Think Again

The secret to Portland’s success


Here are some things to know about Portland, Oregon. There’s a little garden on the traffic island at the entrance to the transfer station where you go to drop off your hazardous waste—a beautiful little garden, as so many are here, that you get to look at on the way in. A lot of the side streets are designed to accommodate a single lane of traffic—you have to pull over into a parking lane when someone’s coming in the opposite direction, a constant exercise of courtesy—the idea being to slow down vehicles in residential areas and keep the streets at a neighborly scale. When fire forced the temporary closure of a popular local restaurant, other places helped the owners stay afloat during the reconstruction by lending their kitchens for pop-up dinners. On hot summer days, businesses put bowls of water on the sidewalk, so dogs can get a drink.

Meanwhile, Penn Station is in the news again, back in my hometown of New York. The demolition, 50 years ago, of the original neoclassical structure, one of the country’s greatest and grandest public spaces, and its replacement by a subterranean warren of tunnels, food fumes, and fluorescent tubes, is a sin the city’s been lamenting ever since. Now comes yet another attempt to undo it, but it’s never easy making headway in New York, especially in opposition to private interests. Look how long it took to start construction on the Freedom Tower, which is still not finished, because of the developer who holds the lease on the site.

Portland, to be blunt about it, is not exactly bursting at the seams with intellect. As another transplant recently remarked, the people are too provincial, too poorly educated, and too apt to take personally arguments about ideas. (Before you get indignant, have you lived here? If so, have you lived in a big city, or anywhere back east?) It takes you longer to explain a question than it would for people in New York to answer it. There are guys who work in baggage claim at LaGuardia who are more on the ball than most of the people I encounter here.

So if New Yorkers are so smart, how have Portlanders managed to create a city that functions so much better? Forget about the hipster stereotypes. I’m talking about land use, transportation, sustainable technology, the fostering of local business, and a whole lot more. I’m also talking about the commitment people have to beautifying public space (including areas of private space that are visible to the public), whether by planting gardens or displaying works of art and craft. “Livability” may be a cliché, but it really is an improvement over the alternative.

I’m not suggesting Portland hasn’t had some gifted people in its planning offices. But developing good ideas and putting them into practice are two different things. What Portland shows is that there’s something more important than brains when it comes to creating quality of life: simple decency. It’s remarkable how pleasant things can be when people put aside their selfishness and think about the common good. You don’t have to be a genius. You just have to not be a dick.

Watch for Portlander Brian Doyle’s response to this column in Epiphanies on Friday.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life 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. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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