Portland (Oregon, not Maine)

I’ve been to Seattle and the major Californian cities a few times over the last couple of decades, but I hadn’t been to Portland since 1984. Then I spent my university vacation hitchhiking around North America and didn’t pay for a single night’s accommodation. This time I travelled by train and the odd plane and stayed in HI hostels, and I have to say, I’ve changed far less than Portland has. I recall that my main reason for visiting the city was a few showpieces of postmodern architecture, notably Michael Graves’ Portland Building (1982) and the KOIN Centre (1984), which failed to thrill me. I assume I did visit the Portland Art Museum because I remember being impressed by the wealth of Asian art in the museums up the West Coast from San Francisco to Vancouver – but now I can state that it must be one of the dozen or so best art collections in the USA (see below). It has expanded since my first visit, having marked its centennial in 1992 by expanding into a former Masonic temple next door – the two buildings are currently separated by a walkway, with a tunnel linking them, but the plan is to build a new pavilion to fill the gap.

Liechtenstein at the Portland Art Museum (see below)

Across the Park Blocks from the Art Museum is the Oregon Historical Society, with an excellent modern museum on the history of the state and the city which totally (alas) dominates it. As a fine port where the Willamette river (Goddammit Janet, it’s Willamette, if you’re having trouble remembering how to pronounce it – the original Clackamas name is Wal-lamt) meets the mighty Columbia, Portland developed as an industrial city but was then overtaken by Seattle and Tacoma; after a flurry of World War II ship-building it declined (apart from Nike being established here in 1964) and by the 1970s was marked by post-industrial decline, especially along the waterfront. However the city planners began a process of restoring historic buildings and converting rail yards into parks and museums, while also encouraging modern (and postmodern) developments, and creating a pedestrian-, cyclist- and public transport-focussed city centre. The Old Town/Chinatown area, largely warehouses and commercial buildings on reclaimed land along the Willamette, has been gentrified, and in the area just inland (south of Union Station), former railway sidings were developed into a residential zone known as the Pearl District from the mid-1990s; at the district’s north end are some modern parks such as the slightly Zen Tanner Springs Park (2005), and at the south end are the Brewery Blocks, now housing hip loft-style apartments as well as boutiques, bars and restaurants. On the less attractive east bank of the river, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and the Oregon Rail Heritage Center are also on former industrial land.

So Portland had a reputation for being fairly green, liberal and arty long before hipsterdom was invented. Then came a TV series called Portlandia in 2011, which the locals, looking back, say is when the city was ruined for them; the series is coming to an end in 2018. Its satirical sketches, mocking a fantasyland of nerdy liberal narcissists, perversely led to everyone wanting to move to Portland, or at least to Portlandia, forcing rents up and driving the boho artists out. Bars were replaced by artisanal candle-makers, and something of what made Portland one of America’s most liveable cities has  been lost. I saw hardly any lumberjack shirts or fixed-gear bicycles, but the city still seems a good place to be. That, plus the rising property prices, may partly explain the high numbers of homeless people on the streets – disproportionately African-American as one might expect.

In fact I was staggered to find that the original constitution of Oregon decreed that the state was to be a whites-only paradise (although, to be fair, slavery was banned too), and it was known as a racist city until at least the 1970s, with regular police shootings that of course couldn’t happen nowadays – could they? Minorities have grown from 3.6% of Oregon’s population in 1960 to 16.4% in 2010, and as the state grows from 4 million now to perhaps 6 million by 2050 the number of Latinos in particular is expected to increase disproportionately.

Food and drink

There’s been craft brewing here since the 1980s, and Portland now boasts both the highest number of breweries per capita in the US and the highest expenditure per capita on beer. There are now at least 70 craft breweries (plus 16 urban wineries!) – the oldest is the Bridgeport Brewery, founded in 1984 and now a pretty huge concern. I’ve visited the Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, which has a pub in Portland, and that’s also a pretty big operation now. They’re fine, of course, but I’d like to try something slightly more adventurous – one contender is Zoiglhaus (quite a way east of the centre, unfortunately), adapting German brewing techniques to hops-forward American tastes (they’ve even created a ‘German IPA’). You can take a pub tour with Brewvana Portland Brewery Tours. But don’t bother looking for downtown Portland’s oldest microbrewery, Tug Boat Brewing Company (founded in 1989), which closed in mid-2017, due to a never-ending saga of damage caused by businesses upstairs, apparently.

