Readers write about "The City"

A Poet and the City

When I taught Theories of Architecture, I started with two instruments—a poet and a city. I told the students: In October of 1974, Georges Perec set out to “exhaust the city of Paris” in three days. He would accomplish this by positioning himself in cafés, bars, and parks, creating comprehensive inventories of everything he saw. Some of these were “strictly visible,” such as the trees, the bodies, and the foods that passed him; others were “trajectories,” his name for buses and the routes that passed, and “colors.”

I warned: But something begins to happen to our poet. By the second day, his categories dissolve. He can no longer distinguish color from trajectory, the visible from the invisible. In fact, to exhaust the city becomes an exercise in the most heartbreaking futility.

I encouraged: And yet, through his rote lists—“It's cold, increasingly so it seems to me / I am sitting in the Café de la Mairie, a little toward the back / An 86 goes by, empty / A 70 goes by, full / Jean-Paul goes by, again: he coughs”—his own Paris emerges. Paris as only one human on one particular day can possibly experience it. Perec's account offers, in all of its literalness, the deepest intimacy.

I sent the students into the city of Portland with a copy of this small book, a journal, and the prompt to make an attempt at “exhausting” Portland. Knowing it was an exercise in futility, knowing that their failure to perform this task was certain, they each gave up.

Then, they gave in to the city.

When they returned the next week, they each carried with them an intimate portrait of a city they'd never before known. One walked into a barbershop he'd never been to and had a $5 haircut while the barber explained the history of the neighborhood, Kenton. Another followed graffiti through the Southeast industrial area, finding himself on the doorstep of a tent village he'd never known existed. Another student ordered a meal in a restaurant in which English was not spoken, and sat for the first time on the outside of a culture, looking in. Another became overcome observing the emotions of people walking in and out of a busy hospital.

Their stories were full of details of a city that, without a poet's eyes, they could have never known. They had become architects of intimacy.

--Nora Wendl, Portland


Los Angeles Redux

I grew up, went to college, and for a time worked in the urban mélange of Greater Los Angeles. My home was the suburb of Glendale. I grew up there in the late 1940s and early '50s. Los Angeles County's population at the time was four million.

All of us grow up in an environment, and that environment can forever shadow or illuminate our inner lives. Our rings of spatial comfort spread with age: first home, then the block, the neighborhood, and, by steps, the community, the region. By high school, my sense of belonging encompassed Los Angeles and beyond. But by the time I reached college, earlier, youthful securities of place met environmental reality.

A 1950s parody might describe Los Angeles as a materialistic, culturally shallow anti-city, an autopolis where freeways knife neighborhoods and smog shrouds the sun, an environmental disaster area, an urban desert.

To me, this caricature seemed all too real.

Oregon was my escape. I landed a job in Eugene, a position in city planning at the university. Eugene—all of Oregon—was a positive revelation. That was 1961.
I went on to graduate school. I was a planner in Portland; Washington, DC; San Francisco; Boston. I got involved in environmental planning. I retired.

I reconsidered my Los Angeles roots.

My formative world was largely contained within a neighborhood, not Greater Los Angeles. Its center was our white stuccoed house. Morning sun bathed the living room; sunset lit the backyard. One summer afternoon my father came through that backyard with a present: a Kodak Brownie, my first camera, which proved a Proustian moment. In the backyard I shot my first picture and planted my first garden.

My friends flew kites, played football, roller-skated, all on the block. Pearson's Drugstore, Long's Grocery, and Purdy's dime store were across the alley. We walked to school, to downtown, to the movies. We biked to Griffith Park and up Adams Hill.

My father worked in downtown LA. I worked summers there. I went to UCLA. I say I'm from Los Angeles. But it's really the neighborhood, the house, even the backyard, that provided foundational, primordial security and stimulus of place. The “new urbanism” of today's planning attempts to recapture the environment I grew up in. I experienced the original.

--Stanley Euston, Port Orford


Cities at the Center

The Cities occupied a large part of my childhood mental map.

Aunt Vivian and Uncle Bud lived in The Cities in the top unit of a double-decker. Older, less interesting relatives lived below. We didn't want to live there, so densely packed together, but it was thrilling to catch the bus downtown with Aunt Vivian, ride the escalators at Dayton's, and eat exotic cashew chicken at the Nanking restaurant.

We got the Minneapolis Tribune in the mail and read the comics sprawled out on the floor before changing out of our school clothes and doing afternoon chores.

