Portland is Definitely Staying Weird

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PORTLAND, OREGON — We were hanging around the Saturday Market in Old Town Portland, vendors set up beneath one of the bridges that spans the Willamette (emphasis on the last two syllables, which rhyme with dammit) when a short scrawny fellow holding a soft drink cup began jawing with several security guards. He was highly agitated, screaming and cursing, jabbing his finger into the air. The guards, armed only with truncheons, calmly stood in front of him while he vented his rage. The subject matter of his ire was not readily apparent. Finally, he started walking across the one-way street into downtown, stopped and hurled his soft-drink cup at a car passing slowly by. The driver slowed, thought better of it, and drove off. The scrawny fellow stalked away, rage unabated.

Keep Portland Weird, a slogan appropriated from Austin and present everywhere in building signs and billboards, seems to fit this city of more than 600,000 far better than our capital city, where beloved landmarks give way to high-rise condos at an alarming rate.

We are here over spring break to visit a longtime friend who moved here last summer along with two of his grown children, their partners/spouse and his only grandchild, an energetic and endearing 5-year-old with more energy than the Hoover Dam provides. It is our visit to Portland, a city where rain is a nearly constant companion. Our temporary lodging, secured through Airbnb, is a restored house built in the 1880s near the Ladd Addition, the city’s oldest planned community, the only part of the city not built on a grid. Our house is a combination of original fixtures, such as a beadboard ceiling and wide baseboards, sparkling appliances and a regal walk-in tile shower. It is within walking distance of our friend’s house.

In about nine months, our friend has learned how to get around Portland quite well. The Saturday Market was filled with mostly non-crazy people, the fellow above notwithstanding, out to admire the crafts and artwork for sale, perhaps sample some delectable-smelling street food. Dogs of all sizes are everywhere, waiting to be fawned upon by my Beautiful Mystery Companion, who is missing our own pups terribly. Truth be told, so am I. They are in capable hands with our nephew Connor, who is house sitting while enjoying the mountains of food my BMC cooked for him before we left. He is nearly 18 with a teenager’s appetite.

The first afternoon there, we clambered aboard the Portland Aerial Tram, which connects the city’s South Waterfront District with the Oregon Health and Science University campus, atop a hill overlooking the Willamette. Besides its practical use, providing a quick way to the campus for staff and patients alike, the tram has become a tourist attraction. Hence, our presence here on a happily sunny Saturday afternoon. The tram deposits us at the hospital’s entrance, and we take the stairs to an observation deck and admire the view of Portland sprawled out in the distance.

No trip to Portland is complete without a visit to Powell’s City of Books in downtown Portland. At least not for bibliophiles like us. I have been buying books online from Powell’s for years, so visiting in person is a treat. Powell’s is the World’s Largest Bookstore, taking up an entire city block and home to one million books. I reduced that number by a pair of books while visiting this icon to book lovers everywhere.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, we visited the Portland Japanese Garden, built on 12 acres in 1963. When the former ambassador of Japan to the United States visited, he proclaimed it to be “the beautiful and authentic Japanese garden in the world outside of Japan.” Unfortunately, mid-March is a few weeks before the cherry blossoms arrive. The weeping cherry tree was beginning to bud out, but we will be long gone before its beauty peaks. Still, the garden was lovely even in the grayness of that Sunday afternoon.


We barely scratched the surface of this city in the two days we spent exploring, setting aside two later days for different activities. My sense is that Portland possesses a genuinely weird and hip vibe, but that it is still struggling to get a grip on the large group of homeless people literally living on its streets in pop-up tents, many purchased by the city. Earlier this year, disabled residents sued the city seeking the removal of tents from sidewalks, which prevent access. We saw dozens blocking sidewalks, even in neighborhoods.

The governor on her first day in office declared a homelessness state of emergency and is calling for a $200 million plan targeting the different sectors of unhoused people. Some of the money would go toward providing apartments and other residences for 1,200 of the approximately 3,000 homeless in the Portland metro area, according to The Oregonian. That is not perfect but certainly a start.

Graffiti is another issue, with buildings most everywhere we went tagged with spray paint. On a morning walk, I read a note on a vacant business building, apparently for lease. On each window, taped from the inside, was a plea from the owners, a local family, that graffiti purveyors (I don’t call them artists) leave the building alone. So far, they have left it alone.

No city is perfect, including Portland. It appears its leaders, and those running the state, are trying to improve conditions for those on the streets. I wish them success and suggest the spray painters stick to railroad cars.

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