By the way, what is with the American puritan idea of having to be over 21 to even look at a brewery (or winery) website?? They’re legalising cannabis all over the place and the web is awash with pornography, but you might have to lie about your age to see a picture of a beer? Wineries in Georgia (the country) are adopting the same ridiculous idea, alas.

Food is a big deal here too – since 2012 Feast Portland has put on not only a huge annual food festival but also meals, classes and talks, and raises money to tackle child hunger. While there are lots of cafés, I spotted surprisingly few grocery stores downtown; but the Pine Street Market, opened in 2016, is a food hall in a historic (1886) building near the river – it has stalls with communal tables and more formal restaurants. I was also taken with the food stalls between Southwest Alder and Washington at 9th & 10th, including Ethiopian, Lebanese, Chinese and even a Russian-Vietnamese fusion offering, which I wouldn’t begin to know how to tackle. I also noticed quite a few Andean and Peruvian restaurants. I don’t like coffee, but that’s huge here too – the heart of Portland’s third-wave coffee culture is Stumptown, with various branches in town; its founder also owns the Woodsman Tavern, a log-cabin-style pub serving locally sourced food. Kingsland Kitchen, a British-owned brunch and sandwich place, opened in 2015 and is horribly meat-focussed but otherwise enjoyable enough, with fried eggs and toast from just $4 and a full English breakfast for $16.

Art, indoors and out

There’s a lot of public art in Portland, thanks to a tax on new developments – usually this is a recipe for bad art, but most of what’s been produced here is not too cheesey. A lot of it is along the Transit Mall (Southwest 5th and 6th Avenues). For me, the most interesting public art is the stumps of two pillars that supported the Lovejoy Ramp, a road bridge across the rail yards, which have been preserved because of the murals painted on them by railway worker Tom Stefopoulos between 1948 and 1952 – they’re definitely worth tracking down on Northwest 10th Avenue between Everett and Flanders. There’s also The People’s Bike Library of Portland, at Southwest 13th and Burnside, which looks more like the city’s abandoned bikes piled up randomly. There’s quite a bit of real (really good) sculpture outside the Portland Art Museum, notably Roy Liechtenstein’s giant Brushstrokes (three swooshes, in a way) and some rough steel by Anthony Caro (there’s more by him inside).

Inside PAM (this is the dull bit), the collection starts with Greek bowls and kraters, funerary heads from Palmyra (c150-200 BCE) and Etruscan ceramics; then there’s a Nativity (1335) by Taddeo Gatto (Giotto’s closest disciple), a cut-out Christ on the cross by Botticelli (from his weaker late Savonarola-esque period), a few more from the Italian Renaissance, a Brueghel and a Cranach, then a graphic circumcision (prefiguring the Passion) by Jacob Cornelisz Van Oostsanen, the first notable painter in Amsterdam, who was new to me. I guessed that van Dyck’s calculating Cardinal Domenico Rivarola (c1624) was from Genoa (see my post from there), and I was right. There’s a representative range of mainly French 18th- and 19h-century art, by Fragonard, Greuze, Boucher, de Largilliere, Bougereau, Monticelli, Ziem, Diaz de la Peña, Corot, Daubigny, Millet, Courbet (a mirror image of himself as a cellist), and Alexandre Calame (1810-64), who lost an eye at 10 but became the leading Swiss landscape painter of the 19th century. Upstairs, there’s a striking modern portrait by Kehinde Willey on the landing, then American art, starting with Gilbert Stuart (a pupil of Benjamin West, the American-born co-founder of the Royal Academy), Thomas Sulley, Rembrandt Peale, Daniel Huntington, George Inness, Sargent, Albert Bierstadt (a rather exaggerated version of Mount Hood, which Portlanders can see in the distance), Childe Hassam (who visited Portland in 1904 and 1908) and then more radical art in the 20th century, by Julian Alden Weir, Robert Henri, John Sloan, Milton Avery and Moses Soyer, as well as Diego Rivera.

