Monday, September 22, 2008

Portland Details

I rediscover Portland, Oregon, 12 years after my last visit.

September 16, 2008

September 17, 2008

September 18, 2008

September 19, 2008

September 20, 2008

September 21, 2008

September 22, 2008

Portland Details

I flew on direct flights through Northwest Airlines. Both flights were packed and had dreadfully uncomfortable seats, but the flight out was in a new plane with incredibly narrow, miserably pitched seats. It was horrid. At least the old beater we had on the way back had wider seats with a reasonable amount of pitch!

I didn’t rent a car and didn’t need to. A colleague arriving on the same flight helped me figure out the transit system and (most importantly), how to get from the transit stop to the hotel. (Thanks, Wade!) The transit system in Portland is fast, efficient, and free if you stay in the downtown “Fareless Square.” (A two-hour ticket to any part of the city, including the airport, was $2.30 and one can ride anywhere all day for $4.75.) It is easy to transfer between the MAX rail system and the bus and stations are well-marked.

The city is also quite walkable – it is a human-scale place, with wide sidewalks (when not blocked by construction projects), and a straight-forward grid. On the other hand, bikers regularly use the sidewalk, the homeless hang-out everywhere (although not usually blocking the way), and way-finding signage is non-existent. Walkable, but not perfect.

Michele joined me via Amtrak from Seattle and the station proved to be an easy walk from my hotel. Portland’s historic Union Station has been restored to serve Amtrak. It also houses Wilf’s Restaurant and Bar, which turned out to be a delightful spot to sit and sip a glass of wine while waiting for Michele’s (slightly delayed) train.

The conference hotel was about 4 blocks from the MAX stop in a boring neighborhood near the convention center. It was a standard Holiday Inn that was in the process of transitioning to a Crown Plaza. (Despite the description on the web page, the hotel is NOT downtown.) There was construction work underway in the entry and pool areas while we were there, but the rest of hotel had been updated recently and was quite nice. Better still, the staff were among the most friendly and helpful I have ever come across – even the guys working on the maintenance and remodeling projects greeted me with warm hellos and a sincere “I hope you enjoy your stay.” There is also free internet access, but the signal isn’t very strong in some parts of the hotel. (I was able to get moved to another room tha had a stronger signal, but there were a lot of problems with the signal in the conference rooms.) The hotel has an airport shuttle for those who don’t want to use the rail system.

As soon as the convention ended I headed downtown to the City Center Marriott, where I had snagged a $135 AAA rate for the weekend. (A great rate for a good downtown hotel.) All of a block from the Pioneer Square transit stop and located in the midst of the downtown shopping area, it proved to be a lovely hotel in a perfect location. Our room was huge and inviting, although our view was directly into the mostly blank wall of the adjoining building. Oh well. We weren’t in our room very much anyway. The staff here was also very helpful. But why is it that all the better hotels charge for internet access when the cheaper ones give it away? It’s really annoying. (Peet’s Coffee next door has free internet, but rather limited weekend hours.) There is no airport shuttle, but the MAX stop is just around the corner.

Portland was a good city for food even when I was there a dozen years ago. Today there is a wealth of enticing restaurants, so it is hard to go too far wrong.

I ended up eating dinner at Jake’s Grill early in the trip when I didn’t know exactly where I was going and couldn’t find anything fun and funky. (I needed to be one block over, but who knew?) Jake’s is a classic seafood spot, but it is now part of the McCormick & Schmick’s chain. My large serving of seafood pasta was perfectly prepared, but quite expensive and not really interesting. Good, but not really great – especially for the price. This is still a classic seafood spot with carefully prepared traditional dishes, attentive service, and a gorgeous dining room, but it’s more food for big-buck executives than foodies in search of fresh local ingredients prepared with a twist.

Wilf’s Restaurant and Bar is located at Union Station, but it isn’t the usual railway station food stop. With a beautiful dining room, elegant cuisine, fine wines, and live jazz, it’s worth a visit even if you aren’t waiting for a train.

Michele and I both wanted to find a good Middle-Eastern spot for dinner and ended up at Al Amir, a Lebanese restaurant with what appeared to be a solid local following. (It’s usually a good sign when I’m about the only pasty white girl in any ethnic restaurant.) The food was quite good, but what made the night truly memorable was the amazing belly dancer who came out to perform just before we began eating. The web page claims that Claudia is the “Northwest's best belly dancer.” No doubt. She was absolutely amazing.

We discovered a lovely branch of the regional restaurant chain Typhoon just down the street in the Hotel Lucia. The interior of this innovative Thai restaurant was as elegant as the food, featuring lovely delicate dishes and a long list of beautiful, fragrant teas.

