Guest Essay by Jarrett Walker
Jarrett Walker PhD is the author of Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives. (Island Press, 2011) and the blog HumanTransit.org.
He is the founder and owner of Jarrett Walker + Associates, a firm that helps cities all over the world think about their public transit options and choices.
If you know Portland from its global reputation, then you know about downtown. Famously walkable, human-scale and rich with transit, it reminds many Americans of what they expect of a European city. But as money flows into downtown, the search for authenticity leads back out into the neighborhoods, especially those that have not yet been remade in downtown’s image.
Fortunate people often assume that transit is only for going downtown, because that’s the only place where driving is difficult enough that it’s an option for them. But for most people, transit is for going everywhere across the city, especially to the more economically diverse jobs and opportunities that tend to be everywhere but downtown.
Here is the Portland in between things, the struggling and hopeful Portland, the Portland that‘s happening anyway despite everyone’s grandest plans.
So in 1982, just as downtown was becoming world famous, the city’s transit system began moving the other way. While continuing to provide strong lines to downtown, the agency laid out a grid pattern of transit lines across the vast majority of Portland that lies east of the river. All the lines would be frequent – the next bus would always be coming soon – so that you could transfer easily wherever they crossed, to get from anywhere to anywhere in this large area.
The new pattern created several frequent lines that the British would call orbitals. Radial lines go into and out of the center, but orbitals orbit the center, at various distances out. They intersect the radials, offering useful connections, but never go downtown themselves. And instead of hauling big volumes of commuters into and out of downtown, they serve thousands of little trips that are all a bit different, among diverse neighborhoods and destinations. It works: these orbital lines are among the busiest in the city.
Busiest of all is the 75, which orbits Portland on the north and east sides, between three and seven miles out from the center. Across North Portland, where downtown is to the south, the 75 runs east-west, along Lombard and Dekum Streets. Across the east-side, where the path to downtown is westward, the 75 runs north-south, along 42nd and 39th Avenues – the latter now known as César E. Chávez Blvd.
As in most cities, a radial journey – that is, in or out of downtown– crosses all kinds of obvious boundaries. Inward the city fabric is older, denser, and more oriented toward walking and transit. Outward it’s newer, less dense, and more dependent on cars.
Grand narratives about urban history are also about in-vs.-out. Distance from the center has always been a statement about power, even if its significance has flipped every 50 years. In the 1960s, when power and wealth were fleeing the city, a five-digit house number meant you were remote and secure, while the historic inner city (except for a few enclaves) meant abandonment and crime. But the 2010s are more like the 1910s. A century ago, confident money built the fine Victorian and Craftsman homes of the inner city. Today, again, money rushes inward, pricing the inner city out of the reach of the artists and working people (including my own parents) who made it so interesting fifty years ago.
The marks of this pulsing oscillation are brutally obvious if you go inward or outward, but if you follow an orbital path, as the 75 does, you encounter more subtlety. History and power flow across the 75 more than along it, but as they do they surge and eddy in fractal patterns, even as a few rocks standing firm against their current.
At its center are sites of European sophistication that you can’t miss on the 75: the traffic circle at Glisan is right out of Haussmann’s Paris, and the blindingly shiny gold statue at its center is Joan of Arc.
The firmest rock is probably old-money Laurelhurst, laid out in the 1910s behind symbolic gates. Its large houses and leafy lots were an extravagance for its age. In its gently curving streets, inspired by the Garden City movement of the time, you can see a foreshadowing of suburbia. At its center are sites of European sophistication that you can’t miss on the 75: the traffic circle at Glisan is right out of Haussmann’s Paris, and the blindingly shiny gold statue at its center is Joan of Arc.
Urban development often seems to erase the landscape, so the remains of topography and watercourses take on heightened significance. Sullivan’s Gulch has lost its ambience to a roaring freeway; there must be a stream down there, but you’d be forgiven not wanting to look. But as with buildings, once you destroy enough creeks the last ones become treasures: Johnson Creek, wrapped in parkland with a popular bike path, crosses the 75 near its south end. The 75’s biggest watercourse of all is the Willamette River, just a few blocks away at both endpoints of the line.
And the watercourses define slopes, which define neighborhoods. The thin wedge of affluence called Alameda Ridge is the point where the 75 drops from the high plateau into Sullivan’s Gulch. South of the Woodstock district, the 75 follows 46th Avenue as it goes off the edge of the world, plummeting to Johnson Creek on one of the citys’ steepest slopes. To an inner-city sensibility this is indeed the very edge of things. Beyond lies the inner-ring suburb of Milwaukie in Clackamas County, where a county commissioner once referred to himself and his constituents as “peasants with pitchforks”.
As it makes its long orbit around Portland, then, the 75 tours the shifting front lines of many epic struggles. Gentrification loves the bohemian but chases it away. Defenders of history scream “stop demolishing Portland!” even as a desperate need for housing calls for bigger buildings. And in parallel, everywhere on the 75, you can watch the parallel dramas of power and weakness: power struggling to protect itself, while others struggle for survival and dignity.
To this shifting landscape, Geoffrey Hiller is the perfect guide. He knows you’ve seen the real estate photos, the chamber of commerce photos, the tourist photos, and the photos of cashed-up millennials in designer grunge luxuriating in sculpted authenticity. He wants you to see something else. Here is the Portland in between things, the struggling and hopeful Portland, the Portland that’s happening anyway despite everyone’s grandest plans.