There’s a great blend of traditional and contemporary Native American art and a good little room on Mesoamerica and Peru, Chinese funerary goods from the Warring States period, and Japanese prints. Through the tunnel in the Mark Building there are Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings by Monet, Gauguin, Pissarro, Degas, Sisley, Renoir, van Gogh, van Rysselberghe, Cézanne, Utrillo, Vlaminck, Rouault, Derain and van Doesberg. There are also photos by Eugène Atget and Julia Margaret Cameron and sculptures by Rodin and Brâncuși, and then slightly later works by Kokoschka, Kirchner, Beckmann, Léger, Lipschitz, Gabriele Münter, Naum Gabo, Philip Guston, Osip Zadkine and Josef Albers. In the ground-floor lobby are sculptures by Hepworth, Moore, Archipenko, Hans Arp, Calder and Isamu Noguchi, and a polyurethane car by Claes Oldenburg. The more contemporary work on display includes Warhol, Stella, Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, Judy Chicago, Don Judd, Dan Flavin, Basquiat and Kiefer; there’s glassware by Lalique, Tiffany and William Morris, and ceramics by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. All in all, there’s a hint of collecting by numbers (we need one by him, one by her…) but the end result is certainly an impressively broad collection.

Tacoma – still trying hard

Under an hour southwest of Seattle, Tacoma is a relatively drab place, dominated by its huge container port, by the I-5 freeway and by heavy military jets taking off and landing, but it does have its attractions and a proud, if short, history. The Northern Pacific Railway chose Tacoma, not Seattle, as the western terminal of its transcontinental line, which opened in 1883 (the first transcontinental line had reached Oakland, near San Francisco, in 1869, and the Canadian Pacific route to Vancouver opened in 1886), even though it’s further from the open sea. In fact, if Seattle continues to develop as it is doing, the two cities will join up within a few decades, enveloping Sea-Tac Airport.

Tacoma’s main current claim to fame is the excellent Museum of Glass, created by celebrity glass artist Dale Chihuly (born in Tacoma in 1941) and designed by the splendid Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson – you can see some of Chihuly’s perhaps overblown, but very imaginative and colourful, works on the Bridge of Glass, leading across the railway to the museum. In fact Washington state, and the whole of the Pacific Northwest, have been very important in the development of modern glass art, and there are lots of galleries in Seattle too, including Chihuly Garden & Glass and Pilchuck Seattle, a gallery linked to the Pilchuck Glass School, 50 miles north of Seattle – both were co-founded by Chihuly.

The ceiling of the Bridge of Glass

On the town side of the Bridge of Glass are the former Union Station (1911, now a courthouse), which has some of his larger works on display, and the Washington State History Museum, designed to match the former station. This gives an impressive overview of the state’s history in a suitably non-Seattlecentric way, from the first native cultures to the establishment of the Hudson Bay Company’s trading post at Fort Nisqually (yes, this could have been part of Canada), the arrival of the railways and modern industrial development. On the other (north) side of the former station is the Tacoma Art Museum, which of course has more glass by Chihuly plus European and (western) American paintings and a striking collection of Japanese woodblock prints.

There’s good craft beer here, naturally (glass… beer… of course they go together), notably Seven Seas Brewing, quite near the museums at 2101 Jefferson Avenue, and others just north of downtown including Odd Otter Brewing and Parkway Tavern, which is close to Hank’s Bar & Grill, where you can soak it up with good pizza.

Transport mishaps

Buses from Seattle and further afield, and Sounder and Amtrak trains, halt near the Tacoma Dome, a largely wooden concert/sports arena on the southern edge of the city, from where the Tacoma Link streetcar runs into downtown – this is currently free, with fares paid by the Downtown Business Improvement Area (an industry grouping). However an extension is under construction, which will loop around to the left past the main hospital, and when this opens in 2022 fares will be charged. Currently Amtrak uses a station a couple of hundred yards away from the Dome, but a second platform at the Freighthouse Square station (used by Sounder commuter services to Seattle) should have been ready by the end of 2017, allowing Amtrak to move here. However it’s running late so in January 2018 I caught my train at the old station to take the slow coastal route past Point Defiance Park (the second largest urban park in the US, containing a replica of Fort Nisqually, not on its original site) and the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge (rebuilt after it famously twisted itself apart in 1940); the freight line from the Sounder station has been fettled for 80mph running and Amtrak trains will go this way as soon as the new station opens. However the new route was launched in December 2017 with a publicity run that went horribly wrong, via the new station – the driver (engineer, as they say in the US) seems to have forgotten about the 30mph curves where the new line swerves across the I-5 freeway and the train left the tracks, killing three passengers. Amtrak is having a bad run of accidents at the moment, even as train travel is becoming ever safer elsewhere in the world; at the end of January 2018 a truck driver was killed by a train which, bizarrely, was carrying most of the Republican members of Congress (not known for their generosity to Amtrak) to a retreat, and four days later two Amtrak crewmen died when their train took the wrong track and hit a freight train. And then a few days later the entire Baltimore metro was closed to allow emergency repairs. Maintenance and lack of infrastructure are crucial, of course, but because Amtrak’s lines, outside the Washington-New York-Boston corridor, are owned by freight companies there’s been a huge reluctance to install the PTC (Positive Train Control) system which would prevent most of these accidents. It’s hardly new technology, and it definitely works.