Lovely coffee, chocolate, breads, and pastries are available at the neighborhood St. HonorĂ© Boulangerie. It’s almost like a quick trip to Paris.

For me, the dining highlight of the trip was Andina, a lively, trendy, and highly-recommended nouveau Peruvian restaurant in the Pearl District. With a long wait for a table, we sat at the bar. The bar may have the best seats in the house as the full menu is available and the smoothly efficient bartenders were a treat to watch. We did a series of small plates, all of which were interesting and tasty, although a few had little too much hot pepper for Midwestern girls like Michele and I. I’d fly back to Portland just to eat here again.

Of course, there are also brewpubs everywhere, but since I’m a wine drinker you’ll have to sort those out yourself.

Notes on Sightseeing
The Chinese Garden is located near downtown in the heart of the Chinatown/Old Town area. It is a tranquil spot in the heart of the city. We didn’t stop for a snack at the lovely tea house, but it certainly looks inviting.

On the other hand the Japanese and International Rose Test gardens are located far from downtown, out by the zoo. It is not walkable, but a shuttle provides access most of the year. (Our shuttle driver also provided commentary on the park, the homes around and within it, and the history of the area, along with good logistical advice.) The mountainside location of the Japanese Garden was MUCH colder and wetter than the city itself and there are no food or hot beverages available within the garden, so be prepared.

In addition to the bridge photos found on Sharon Wood Wortman’s Bridge Stories site, lovely black-and-white photos can be found at

Dress for Less at Ross

Previous post: Almost Too Many Roses!

I awake to a gorgeous morning, with the sun streaming in the one corner of my room where it is able to sneak around the surrounding buildings.

By the time I head next door for a chai tea, the sun isn't quite as bright, but it is still a lovely morning. It is a perfect morning to be out sightseeing in the city. . . or to shop.

I had noticed earlier that there is a Ross department store near my hotel. Ross is a western phenomena (the one nearest my house is located in Tulsa, Oklahoma) that specializes in ultra cheap clothing in styles that someone my age can actually wear to work and look good in.

A quick web search informs me that it opens at 9:30 a.m.

I'm in the door and digging through a rack of business suits by 9:40.

By 11 I am back in my hotel room trying to figure out exactly how I am going to haul all of my purchases back home.

It's a great morning!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Almost Too Many Roses

Previous post: Japanese Gardens
Portland’s International Rose Test Garden cascades down a terraced mountainside, a sea of blossoms high above the city. There are over 550 types of roses on more than 6800 bushes – that is a lot of roses!

Japanese Gardens

Previous post: Schoolhouse Swifts

Portland’s Japanese Garden is located far from the city center in Washington Park.

It’s also located at a much higher altitude and the air is wet and frosty-feeling when we arrive. However, the gardens are so serene that I almost forget how cold it is. (The sweatshirt I got at the gift shop also helps.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Schoolhouse Swifts

Previous post: Ok, I Was Wrong
A colleague has alerted me to the fact that there is a large chimney at Chapman Elementary School in Portland that hosts an extremely large colony of swifts. Apparently each evening the birds swirl around for awhile and then funnel, en mass, into the chimney. It sounds pretty dramatic.

It turns out that this is a seasonal event, as it is only at this time of year that these Vaux Swifts gather here in great numbers – up to 30 or 40,000 – before migrating south.

This evening there is a festival to celebrate the return of the swifts. There is a (loud) band and hundreds of folks sitting on the lawn behind the school (eating picnic food and drinking wine) or milling around visiting. This appears to be THE PLACE to be in the neighborhood.

There are also children everywhere, most attempting to slide down the hillside behind the school on flattened cardboard boxes. (Cardboard doesn’t slide very well on dead grass, but the kids seemed to enjoy it anyway.)

It’s simply a huge neighborhood party.

We find a spot at the top of the hill and sit down to wait.

Soon tiny spots begin to emerge from the clouds, the first of the swifts.

Perhaps they are confused by the music. They gather together in a large group, swirling about high above the school. More and more drop out of the clouds to join them, forming a large dark cloud, but then, instead of waiting for the rest, they funnel into the chimney until the sky is almost empty.

Then more birds begin to appear and another large swirling mass forms and funnels into the chimney. . . and then still more birds come.

It is mesmerizing.

Next post: Japanese Gardens

Ok, I Was Wrong

Previous post: Portland's Classical Chinese Garden

Portland has often been held up as an American planning utopia - the embodiment of all that good planning can bring about. It's the place where every urban planner is supposed find inspiration and meaning.

Everyone but me.

Lane and I were in Portland in 1996, right when the city was beginning it's planning ascendancy. It was the living workshop everyone was watching and I was eager to see it for myself, to see how good planning could create an urban ideal.

