (a high-riding grain ship may be heading in to load or a fully laden ship may be plowing its way toward Asia). Behind, on Swan Island, are 20,000 blue collar jobs in ship repair, truck manufacturing, shipping, and warehousing.

Portland — cool, hip Portland — is a manufacturing powerhouse. Silicon chips, semiconductors, computer equipment, and measuring devices are still big business, even after the bubble of the 1990s has lost much of its air. So is the production of transportation equipment, from barges to railcars to aircraft parts to a new generation of streetcars. Portland area factories make steel sheets, rods and tubes, and other factories turn steel into knives, bicycles, and bridge components. Manufactured products account for two-thirds of the value of Oregon exports, far more than farm and forest products. They make Portland one of the U.S. metro areas whose economy is most oriented to foreign trade.

We can close the loop between my old and new hometowns by thinking about two-wheelers. Portland's vibrant economy of artisan manufacturing includes bicycle makers. So did Dayton's economy 120 years ago, when Orville and Wilbur Wright built custom-made bikes and worked on the problems of flying machines. They were not eccentric tinkerers. They worked in a city that was rich with mechanical and industrial innovation and one of the country's highest rations of patents to population. Their key breakthrough was to develop effective aircraft control systems, building one of the very first wind tunnels and applying insights from bicycle controls.

Portland is a 21st-century Dayton, a multi-industry city with its own ecology of small and mid-sized companies that are maintaining a vital manufacturing and trading sector. Civic leaders like to dream big about innovation in electronics and biotechnology, but they shouldn't overlook the industrial economy that's been developing for the past century. For all of our coolness, this is one of the most successful blue-collar cities in America.

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Carl Abbott is Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. He is the author of How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America as well as several books about Portland history, including his latest, Portland in Three Centuries.

Books mentioned in this post

Carl Abbott is the author of Portland in Three Centuries: The Place and the People

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