Seattle – some history, tourist sights and building sites

It’s always a bit of a shock travelling from Vancouver BC to Seattle – the American accent (after the nice soft Canadian ‘oos’ and ‘ehs’), the repeated border checks, and when you get there, the ridiculous number of homeless people. Luckily I was only in safely blue Democrat-voting cities, the shock of meeting someone who actually voted for Trump might have been too much for me. In fact the cities I did visit were all fretting about the threat of a federal crackdown on their clearly lucrative cannabis industries – Seattle is in some ways the Amsterdam of the United States, and its free newspaper The Stranger is rather childishly obsessed with getting high and should, I think, just be called The Stoner.

The First Nations or Native Americans are not as visible as they are just to the north in British Columbia, and their culture is not treated with the same respect; there are totem poles in Seattle, but they’re typically made in Alaska or just appropriated. On the other hand, African-Americans are more visible, notably among the homeless community. The last overnight count found 11,643 homeless people in the Metro Seattle area, 5,485 of them without any shelter. In 2017 144 homeless people died here – 144!! It’s often been said that there is no safety net in the USA, and you really see what that means here. And it gets worse – in January 2018, days after I left, a homeless camp (in Belltown) was cleared and the city then put in cycle stands in a location where there was absolutely no need for them, to prevent anyone making camp there again; likewise public benches have arm rests to stop anyone from lying down.

Originally a pretty wild logging town, Seattle’s development was kick-started by (paradoxically) the Great Fire of 1889 and then the Klondike gold rush of 1897, when up to 30,000 obsessives mined the gold, and Seattle mined the miners, providing supplies, bars and gambling. Soon after this, a couple of hills were regraded (creating space for Chinatown to establish itself in what is now known as the International District) and the spoil was used to create the present waterfront, burying the original Skid Road – not Skid Row – which you can now see on underground tours. However it’s still a city of villages with names such as Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill.

Seattle’s twentieth-century history of attracting the new high-tech industries began as early as 1910 with the establishment of the Boeing Airplane Company (their first plane flew in 1916, so 2016 was marked as the centenary). The First and Second World Wars led to ship- and plane-building booms, continued by Boeing’s becoming the world’s leading manufacturer of jet planes. However modern Seattle was really born in 1979 when Bill Gates and Paul Allen moved the nascent Microsoft (founded in New Mexico in 1975) to their hometown of Seattle, which was soon home to lots of start-ups, many founded by the 12,000-odd millionaires created when Microsoft became a public company in 1986. In 1971 Starbucks was founded here, riding a coffee craze that shows no sign of abating, followed in 1994 by Amazon (which eventually made a profit in 2001, and now produces more, and hotter, start-ups than Microsoft). Nowadays Amazon and Microsoft’s cloud computing platforms are the market-leaders, and the Seattle area is likely to be the centre for developments in this area as well as in AI and biotech. Between 1990 and 2007 the population of Greater Seattle grew from 2.4 million to 3.3 million (it’s now 3.7 million, the 15th-largest conurbation in the US).

In November 2017 Microsoft announced plans to redevelop its Redmond campus over the next seven years, with pitches for soccer and cricket (for its many South Asian employees) at its heart; it’ll be designed around pedestrian and bike movements and will have its own light rail station. Likewise Amazon, the city’s largest private employer with 40,000 staff, is developing a sustainable Urban Campus close to downtown in the South Lake Union district (where the main property developer is Paul Allen’s Vulcan), although it would have been cheaper and easier to build out in the suburbs; Amazon is also subsidising light rail. Currently 20% of its staff walk to work, and ‘only’ 45% drive. Despite the lamentable weather on the ‘Wet Coast’, Seattle does share the trend for inhabitants of tech-savvy cities to favour cycling and public transport (as well as craft beer and third-wave coffee).