Instead I found a fragmented city with a depressing, dirty urban core where the streets were filled with vagrants. It was a city that seemed to me to have long since lost all vitality, where the focus of revitalization in the urban core was a festival shopping mall. It certainly wasn't a city that invited walking and it seemed to take an inordinate amount of effort to get to a decent restaurant (although the one we did find was fabulous - a miniscule Spanish place with a tiny bar, six or seven tables, live music, dancing, and the most amazing paella we've ever tasted), intriguing gallery, or graceful garden.

Aside from that restaurant, my most vivid memory is the sight of cops knocking a vagrant to the sidewalk near the Saturday Market.

There were clearly good things to be found in Portland, but for me they were overwhelmed by the negatives. I couldn't wait to leave.

(My husband stresses that this is my opinion and not his. He's always liked Portland.)

But now I realize I was just there too early. It took awhile for the innovative planning with which they were experimenting when I visited to start making a visible difference. Aside from the number of people living on the streets (a situation that seems even worse than what I recall from that trip a dozen years ago), the Portland of today is in many ways an urban utopia. . . what a great city!

Getting around town
Portland is a fabulously easy city to explore because it is relatively contained, well connected, and easy to move about on foot.

Besides, if someplace is too far to walk, there is certain to be a TriMet train (MAX), trolley, or bus nearby.

photo by Andrea Grygo Diamond

When there isn't a construction project blocking the way (there are a lot of those), streets here seem to serve passenger vehicles, buses, trains, bikes, and pedestrians reasonably well. They work for everyone, which makes walking so much more inviting.

photo by Andrea Grygo Diamond

The streets themselves don't seem particularly wide or unusually narrow and, while most have some sort of sidewalk, the width and quality of that sidewalk varies wildly. So what makes it so much more walkable than streets back home? I'm betting the slower traffic speeds and really short signal timing are a key component as that was what seemed consistent throughout the city. A very simple, but dramatic difference.

What doesn't work? Finding your way around. Street signs can be hard to spot or non-existent along major thoroughfares (I'm sure everyone in Portland recognizes Burnside, but I don't) and there is an almost total absence of way-finding signs. Bring a map.

Density done right
Portland has created dense, lively, and livable neighborhoods in areas where they didn't exist before. They've even made those neighborhoods interesting to look at, with an eclectic mix of historic structures, funky modern architecture, and lots of green spaces.

Of course, the Pearl District is the poster child for this sort of density, with a great mix of retail, restaurants, and residential uses housed in architecturally interesting buildings packed alongside inviting parks and greenways.

photo by Andrea Grygo Diamond

(I want one of those condos with the cantilevered decks.)

It's something I don't think we do well in Minnesota, where most new developments end up bland and inoffensive. Heck, maybe it's something that can be done only in a place like the Pearl, where there really weren't any existing neighbors to complain (the Pearl District was a derelict industrial area before being re-imagined as Portland's hot new neighborhood), but I'm not convinced. In Portland this sort of architecturally interesting, mixed-use, high-density development seems to be slipping in almost everywhere.

It's got to be tricky to do though. The Old Town/Chinatown area is clearly becoming a more lively and desirable location, but how do you build on what is already there without losing the authenticity and funky vibe that makes the area intriguing?

It will be interesting to see what this part of the city is like in another dozen years.

Let's go shopping downtown!
The historic core of downtown Portland has a wealth of gorgeous older commercial buildings. It is an area that has been rebuilt over time, creating a delightfully weird mix of architectural styles.

However, the amazing thing about downtown Portland is that it actually has stores! REAL stores and lots of them, stores we don't have anywhere in the Twin Cities and certainly not downtown.

Being downtown feels the way I remember feeling about downtown Minneapolis when I was 8. It just FEELS like a city. There are big department stores, high-end luxury stores (the Rolex shop is just down from my hotel), specialized boutique stores (there is a kitchen knife shop next to the Rolex shop and there are THREE gourmet chocolate shops within a block of my hotel), furniture and home stores (West Elm), dozens of small women's clothing shops from local specialty shops to J Jill, electronics stores, camera shops, an office supply store, discount department stores. . . you name it, you can probably find it in downtown. (Ok, I didn't see any building supply stores, but there were plenty of auto repair spots in China Town and the Pearl, so there may have been a Lowe's or Home Depot lurking nearby.)

Of course, there are also plenty of restaurants, but we do have those in our downtown back home, so that isn't as exciting J

Seriously, I feel like I've stepped back into another time, a time when there were no sterile malls and downtown was THE place to shop.

Now, if only I could afford to actually live in Portland. . .

Next post: Schoolhouse Swifts