Every Saturday afternoon in the fall, I listened to the Minnesota Gophers play Big Ten football on WCCO radio while I baked cookies. The home games were at the U in the heart of The Cities.

At first I went to the State Fair in The Cities with Mom and Dad, but later I went on 4-H trips to give demonstrations on making whole wheat bread and fancy desserts in the cavernous, concrete 4-H building. We slept in an enormous room filled with triple-decker bunk beds pushed side by side. You needed to memorize your row and bunk number or you might get lost.

These 4-H trips to The Cities always included a Twins game. We were big fans of the Twins, listening on WCCO, hoping Harmon Killebrew would hit another home run. I always wanted to let Dad know the score and the highlights of the game when he came in from the fields for afternoon coffee and cookies.

I went to a small liberal arts college nestled in a shady residential neighborhood of The Cities. Summit Avenue, with its stately homes, large churches, and the Governor's mansion, edged the campus. I loved to walk the length of the avenue and through the neighborhoods of tidy homes and small apartment complexes.

I assumed my future was in cities—maybe not those Cities, but somewhere metropolitan. I did not want the hard work and uncertainty of farming. I did not want the smallness of small towns. I wanted the opportunities of the city.

I did live for many years in a city, raising my children in one. But more than a decade ago, I retired to the countryside to live a quieter life, surrounded by nature and hiking trails but still close to the richness of city life. Right now, it seems the best of both worlds.

--Judy S. Davis, The Dalles


Street Stories

It was gray and misty that morning as I pedaled into Portland, looking to distribute books. My homemade bicycle library was full of titles I'd culled from my own shelves: The Monkeywrench Gang by Edward Abbey, a copy of the local anthology Portland Noir, and a handful of Louis L'Amour Westerns I'd inherited from my grandfather. I'd also hit a used bookstore to stock up on some Stephen King, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, and others. What I didn't know on that first ride was that I would discover as many stories as I would lend out.

I had received a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council to run a street library that served people living outside, who might encounter trouble getting a library card because of lack of ID and proof of address. So that day, as I pedaled along, I looked for people with big backpacks, or pieces of cardboard under them, sitting against buildings and in the doorways of businesses not yet open. I searched for people who looked weather-beaten. It struck me that I'd been conditioned for years to avert my eyes from people living outside, holding cardboard signs or just waking up on the sidewalk. Now I was doing the opposite: I actively looked for and hoped to find them.

Street Books has operated for three years now, and when I look back over the notes I've scribbled during each shift, the record of book checkouts and returns, title requests, snippets of conversation, and remarkable overheard quotes, what emerges is an unintentional chronicle of a city and its stories. On a Wednesday in June of 2011, next to Skidmore Fountain, a patron named Ben, wearing a shabby coat and professorial glasses, was appalled to learn I didn't know Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, and patiently explained the plot and its significance to me. The next month, at the corner of Northwest Fourth Avenue and Burnside Street, I witnessed a conversation between two men, one housed, one sleeping under a tarp, about Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, and how the novel was really an investigation into what it means to be human. “By the end of the book, it's clear who the real monster is,” one said.

So many stories from the city. I feel lucky to be there to hear them.

--Laura Moulton, Portland



This September morning I finally got around to digging up the potatoes we sowed back in March, a job I'd been meaning to finish before the fall rains come down in earnest. As I started scraping away layers of dirt, I imagined myself an archeologist, and my focus shifted to the history hidden under all that soil.

We've made our backyard into an urban farm, but it wasn't always thus. Turning up the occasional artifact—a glass shard or shiny wrapper—reminds us that prior residents used the dirt as a personal landfill. Then there was a time, not long ago, when this neighborhood was just fields and orchards. The soil itself was carried here tens of thousands of years ago on catastrophic floodwaters; the rocks I dug up were boulders once, winnowed down by the giant rock tumbler of the Missoula floods and settling out of the torrent right here, in what is now a potato bed.

As I went deeper, one foot, then two feet, I imagined myself a jail-breaker, digging my way not out of a prison, but out of the city itself. Out of a broken food system, out of the urban heat sink, out of the pavement and pesticides built up around us. Walls behind which we will all waste away if we don't get out soon.

Then I was a coyote, digging by my nose, unearthing a body. It was the buried body of my former coyote-god self, as it was before the mythic transformer arrived and made the mountains hold still, took the everyday language from the salmon, made humankind. I had my head to the ground and my hands in the dirt not as an animal, but as a worshiper.

