latte, beer, bikes and streetcars: Portlandia is a North American Amsterdam

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

I love this quote from the French.  The more things change, the more they stay the same. I feel it’s true about Portland, a place that for all its new and different looks remains nicely proportioned, a city built and sustained on a human scale.

I have lived away from Portland now for most of my life, but I still have many friends there and consider it my hometown.   I often wonder if I could live there again, because supposedly you can’t go home.

After more than 18 years since my last visit, it has changed remarkably, and for the better.  The center of gravity shifted:  there is a whole new trendy neighborhood called The Pearl, and the downtown core that was once bustling is now so quiet on a Friday morning that I wondered if all the people and jobs had moved to Seattle.

They were there, of course, it’s just that everybody is either riding a bike to work, taking a streetcar, or jumping on the MAX, the light rail system that binds Portland metro.  Petro is retro.

Because I’ve spent years watching China up close in its rise to becoming a great power, I am painfully aware of our shortcomings at home.  China thinks big, and has been doing big things.  That used to be us.  China suffers poor governance, but its very authoritarianism paves the way for bold projects, many of them praiseworthy.

While so many of our national exertions have disappointed in the last decade (Iraq War, Katrina, subprime crisis, bank/corporate bailouts, Congressional paralysis, Sandy recovery, Obamacare rollout), Portland has performed well.  At least outwardly.  The streets are clean, public water fountains work, a compact city core is vibrant, the arts are thriving, the wine, food, and restaurant scene buzzes with excitement.  Young people have been moving to Portland in droves to catch a wave.

The Portlanders I know play oblivious to IFC’s Portlandia, the show that satirizes the land of the gluten-free and free-range. Fred Armisen’s many characters capture the essence of the place, and it’s not all bad.  I don’t know whether my friends are kidding or just don’t want to know the truth about themselves.  But better to have people talking about you than not.

I remember distinctly rolling into town in 1961 from New Jersey.  My father piled his young family into a Ford station wagon and we left Morristown for Oregon (via Mexico City!).  My very first visual memory of Portland is skid row, Burnside.  I saw homeless men (“bums”) standing in soup lines, under a gray sky and in front of shabby buildings.  Portland did not impress.

But in the past three decades Portland has filled in–and arrived.  The southwest Willamette waterfront glistens with new office and condo buildings.  An aerial tram links the waterfront to the Oregon Health Sciences University complex in the west hills.  The city’s soundtrack is metal in motion:  pinging tram wires, clicking bike gears, and squeaking streetcars.

The late historian E. Kimbark MacColl wrote a book about Portland that summed up the prevailing attitude and ethic of the city’s business elite.  He said the descendants of pioneers were suspicious–actually fearful–of get-rich-quick, rapid-growth (and half-baked) schemes.  They left the East Coast for good reasons.  Portland has remained true to its founding principles of conservation and smart growth.

There was a time, not long ago, when Portland’s city planners were laughed off the stage at national urban planning conferences.  They seriously embraced the concept of an urban growth boundary that would constrain sprawl and promote density.  It worked.  Portland has had the last laugh.

And I could do a lot worse living there.