Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park stretches along the Willamette River in downtown Portland.
Officially, it’s The City of Roses. And there are extensive rose gardens in town. But Portland has been called "Puddletown" and "Bridgetown," too, for these even more pervasive features. And, in its spottily yuppified present, Portland has been billed locally as "Beervana" in celebration of the bold claim that "One is never more than 15 minutes’ walk from a brewpub or microbrewery."
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Portland’s a compact city, but not all of a piece. It has many distinct, and distinctly contrasting, neighborhoods. Several of these are impressively self-aware and well-organized, with brochures, maps of retail establishments, and signs reminding forgetful strollers just which historic district, commercial neighborhood, or residential community they’re enjoying.
Two of these neighborhoods demonstrate the contrast: Northwest (also known as Nob Hill in this town that can’t seem to reach consensus on unofficial names) and Hawthorne.
Say yes to life: Strollers with eclectic taste can take in ancient Egypt, contemplate the Church of Elvis and watch the Weinhard computer make beer during a leisurely day.
Hawthorne’s a neighborhood of shops along SE Hawthorne Boulevard. It’s offbeat, with overtones and undercurrents of funky. Even so, according to at least one local person, area times they are a-changin’: "People with families are coming in and mellowing the place. Also, when you live next to someone with a green mohawk or pierced body parts you find they’re not so scary or intimidating."
Au contraire—you’ll be amused. We didn’t see a single green mohawk, and Hawthorne isn’t too funky to have its own brochure/map listing principal establishments along a 36-block stretch of boulevard. The map is a bit over-inc.asplusive; Hawthorne’s heart is approximately between SE 31st, near Artichoke Music, and SE 43rd, hard by Captain Jack’s Tattoo Studio.
Some familiar names appear (Ben and Jerry’s, Noah’s Bagels), but the tone is set by the likes of El Mundo (natural fiber clothing for women), Beads Forever, and a jumbo used-book store, Book City. Even so, perhaps the neighborhood’s most unusual feature is the dormant volcano, Mt. Tabor. Look up the street and you’ll see the grass- and tree-covered hill, innocently looking much like the elevated city park it is.
The Northwest (Nob Hill) neighborhood is even better organized, with its own historian. A grocer from San Francisco opened a store on NW 23rd 100-odd years ago. He named the store after the uppercrust S.F. neighborhood despite fairly level Portland topography in this area. Nowadays the upscale shopping and dining quarter gets compared with a different part of S.F.: "Sort of like Union Street, only less commercial" appears to be local opinion, and a generally accurate one it is. The principal section is from Burnside Street to Lovejoy Street.
Locals own and run most of the stores in Northwest, many of which occupy rejuvenated Victorians. And the neighborhood to either side of NW 23rd is of handsome, tree-lined streets with large, old homes. One unusual business along the street is Clear Creek Distillery, surely one of the smallest such establishments outside of Thunder Road territory.
Clear Creek makes brandy using "traditional European techniques" to create a pure distillate from fruit. It grows its own fruit and trucks it to NW 23rd for crushing, fermenting, distilling. The result is a trickle of what Clear Creek proprietor Stephen McCarthy describes as "pure distilled essence of pear or plum or raspberry or cherry." You can tour the distillery by appointment and see, to some extent, how they cram 28 pounds of pears into one bottle of brandy.
This also is a good area for eating. Try Kornblatt’s for "New York-style bagels" and other food; Macheezmo Mouse for "Mexican health food." A bus driver/foodie justly recommended Papa Haydn for desserts. The nearby parallel section of NW 21st also offers a varied array of high-quality restaurants.
Another neighborhood, Sellwood, contrasts with both Hawthorne and Northwest. Near Sellwood Park there’s a pleasant, small shopping area of nice, if generally conventional, stores. But mixed in, and especially concentrated along SE 13th approximately from Lambert to Harney, are dozens of antiques shops. Although there’s variety among the quantity, most are pleasant, middle-of-the-road establishments that avoid both the extended pinky approach and second-hand-shop ambience.
