By William Deresiewicz
Summers in Portland, you can’t walk out the door without tripping over a public festival of one kind or another. Street fairs, art walks, flea markets, farmers markets, parades. There’s Baconfest, the Naked Bike Ride, the Adult Soapbox Derby. There are stilt walkers, buskers, bicycle jousters, Native American drum circles, tumult, commerce, cooking smells, face painting for the kiddies, and the MarchFourth hipster marching band. Some of it may be a little precious, a little self-conscious, a little annoying. But it all adds up to something a lot bigger.
I remember the “street fairs” they used to slap together in New York in the 1980s and ’90s. The same hucksters would go from neighborhood to neighborhood selling the same crappy T-shirts, rubbery sausages, chamois cloths, trinkets. It was boring, corporate, irrelevant, and depressing—a simulacrum of traditional civic life, and not even a good simulacrum, just a cynical and smelly one. The best thing you can say about the festivals in Portland is that they aren’t trying to imitate anything. They are self-organizing, spontaneous, and idiosyncratic—organic in the other sense as well as the voguish one, genuine expressions of the city’s particular spirit.
And they perform, unconsciously, an essential political function. They claim public space for public purposes. Portland’s famous “livability” rests on its strong, smart, proactive urban planning. An urban growth boundary prohibits sprawl and focuses redevelopment towards the urban core, forestalling the kind of hollowing out that blights other postindustrial cities. In the 1970s, the city not only refused federal highway funds that would have gouged an interstate through the heart of the East side, it dismantled an existing highway that ran through downtown along the Willamette River, creating the waterfront park where, incidentally, a lot of the bigger festivals are held. Over the last few decades, as civic participation in the United States has dropped by half, it has doubled in Portland.
The governing assumption here is that public resources, including public land, should be reserved for public benefit, not auctioned off to the highest bidder. The festivals, by enacting the collective use of public space in the most literal and visible way, continually reassert that proposition. It is no coincidence that one of Portland’s biggest celebrations is Pedalpalooza, a two-and-a-half-week extravaganza that includes over 250 events, and that in 2010 the city passed a 20-year, $600-million bike plan designed to triple the extent of existing routes and quadruple the rate of bicycle commuting to 25 percent. If you come, they will build it.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.