It’s a new week, and with that I’m introducing a new angle titled, “Happy Friday: City Series.” I want to explore what makes a city “happy, unique, and attractive to travelers.” With that in mind, let’s dive into the weird, the wacky, and certainly unique Portland, Oregon.
It starts with the Saturday Market in the Japanese American Historical Plaza. As I sit there, soaking up the sun, I watch as people pass by in droves and peruse the different booths. I see a man with a Philadelphia 76er's polo on, and next thing I know we’re fifteen minutes deep in conversation. I ended up chatting with longtime 76er's radio announcer Tom McGinnis. The voice of my childhood. We talked basketball, public speaking skills, and the uniqueness of Portland. As the conversation was about to conclude, he quips, “Isn’t it strange that everyone out here is so nice? It’s kind of weird. I was in Beaverton with my kids yesterday and we were walking around checking out Nike and instead of people looking to pickpocket me, they kept asking if they could assist me in any way. You don’t get that in Philly,” he says half jokingly. I knew what he meant. We both shared that sentiment of friendliness bestowed on us by locals. We weren’t quite used to it, and as my curiosity grew, I began to understand why Portland has such a magnetic vibe to it.
People are packing into Portland at a rapid rate. Over the last five years Portland has seen a massive influx of newcomers. In 2014 Oregon was the top destination for people relocating. With that, traffic has increased immensely, as local business owners and Uber drivers lamented when I brought up the topic. With the growth, Portland has seen the need to address problems that most growing cities face, mainly gentrification and racial disparity. So why is Oregon, but specifically Portland, such a magnet for those looking to relocate? Let's explore.
The connection to nature and outdoor activities is something that is unmistakable in Portland. The city ranks number one in the country for commuting by bike. Bike lanes flood the city; it's an integral part of the culture. Cars are conscious of the fact that cyclists are on the road- which makes you fear less for your life when you're trying to "share the road." I rented a bike for three days and quickly realized how easy it is to navigate the city. To make the city more 'bike friendly', Portland constructed Tilikum Crossing: Bridge of the People. It is the largest car-free bridge and the first of its kind in the United States. (This two-minute video gives a bird's eye view of the bridge.) Portland is often called the “City of Bridges” (also the “City of Roses”) since the Williamette River splits the city in half. However, bikes and bridges are only one piece to the puzzle in this natural city. Protected green spaces and public parks litter the city and provide a way for people to find nature in this midsize metropolitan area.
For me, another way to gauge the value of a city is to see how they are helping the people outside of the margins. I was happy for humanity when I witnessed how the city is helping their homeless population. Let's be clear: homelessness is still a problem for Portland; however, the city has taken serious strides to figuring out who does what in the hopes of helping those in need. One of the major reasons Portland has found success in helping the homeless is because of the nonprofit organization Right 2 Dream Too. In short, R2D2 houses up to 75 homeless individuals per night and offers them a safe place to sleep- with safe being the key word. (Hence the name: homeless people deserve the right to dream too.) Portland has also considered taking a revolutionary approach to how cities deal with helping the homeless. From The Oregonian, "Mayor Charlie Hales let slide a political bombshell that would blow up how government agencies deals with homelessness. City and county leaders are now considering a deal to draw clear lines about who does what, Hales said. And if it goes forward, homelessness would fall to Multnomah County leaders while affordable housing would be the city's business." By defining roles for the city and county, Portland looks to try a new approach to help an age old problem for major cities.
Lastly, when people think of Portland, they might think of its weirdness. The popular TV show Portlandia reinforces this. After visiting the city the last two years, I can say that it is indeed 'weird.' Yet, aren't we all a little strange? What separates Portland from other major cities is their acceptance of the 'weird.' While there, I began to think of Portland as much more 'unique' than 'weird.' The thing about Portland is that is accepts you for you. They welcome that uniqueness. Whether it's your hair color, piercings, or the way you dress, it's important to just be you and not somebody else. For me, that's what makes the city so appealing. Portland doesn't want to be like any other city in the country. It just wants to be Portland. The mindset is reflected in its people. Less judging, more accepting and welcoming. That's probably why 76er's radio announcer Tom McGinnis found it strange that people were so kind and helpful.
As I sit on the porch of my AirBnB in East Portland, gathering my poems for an open mic, I strike up a conversation with Pamela, the owner of the house. "I've gotta say that Portland stole my heart," to which she replied, "that's the case for a lot of people, and you know what I tell them? I say, Portland is nice, but I really enjoy Pittsburgh. Maybe you should go there instead" she says with a mischievous smile. For as friendly as Portlanders are, they know their city is booming. As a man sitting next to me at the Trailblazers game put it, "I'm glad to hear you're enjoying the city, just don't move here!" Home is where I head, but I will not soon forget the positivity pulsating through this rainy, rugged, and real city.