Portland does have its more institutional tourist draws. But the pervasive, often subtler, and frequently eccentric low-key attractions are equally entertaining. The Church of Elvis, for example, has few counterparts elsewhere.
Originally it was "the world’s first coin operated art gallery," with the Church of Elvis as one of its exhibits. "Had I known it would attract an Elvis crowd," says founder Stephanie G. Pierce ("Artist to the Stars"), "I never would have named it the Church of Elvis. I wanted to make a church operated like an ATM machine. It’s better not to have human contact."
You’ll find the C of E upstairs at 720 SW Ankeny Street. By these signs shall you know it: the "24 Hour Church of Elvis" logo in the windows and a hand-lettered notice on the street-level door inviting you to climb the stairs.
The C of E occupies a small room crammed with pop-art kitsch. Although avoiding human contact appears to be a stated, perhaps central, tenet in its doctrine, the main exhibit and chief work of art is Ms. Pierce, "confirmed semi-finalist, celebrity spokesmodel/minister & hostette." Her breathless theology and nimble repartee make buying an Elvis T-shirt, or maybe just an Elvis ID card, an event.
You may have a more genuinely religious experience, and certainly a more contemplative one, at The Grotto. It’s a 62-acre site, mostly at the top of a 110-foot cliff, with pathways winding through forested parkland thickly studded with statuary. There also is a grotto in the dictionary sense, a shallow, cave-like spot in the cliff face. This one has a copy of Michelangelo’s Pietà in it.
You reach the clifftop via elevator; it leaves you near a Meditation Chapel, which is cantilevered over the cliff. From its overstuffed leather chairs you might dwell on philosophical abstractions or the hologram-realistic statue of Mary. Through the plate glass wall behind Mary you can see the Columbia River and possibly Mt. St. Helens beyond.
For those willing to enter into the traditional spirit of the place, The Grotto is a beautiful site, conducive to reflection. Its executive director, Father Jack Topper, O.S.M., summarizes it with reasonable accuracy, if little poetry: "You can describe it, you can see pictures of it, but you can never appreciate it until you come here."
The Grotto favors traditional, representational art. But it doesn’t have an exclusive franchise on open-air art in Portland. There’s an impressive number of secular works scattered around town. Most are traditional; gratifyingly little is of the bent-tube-and-found-object variety that disfigures so many public places elsewhere. Some are whimsical. Some even are functional. And they turn up all over in the downtown area.
A few examples: Large, colored fish swim across the side of a parking garage at SW Morrison and SW 4th. A gilt salmon perhaps 10 feet long apparently is crashing through the third-floor corner of a brick building and emerging from the other side at SW 9th and SW Salmon. Life-size bronze animals occupy small pools and half the sidewalk by Pioneer Courthouse. A column looking like a particularly robust lamppost on Pioneer Courthouse Square blows a fanfare then hoists an icon to predict the afternoon’s weather each day at noon.
Perhaps most impressive from a traditional point of view is Raymond Kaskey’s Portlandia, a neo-neoclassic, hammered copper, 36-foot female figure bending over atop a 45-foot pedestal. It looks good enough to have dated from the 19th century, even though it was created in the 1980s.
While Portlandia is but the second-largest statue of its kind in the country (after the Statue of Liberty), Portland can boast the country’s smallest civic park: Mill Ends. It’s a former utility pole hole in the middle of the road at the end of SW Taylor on SW Front. People get married there. Cars whiz by, inches away. The day we visited, a capacity crowd of three yellow flowers was growing in the hole.
There’s a much bigger park just yards away: Tom McCall Waterfront Park. It used to be a multilane highway; now it’s a broad stretch of green extending many blocks along the Willamette River. Along the river here, Portland has a surprisingly boat-free waterfront. It makes the paddlewheel steamer Portland opposite the Maritime Museum stand out all the more. You can tour the 50-year-old Portland as part of a visit to the museum.
