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Thoughts on Portland, Oregon

This past week I headed to central Baja Canada for work. I had some time to take in the local culture, hang out with friends, and I came away with these thoughts.

Portland’s Raison d’etre?
Portland is a kind of a weird town. The thing I had the most trouble with is identifying anything iconic or historic about it. In San Francisco, you’ve got Gold Rush-Robber Barons-Earthquake-Golden Gate Bridge-Summer of Love-Tech Boom, and things like Cable Cars and Barbary Coast. Even in Berkeley you’ve got the University-Free Speech Movement-Smelly Wet Hippies-California Cuisine. But Portland doesn’t really have any similar anchors. You end up scrabbling for things like Powell’s Books, or great mass transit.

And when I’d ask people about the historic roots of Portland, about the only consistent word was “lumber.” But when you’re in Portland, you don’t really sense that history.

Somehow, in recent years, Portland has become a magnet for smart urbanites. The phrase most often applied to the town is “a livable city.” People move from all over because it’s a place you can settle, buy a house, have a good quality of living, and not spend a fortune. Portland has been able to do this without having a major university (which sets it apart from similar places like Austin) or any primary industries.

In fact, Portland has a pretty mediocre economy, and has for years. As timber wanes, there hasn’t been much to fill the void. High-tech is about as close as you get (Intel is, I think, the single largest private employer in the region), but it’s definitely not a consuming industry the way it is in the Bay Area.

Hanging Out
When you combine smart urbanites and a mediocre economy, you get a society rich in pastimes. Overeducated people without much to do end up spending a lot of time hanging out. So Portland has one of the most well-developed coffeehouse scenes of any city I’ve ever been to. Portlanders also love their pinball and video arcades. Sometimes these are combined — Tiny’s Coffeehouse, on 12th Ave near Hawthorne, has Addams Family pinball in the back (in excellent condition). And one night I walked past Backspace, a coffeehouse-artgallery-poolhall-videoarcade-PCbaang, that was absolute packed. Backspace, of course, was around the corner from Ground Kontrol, a “retrocade” featuring classic video games and pinball machines.

And I never even made it to Electric Castle’s Wunderland.

Oh, and Portland seems to have more neighborhood single screen cinemas than anywhere else. Many of which serve beer. (swoon!)

Coffee and More Coffee
I patronized a few coffeehouses. Forthwith, brief reviews.

Tiny’s Coffeehouse

Easily my favorite in Portland. A nifty hipster spot, with pinball in the back, good coffee (Stumptown roasts), and kick-ass indie rock (they played Clinic while I was there).

Urban Grind Coffeehouse

A cavernous space. Free Wifi. Good coffee. Kinda lame on the food front. My only problem is that they’ve got a playspace area for children, which means you get VERY LOUD KIDS while you’re trying to do whatever it is you were trying to do there (I was hoping to use it as a remote office for the day.)

Boyd’s Coffeehouse

Not a lot of personality, but a good cup of coffee, and the fastest free wi-fi I had on the trip.

I had only one truly outstanding meal, and that was breakfast at the exceedingly popular Cup and Saucer cafe. My cinnamon-brown sugar-walnut pancake was excellent, and paying the quarter more for free range organic eggs was more than worth it. Be prepared to wait. We sat near the kitchen, where I snapped this photo of The Magic Happening:

Blurry, ’cause a flash might have startled the cooks!

Some more pics
Portland gets some very foggy mornings.

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The First Regiment Armory has been preserved (in a neighborhood renowned for raising old buildings).

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The Hollywood Theater has a crazy facade.

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  1. Add to logging, which includes paper and lumber mills, a past in textiles and garments (Janzen sports, Pacific Trail, and Nike with Pendelton Mills just outside). Farming and fishing lead to solid canning operations around Portland. Second tier banking and insurance kept Portland downtown running through the 70s atleast. Portland also had one of the largest breweries on the West Coast in the Weinhard Brewry (now gone except for the wonderful buildings).

    The pioneer and Northwest indian heritage are the major local historical markers that are taught in grade schools and still tend to drive some of the culture.

    While lacking a major university Portland is home to some very good smaller liberal arts colleges, Reed College, Lewis and Clark, and Portland University. The (or is it now “a”) University of Oregon teaching hospital is in Portland also.

    Has Portland benefited by its lack of industry? By this, is Portland lack of hyper-growth and reasonable living costs a result of a booming economy. Do people choose to live there for balance of work and life? I spent four years growing up in Portland and it is a great city from memory and recent visits ensure me the culture is still there as is the ease.

  2. My own Portland coffee story began after my freshman year of college. My friend and I spent some time visiting a friend there as part of our road trip around the country. We went to a place called Coffee People where I ordered the most memorable coffee drink of my life. It was called a Spicy Virgin and, as I recall, contained coffee, buttered rum and cinnamon. I returned to Portland and Coffee People about ten years later, hoping to order my beloved Spicy Virgin. Alas, it was no longer on the menu. To this day I still like to put a pat of butter and a sprinkle of cinnamon in my coffee. Yum!

  3. Portland has a lot of great-food restaurants (Montage, Typhoon, Thai Orchid, Il Piatto) and great breakfast places (Besaw, Bijour). Maybe it’s just my Jewish-tourism gene, but I always look forward to going to Portland if for no other reason than to eat!

  4. How about them Blazers!

    Your kitchen pic is blurry because you moved in pressing the shutter.

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