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Sunday, 19 July 2015

A Taste of Portland

Just got back this week from a trip to Portland, and I'm wondering why the heck it took me so long to visit!

Actually, I know exactly why: not having lived in the US for a long time, it was quite difficult to justify trips to random places that weren't major international hubs. But it begs the question of why I got the idea in the first place...

I've always been glancingly familiar with the place - Powell's City of Books, Portlandia and Chuck Palahniuk, for instance - and in more recent years this was allied with an interest in the Pacific Northwest in general. I almost went to journalism school at University of Oregon in Eugene, to boot (though I don't regret choosing to go to New York instead). More recently, I started watching Grimm, NBC's extraordinarily silly but addictive show based on fairy tales, so it's been top of mind for a while.

So the opportunity came up this year, and I figured on spending almost a week there - I've had good weeks off on my own in the likes of Paris and Singapore, so I thought I'd try it out in the continental US. I found cheap flights and an expensive hotel, got a guidebook and got in touch with a friend from college who (it turns out) lives there.

It was nice to experience a relatively compact American city, which I could get around by public transport or even on foot - I've really only spent time in New York and SF and LA, so Portland's size (600,000 in the city and 3 million or so in the metropolitan area) was a nice change. The place also felt like a slightly larger, less scuzzy version of Berkeley. Not that I have anything against Berkeley in general, but my abiding memories of the place include my dad and grandma being politely asked by a drug dealer to take another set of stairs up to where we'd parked in a parking structure there, or a guy outside a shop rather less politely flicking his cigarette at my dad's head and accusing him of being an imperialist.

Portland's motto

I'm sure Portland is full of experiences like that, but the place seemed to be pretty free of pretensions - unlike hipsters in London or SF, folks mostly just seemed to go about their own business, and were shockingly polite. When I was taking the MAX into town from the airport on my first day, there was a guy helping out another tourist by directing her to her stop, and when she got off he said to her, "Have a nice day!" I defy you to find a similar experience on BART, the subway or the Tube.

Not that Portland's completely without problems. Despite being possibly the most expensive hotel I've ever stayed in, the Courtyard Portland Convention Center was in a not particularly desirable part of town on the northeast side of town. I went exploring a couple of times (looking for a drugstore and a post office, respectively), and while I never felt unsafe, it certainly looked more rundown than the neighborhoods west of the Willamette. I later discovered that the Northeast was traditionally where Portland's African-American community was forced to live; much like Harlem in New York, it's clear that urban renewal hasn't been good for everybody.

I may have spaced the hotel search until it was too late, but my impression is that there's not a lot of middle ground - you can either pay loads, or stay in a shitty neighborhood far from downtown (or both), but there isn't much under $1,000 for a week. The McMenamin hotels might be the exception, but I didn't book those because they weren't available for the times I was there.

As far as attractions, I mainly eschewed the breweries, and found museums to haunt instead. I spent a fun enough morning at Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and a nice afternoon at the Portland Art Museum. There was a lot of art from the last 150 years or so at the latter, including a room devoted to the French impressionists, which on consideration is probably my favorite style and period. There was a lot more modern and contemporary art, but I returned to the Impressionist room on my way out of the museum, and was fortunate enough to find that an employee was giving a friend of his a personal tour.

Portland also seems to have rather visible Asian communities, as evidenced by the Japanese Garden over by Washington Park, and the Lan Su Chinese garden in Chinatown. The former is situated on a hill overlooking town, and it comes with beautiful views of Mount Hood; Lan Su, meanwhile, is in the middle of probably the most rundown part of downtown Portland, but once you entered the walls it was easy to forget you were in the middle of a city. I visited the morning before I left, and spent a nice hour first wandering the walkways and then enjoying some dim sum and tea in the tea house.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden

Another thing I didn't do much of was the outdoorsy stuff that Oregon is famous for, mainly because I didn't want to rent a car. But my friend did take me on a walk along the Springwood Trail, along the Willamette, down to Sellwood and back up along the west side of the river. That took us back through OHSU and the Waterfront, which plays host to the Saturday Market every week.

The other thing I kind of splurged on was food - my first night in town I found one of the food cart pods and downed a pair of Korean tacos, which set the tone for a week of good eating. I'm not suggesting there aren't any big chains in Portland, but it was certainly easy to find something local, especially downtown, and there was a good range of prices, from the food carts up to Swank and Swine, where my friend suggested getting dinner the second night I was in town.

The Voodoo Doll, from Voodoo Doughnut

I've generally said that European cities are better for things to see, while American cities are better for things to do (ie, outdoors pursuits), but I'm happy to see that this doesn't necessarily apply to Portland. If you like city breaks, taking in museums, bookstores and nice food, it's a nice getaway for anything up to a week.