Saturday, August 02, 2008

Ten Things I Love About Portland

On August 2, 2006, I arrived in Portland to live out my post-college "Plan B." In the first year, I did more things than I did in 6 years in Atlanta. The second year, I didn't do as much as Year One, but I still had an eventful year. Had I accepted the Alaska job last year, I would've missed out on a lot, so it was a blessing that I didn't accept the job opportunity when offered.

In the summer of 2006, I was still weighing pros and cons between moving to San Francisco or Portland. My biggest fears about Portland concerned job opportunities (still the hardest part of living here) and that I'd get bored living in a medium-sized city after living in exciting D.C. and the fast-growing metropolis of Atlanta. However, two years later, I still haven't experienced boredom. Portland offers a lot of interesting events and you see/meet interesting people all the time. And for the first time in my life, I find the local City Council races more interesting than the presidential race.

So, in honour of my second anniversary of living here, I offer my Top Ten list of what I most love about living in Portland. If you've never been here, please come and visit so you can experience it for yourself. Who knows, you might love it enough to move here (Portlanders hate that. Many say: "Visit Portland, but don't stay!").


Fareless Square (which isn't actually square, as you can see above--it's more like a cup with a drinking straw). What this means is that ALL public transportation (buses, MAX, and Streetcar) is FREE within the boundary you see. Because of this, I rarely venture out of the Fareless Square (yes, I live and work within the boundary). The downtown core of Portland offers everything I need. However, this year, because of my membership in the Writers Dojo and my volunteer work on a political campaign, I have used the bus outside of Fareless Square more often than last year.

There's talk about doing away with it, citing crime as an issue. However, I think it's an excuse. Most of the crime happens on MAX east of Lloyd Center (the last stop east in Fareless Sqaure). Hopefully they will keep this innovative idea in place forever. It truly is great and probably has contributed to making downtown Portland a popular shopping, eating, and entertainment destination. I've lived in cities that became ghost towns in the evenings and weekends. Portland is the rare exception where there seems to be more people downtown in the evenings and on weekends than during the workday.


The Tom McCall Waterfront Park. This park is a cool place to walk, bike, or just hangout in the summertime. Things really come alive during the Rose Festival in June when carnival rides set up shop and Navy ships moor pierside. And who can forget that day this past May when 70,000 people showed up for the Obama speech?

The only bad thing about this park is that view across the river is mostly industrial. The East bank of the Willamette River leaves a lot to be desired. They have a bikepath and sidewalk on the east side and they have a better, note to the next Mayor of Portland: time to gentrify the East Bank! I guess it's hard when Interstate 5 runs alongside most of it. Maybe everyone wants to look at the Portland skyline and no one cares about the east side ("East Side is the Least side, the West Side is the Best side!").


The Pearl District. Some people like to dismiss the Pearl as being snobby and yuppie, but I love it. It's the part of Portland that reminds me the most of a European city (like Stuttgart, Germany or something). There are a lot of glass and steel buildings, former warehouses that have found new life as artist studios and galleries, restaurants, and overpriced loft condos. If I had major money, I'd live in the Pearl (or the industrial area that borders it on the west). I know that the Pearl is considered "trendy," but sometimes, you just have to chalk it up to good taste. What's amazing is that it used to be a run-down neighbourhood full of warehouses. Now, it's very pedestrian friendly, has a great vibe, and certainly is a cool place to hang out, grab a bite to eat, and people watch.


Pioneer Courthouse Square. Considered "Portland's Livingroom." A transplant from Los Angeles told me that there's no way they could have a square like this in L.A. for people to hang out. I wasn't surprised to hear that. Though there are no trees or grass (it's all brick--those trees you see in the photo are temporary), this is a popular place to "hang out" and people watch. The Starbucks is the busiest one in the city. Forget quick service during the holiday season! Last year, YAPS and MAYAs came here to see TubaFest for the holidays. For a month in the summer, each Friday they show free movies on a giant inflatable screen (this Friday is "Ghostbusters", which I want to see, but the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics is on TV and I have both "Ghostbusters" on DVD).

If you're here in the daytime, you can get all kinds of tourist brochures on Portland and popular Pacific Northwest destinations as well as buy tickets for public transit. There used to be a cool travel bookstore as well (in 2004) but it closed before I moved here in 2006. You can also catch the MAX at this location to destinations east or west from downtown Portland. It's one of the liveliest places to hang out in Portland.


Every weekend from March until Christmas is the popular "Saturday Market" (don't worry--it's also open on Sundays). You can find all kinds of artwork, clothing, food, photographs, novelty items. This market is one of the reasons why Portland reminds me a lot of a European city, because every European city has the tradition of a weekly marketplace where you can buy goods directly from the artisan. Not only do your purchases support the livelihoods of the artists who sell here, you are guaranteed to get something original and not made in some factory in China! Who can beat that? In addition to Saturday Market, Portland has a couple Farmers Markets (Saturday morning only on the South Park Blocks; and midweek in the Pearl District).

The South Park Blocks. It's half a block wide and five blocks long. There's also a North Park Blocks (separating the Pearl District from Old Town) but I don't walk that one as much. The South Park Blocks reminds me of a compressed Central Park or the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Some of the more expensive apartment/condos are next to this park, as well as several museums, theaters, and restaurants. I enjoy walking the full length of this park (it's a couple blocks from my apartment building). If I have a bad day, it's guaranteed that my mood will have lifted by the time I walk from one end to the other. I live near the Portland State University end of the park. Near the other end is the library, two movie theaters, and Pioneer Square.