From the park you can see why the city is, at least in theory, called "Bridgetown." You can walk across most of these bridges and getting out on one or another of them is worthwhile. The Burnside at dusk is a decent choice. You’ll get an excellent urban skyline view, a look at the Convention Center’s odd glass towers (they’re at their best when lit up at night), and a pretty good look at the other bridges. You’ll also see the can-of-worms freeway maze on the river’s east side. Portland might reasonably add "Freeway Interchange Town" to its already eclectic list of nicknames.
All this walking around has a mitigating factor: Portland’s blocks are only half the size of blocks in most other places. This supposedly is because early planners recognized the premium value of corner lots. It’s an ego-builder for the urban hiker, who can tick off an impressive number of blocks in a gratifyingly short time.
If you favor relative wilderness for your walking, there are two large parks a long urban hike away: Washington and Forest parks. Between them they have 60 miles of trails and fire lanes. Washington Park, the handier of the two, also has extensive rose gardens, a large Japanese garden, and a zoo.
Roses don’t just happen. They’re developed, and new varieties are tested in, among other places, Portland’s International Rose Test Garden.
The roses we saw all seemed to be surviving whatever trials they may have been enduring. It’s a garden with a view: The panorama of downtown and Mt. Hood was stiff competition for the flowers. One gathers that the new varieties sometimes are named by eccentrics. Rose varieties on hand currently include Dr. Dick, Audie Murphy, Graceland, George Burns, Karen Blixen. The Japanese garden is just above the rose garden, beyond the tennis courts.
The zoo also is in the park, although it’s a goodly walk from the rose garden. Try the narrow-gauge train. It takes you on a winding ride through the forest to the zoo, where the current main attractions are the baby giraffe (born October 1997) and the baby rhino (born September 1997). To counter such sweetness, visit the bat display. Vegetarians though they appear to be, these bats crawl, swoop, and wrap themselves in their wings with Lugosi-like creepiness.
While you’re in the park, don’t be fooled by those signs directing you to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). It used to be in the park; it’s now just across the Willamette River, and well worth the trip.
OMSI is a large facility; it includes a complex of buildings, an Omnimax theater, and a submarine. Interactivity is the key; imaginative exhibits go a long way toward taming some fairly high-flown topics, among them El Niño, earthquakes, paleontology, social aspects of biotechnology. Take a guided tour of the sub, mix a few chemicals, stand in the earthquake room, make an origami plane and test it in the wind tunnel, explore information manipulation, watch the lab people work on freshly uncovered triceratops bones.
According to OMSI science director Jan Paul Dabrowski (whose business card gives his title as Chief Rocket Scientist), OMSI is designed for people age 6 and up. It’s serious stuff done with personal involvement and a generally light touch.
A visit to OMSI might incite you to learn even more about some esoteric topic. Try reading. The city has just completed a museum-quality restoration of its WWI vintage Carnegie Library. Don’t have a card? Portland has enough used-book outlets to justify yet another
nickname, and the biggest of these, Powell’s Books, is a tourist attraction in itself.
There are branches of Powell’s here and there, but the main store, crammed with new and used books, is at NW 10th and West Burnside, handy to both the Church of Elvis and the Weinhard Brewery. Powell’s claims it can "provide for your every bibliophilic need." Pick up a map of the place on entry.
Those with Egyptophilic needs should consider attending the Portland Art Museum’s special exhibition on ancient Egypt. Designed to illustrate technical achievements, views of afterlife, political unrest, and the pervasive influence of religion, the approximately 200 objects include statues, mummy cases, jewelry, ceramics, and wall carvings. "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" will be at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Avenue, through August 16.
Photography courtesy of Steve Morgan/Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published in May 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
The AAA Portland Citimap and Washington/Oregon TourBook are helpful in planning a Portland visit. You can get more information from the Portland Visitors Association, 26 SW Salmon Street, Portland, OR 97204-3299. Phone: (800) 345-3214.
Oregon Tourism Commission's Travel Oregon Web Site is also loaded with useful information.