Then I was the old pioneer sea captain who, guided by the North Star, shaped his corner of Portland to keep that star always in sight. Or a pirate, driven by my own moral code and my own understanding of freedom, digging up real treasure and holding the chunks of gold up to a gray Portland sky, grinning.

And then I realized: As an urban farmer, all those faces come together in me. I am each of them. And that, I decided, dusting myself off from all the digging, was the real root of the matter.

--Nathan Hoover, Portland


Canyon City

I grew up in the Eastern Oregon town of Canyon City. A gold rush in 1862 brought a population boom, and for a time Canyon City had more residents than Portland, where I live today. Both towns have changed a lot since the 1800s. One is now a remote village of 715 people. The other is America's 28th-largest city.

Canyon City is 154 miles east of Bend, 70 miles north of Burns, 126 miles south of Pendleton, and 79 miles southwest of Baker City, the place where I learned to swim and where my mother purchased my first set of day-of-the-week underwear.

In 1959, we traveled by Trailways bus to Baker City for my preschool checkup. An optometrist diagnosed my astigmatism. An MD noted my poor reflexes, but said I was quite tall for a first grader. Before heading home, we went on a shopping spree for new clothes. Besides the underwear, my mother bought me a pair of saddle oxfords, an under-slip, and delicate fold-over anklets. I'd never possessed such luxuries.

School started on my birthday, at the end of a long heat wave. The sharp scent of alkali and sage entered the classroom through its open windows. In the afternoon, my mother brought cherry popsicles to celebrate my six years on earth. Dollops of melting red ice stained our chins and our new, first-day-of-first-grade store-bought dresses and button-down shirts.

I moved to western Oregon in 1979. It took a while, but I came to accept the weather. The stench of paper mills and fog, the funk of drizzle, and the punitive layers of gray were ghastly in the beginning. I yearned for cold awakenings, blasting dry wind, pine forests, and juniper-berry skies.

I now live in the heart of an energetic and transitioning metropolis. Even if it's only number 28 on some lists, it's a real city. Despite Portland's big-city problems—troubled cops, crumbling streets, high-priced housing—people from other parts of the country flock here to live. Sadly, Canyon City barely attracts tourists these days.

--Lavonne Griffin-Valade, Portland


The City, Block by Block

Last December, my wife and I began a simple but indefinite project: to walk every mile of public street in Portland.

We started on a gloomy afternoon in Sellwood. We didn't plan our route. We just began walking, which is easy enough. We took some pictures and, when we got home, dutifully marked a paper map with our progress. We walked three miles that afternoon.

We have no idea how far we have to go. I am told by a city transportation planner that there are “more than 3,000, but fewer than 4,000” miles of public streets in Portland. As I write this, we have covered about 150 miles, a drop in a bucket of unknown proportions.

If we ever finish, it will likely take us more than a decade—possibly two. And the city in which we started is not the city we'll know then. We see that already.
Sometimes the changes are obvious: massive apartment buildings replace vacant lots or aging houses; big transportation projects alter the flow of arterials. But most changes are hardly visible to a passing observer. Families come and go. Paint is slowly layered over.

These changes mirror our own lives. We are expecting our first child, the equivalent of a twenty-story tower built amid a quiet neighborhood. By the time we finish, he could be a teenager, or an adult. We will certainly be changed people. But most of that change will be gradual, hardly visible until we see it all at once.

Change is not unwelcome. The urban historian Kenneth Jackson wrote recently in the New York Times, “a vital city is a growing city, and a growing city is a changing city.” The same is true of our growing family. At least, I think it is.

Portland is famous for planning, but most change is organic. Much of it is open to vociferous debate: yard signs oppose infill in a wealthy neighborhood, editorials decry new bike lanes, maps show worrisome trends of gentrification and segregation. We haven't resolved these issues. We probably never will.

Maybe this grappling is just what keeps us vital. We once passed a house under renovation in Montavilla with a sign assuring neighbors that the changes would not be too drastic.

As we walk on, block by block, we realize how impossible—and probably undesirable—such a promise really is.

--Craig Beebe, Portland


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Also in this Issue

Into the Welter

This Land Planned for You and Me

Imaginary Metropolis

Design for a Crowded Planet

What It Means to Say Portland

In-Between Place

Belonging and Connection

On the River

Why We Stay