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Portland: Lost in Its Own Reflection

Portland: lost in its own reflection As self-congratulatory young creatives move in and families and jobs for the working and middle class stream out, Stumptown is becoming an Ephemeral City tha

December 11, 2005 |
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Few cities in North America are as widely feted as Portland. For many, Portland represents the epitome of "smart" urbanism, a paragon that puts other, less-brainy places to shame.

Pilgrims travel once or twice a month from as far as California and Canada to study Portland's transit system, economic development and land-use strategies. Lots of educated people, trees, clean air and good buzz help Portland get on all the right lists--from "most livable," "most fit," "healthiest," "most competitive," "most literate" and "best for walking."

It's enough to make even a modest city booster blush. But before you all turn red, is all this praise deserved?

Much like its bigger soul mate, San Francisco, Portland isn't an old-style "city of big shoulders" but a lifestyle choice for the enlightened elite. They're the people who read more than average, walk or bicycle regularly and drink lots of good coffee.

Portland is becoming what I call an Ephemeral City. What do ephemeral cities do? Not much by traditional standards. They don't create a lot of jobs for working or middle-class people. Instead they mostly exist to celebrate themselves and provide an attractive setting for visitors and would-be migrants.

But can a city survive--and thrive--primarily as a marketer of an urban experience?

An ephemeral city doesn't compete with lesser places--you know, those ugly cities with functional warehouses and factories, Wal-Marts and strip malls--for jobs, companies or investors. An ephemeral city's economy relies largely on a high level of self-esteem among its residents.

Four decades ago, author Neil Morgan used the term "narcissus of the West" to describe an already self-indulgent San Francisco. Now it's time for the City by the Bay to move over--the City of Roses wants to take its place in front of the mirror.

To some extent, this high regard, like that of any well-chiseled middle-age narcissist, reflects something of a Portland reality. Portland, as its boosters are forever telling everyone, is a physically attractive place. Parts of the city--like the much ballyhooed Pearl District--look very much like famed urbanist Jane Jacobs' idealized urban district.

Rhapsodizers often miss the differences between Portland today and Jacobs' gritty Manhattan neighborhoods of more than 40 years ago. Those New York areas were home to large numbers of families and immigrants; they boasted both real bohemians (those without money) as well people who worked with their hands. Most residents were there for employment and family; many hoped they'd move up into a nicer neighborhood someday.

Upward mobility was the common theme of the time. Urbanites wanted to get ahead--not "soak" in the ambience--and saw the city as a means to get there. "A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle class people...greenhorns into competent citizens," Jacobs suggests. "...Cities don't lure the middle class, they create it."

Contrast that with genteel Portland, which increasingly places its bet largely on luring the hip, cool, iPod-toting creative class--"the young and the restless," as one story recently put it. These hipsters are supposedly the engine of the city's future.

But who isn't high on this agenda? Certainly it can't be families. Portland already has one of the lowest percentages of little tykes among American cities. The city schools are emptying out, down 14 percent in 10 years.

Nor, despite the obligatory liberal genuflection, it can't be ethnic minorities, either. Portland has one of the lowest percentages of minorities and immigrants of any major city on the Pacific Coast. Hardworking Latin laborers or opportunistic Asian traders--the canaries in the economic coal mine--seem to be opting instead for less-lovely but more commercially vital places such as Los Angeles, Phoenix or Houston.

If they're the leading drivers of Portland's future, what is the local "creative class" creating? So far, nothing exceptional in the way of jobs or new companies. Now clearly on the rebound, Oregon's economy started lagging the country's five years ago.

But so far the data suggests that the rebound is stronger in places like Medford and Eugene, as well as the burgeoning suburbs which, compared to their high-priced counterparts in California, are attractive not so much to hipsters but to families.

"People like the downtown, but the growth is elsewhere," notes local economist John Mitchell.

But the economy isn't the only place suburbia is doing better than the sophistos suggest. Like the "creative class," the city's much ballyhooed "green" planning policy has been less than wildly successful.

Even before Al Gore, looking out from one of his estates, discovered sprawl, Portland's planners declared war on single-family homes, backyards and insufficiently dense development. To stomp out such deviant behavior, the city--to the hosannas of the planning profession--proudly imposed tough restrictions, notably the urban growth boundary, on new development.

Unfortunately, Portland's green urbanism has produced some unexpected results. As regulation helped boost the housing prices in the close-in areas, the middle class has moved farther and farther out. It turns out that most families--yes, they still exist--usually opt not to raise their kids inside sardine cans if they can at all help it.

So Portland's sprawl has continued to spiral about as much, or even more, than most American regions, notes demographer Wendell Cox. Over the past few years Portland's population growth has slowed considerably, with the overwhelming majority of the Portland area's increases coming outside the city limits, and that percentage appears to be growing.

Some of this may be traced to the little-acknowledged fact about the creative class--at some point many grow up and move out. One prime destination appears to be fast-growing Washington County, which beat the pants off Portland in a recent ranking of most-tech-savvy places in USA Today.

Mass transit, the other linchpin of the Portland legend, also may be less a triumph than reported. According to the most recent Texas Transportation Study, drivers in greater Portland are stuck in traffic 39 hours a year, not far behind notoriously gridlocked Seattle, with 47 hours.

So if Portland's present accomplishments are less than stellar, what does the future hold ? Actually, it won't be too bad for those who like the way things are.

Given current trends, Portland's inner city will continue to be attractive to its core demographic niches. As an attractive Ephemeral City, it will remain a lifestyle pit stop for wayward twentysomethings and a lure for the financially secure's quest for quality of life.

It also might remain a blessed place for aging hipsters who can "create" for each other without enduring the hard competitive scene of Los Angeles, New York or even Seattle.

Population pressures may help. As the country grows to 400 million by 2050--due largely to the children of immigrants and babies raised out in the burbs--there'll be enough young people, childless couples and nomadic rich to keep the Pearl District hopping. Suburbanites may still wander into town on weekends to take in a play, a game or some high-quality cuisine.

There even may still be a buzz about the place. Burdened by the complexities of managing mid-21st century super-sprawl, planners might still come to marvel at a preserved, archaic urban environment, much like today's visitors to Florence or Venice.

It will likely be an aggressively pleasant place, kind of a nice post-graduate college town--a museum for 1960s values, a testament to good intentions and the enduring power of self-regard.

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