One of the long range goals for Portland developers is to connect the South Park Blocks with the North Park blocks. However, that would mean the demolishing of quite a few blocks of buildings...including the Paramount Hotel, which I don't see happening. The good news is that they are currently working on a two block section just one block north of the South Park Blocks (the Paramount Hotel stands between them). I can't wait to see how the new city park will look (my favourite movie theater will be right next to the park).


NW 23rd Avenue (and 21st!). This is my favourite street to walk and window shop (or the occasional go in and browse). So many cool stores on one street, for all kinds of income levels. It's in a part of Portland known as "Nob Hill", but I don't know if that's the official name. My favourite place to get sushi is on 21st Avenue and I sometimes go to an independent film at the cinema on that street. There are many cool homes in this part of Portland and if I had some money, I'd love to live in this part of Portland.

Parking is a hassle, but the Portland Streetcar stops in the central point of this shopping district so walking is far easier than trying to find a place to park. Portland has several "shopping districts" (Hawthorne, Belmont, Woodstock, Alberta, to name a few) but none can top NW 23rd (and 21st).


The New Renaissance Bookstore. They converted two old homes into a bookstore devoted to all things spiritual. From the moment you walk in, the scent gets you. There's no doubt you're going to enter a new realm. Inside the store, you'll find a few nooks and crannies to sit down and read an interesting book you find on its shelves. Because this store covers all things spiritual, it caters to the more open-minded and New Agey person. I doubt that any evangelical Christian would be comfortable in here, even if they were seeking a Christian book (there are some).

Last year, when a friend visited me and I pointed out this store, he said he thought specialty bookstores were dumb and didn't want to go in, even though he claims to be religious. I guessed that he might have a problem with their selling all kinds of spiritual books, even topics he doesn't agree with. I'm not interested in Wicca, but that doesn't stop me from browsing this store. There are so many books (and other things--like yoga mats, candles, dvds, stationery, cds, etc) that you can gloss over the topics that don't interest you to find one that does. Honestly, it's the smell that draws me to this store. Once, I left work really angry at a co-worker and had a lot of negative thoughts about her unprofessional behaviour, and after spending an hour in this store, I walked out completely calm, at peace, and even laughing at the absurdities of my job. It always has that calming affect on me, so how can it be a bad thing? I always feel like I'm spending time in heaven on earth whenever I go there and I wish I could recreate the smell in my own apartment, but I don't because I always want this bookstore to be my refuge...the place I can go to breathe in the heavenly scent of peace and leave in a better mindset about intolerable situations at work.

And to think that when I left Atlanta in 2006, that I would miss the Hoot Owl bookstore. While back in Atlanta, I met a friend there before we headed off to lunch, and within five minutes, I was bored. The Hoot Owl is a metaphysical bookstore in Sandy Springs but compared to the New Renaissance Bookstore, it's pretty barebones with slim pickings.


The Portland Streetcar. This is my main mode of transportation. The stop is just one block north of my apartment and from there, I can go to the grocery store, the library, downtown, Powells bookstore, and the Pearl for free. If I want to go to NW 23rd and 21st Avenues, I just pay the fare, which is good for roundtrip. The Streetcar has made my life so much easier...particularly when I have several bags of groceries. I love it. Sure, it's slow and the wait time can be twenty or thirty minutes during non-peak hours, but it's always a fun ride with interesting people.

I'd love to see the Streetcar expand to the east side of Portland and maybe even one from downtown up to St. Johns. But, I also know the arguments against it, namely how costly it is to get up and running (having to lay tracks into the street). However, it's quite popular, especially with out of town visitors, whom I've heard rave about it being one of the things they love about Portland. It's true though. Streetcars are trendy right now, with every city wanting one (including Atlanta). Why should San Francisco and New Orleans be the only cities in the U.S. to have streetcar lines? Portland deserves one (or more). As I say, who needs a car when I have the streetcar?


Finally, the thing I love most about Portland is Powells Bookstore. Surprised? Those who know me wouldn't be. When I first visited Portland in 1999, I couldn't believe how big this bookstore was. Even more impressive was that they sold new and used books side by side on the shelves. That makes things easier if I happen to see a current book that I want and see that they have used copies that are good as new (with the lower price).

If you've never been to Powells (in the photo above, the bookstore covers the entire building you see on that block (in front of the two highrise apartment buildings), it's an absolute must for any Portland visitor. They are open late (11 pm) and every night of the week, including most holidays. Inside, you can get maps (you'll need one) to locate the subject area that most interest you. There's also a coffee shop with a place to sit down, read, write, or access free wifi for your laptop (good luck finding an open table, though!).

The best feature of Powells, however, are the near nightly book signings/lectures. As reported a couple weeks ago, I went to a booksigning/lecture every week night. I've seen crowds range from a couple people to standing-room only. I always learn something. With Powells, I rarely go to Barnes and Noble (my former favourite bookstore) and I usually only buy DVDs from Borders.

Because of Powells (as well as the nine other favourite things), Portland has spoiled me. As much as I love the scenic beauty of Coeur d'Alene, or dream of living in California someday, the longer I live in Portland, the harder it is to consider leaving it. I think I'm here to stay. A friend of mine recently told me that I should send my resume in to work for Obama and if he becomes president, then work in his administration. Well, I'm too late on that. The time to join his campaign was when he formed an exploratory committee in late 2005/early 2006. Besides, even if he does become president, I don't want to live in D.C. again. D.C. was my post-college "Plan A." Had I found a job before my money ran out back in 2000, I would've stayed in D.C. Once I decided to move to Portland in 2006, I basically said no to D.C. and San Francisco. This city has everything I need or could possibly want. What more can I ask for? Portland is where I want to settle, establish a career, get married, and start a family.

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