However the highest-profile infrastructure under way at the moment is the replacement of the Alaska Way freeway (State Highway 99), along the waterfront, by a two-mile tunnel – the existing viaduct not only cuts the city off from Puget Sound but is at risk of collapsing in an earthquake (and that’s a question of when, not if). There have been delays and cost over-runs, reminiscent of Boston’s ‘Big Dig’ but not nearly as bad, and it should open in 2019, allowing the city to build a linear park and, I would hope, a high-quality (and level) north-south cycleway. Because the tunnel won’t have the downtown exits that the present viaduct has there’s a parallel project, known as the Center City Connector, to join the city’s two existing streetcar lines, creating a new north-south link through downtown; this should open in 2020. This is not to be confused with the Link light rail service which already runs north-south through downtown, using what used to be called the Bus Tunnel (opened in 1990). Even worse than the Alaska Way viaduct was the decision to drive I-5 (the interstate highway that runs the length of the West Coast from Canada to Mexico) right through the east side of downtown; it now carries far more traffic than was ever envisaged and produces insane levels of noise and pollution. One effort at remediation was the Freeway Park, opened in 1976 and hailed as a masterpiece of Brutalism, all concrete blocks and rather sterile plantings above the freeway – the constant traffic noise now makes it less than restful. It’s next to the Convention Center, which is well worth walking through for its excellent displays of contemporary art (on several floors) and a café selling all kinds of weird and wonderful wraps, rice bowls, juices and smoothies.

As for more conventional tourist sights, Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) and the Museum of Flight are all well known, but there are many more: I enjoyed the Wing Luke Museum (of the Asian Pacific American Experience), with excellent exhibits (including on local boy Bruce Lee) and tours of the historic Freeman Hotel (1910), first home to many Asian immigrants to the US. There’s also the vaguely similar Northwest African American Museum , which opened in 2008. The main history museum (given that the state history museum is in Tacoma – see my forthcoming post) is the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), which moved in 2012 to the former Naval Reserve Armoury in Lake Union Park; its main permanent exhibit, True Northwest: The Seattle Journey, includes the first Boeing plane. I’m also intrigued by the Center for Wooden Boats, also in Lake Union Park, which has exhibits on the area’s boat-building history but is also recommended by locals as a great place to rent rowing and sailing boats. History buffs should also not miss the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, a brilliant little free museum in the former Cadillac Hotel (1889), downtown near Pioneer Square, which stresses Seattle’s rôle as jumping-off point for the gold rush and has information on visiting the Alaskan parts of the park (which I visited when writing the Rough Guide to Alaska, of course).

Of books and beer

It’s hard to believe now that until 1976 Seattle bars were not allowed to have windows, lest the sinners inside be visible to passers-by. Virtually all of America’s hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s little surprise that nowadays there are craft breweries all over. This is also a great area for wine (Merlot being the big thing in Washington, and Pinot Noir in Oregon), and there are also new distilleries producing gin, vodka and even absinthe. Anyway, there are fourteen breweries in South Seattle (an area with an industrial brewing heritage), including half a dozen in the up-and-coming Georgetown area, on and near Airport Way South. They all have tasting rooms, in other words bars, but you should also make a point of stopping in at the Jules Maes Saloon – its website is still listing the gigs for April 2008, so better see their Facebook page. Lowercase Brewing is an excellent new place that has a growler-sealing machine for take-outs, while the Machine House Brewery makes the closest equivalent to English real ales, served from hand pumps in full-size imperial pint glasses. And then grab some tasty tacos at tiny Tu Cantinas at 6031 Airport Way South.

It’s a bit more of a surprise to learn that Seattle was designated a City of Literature by UNESCO in 2017. Of course there are good writers here (although it’s arguable that the best is actually the British Jonathan Raban) and the central library by Rem Koolhaas (opened in 2004) is great (go to the top and work your way down), but there are also lots of good bookshops and the Hugo House literary centre. This will move to a new permanent home on Capitol Hill in mid-2018, where they’ll be able to hold even more of their mostly free readings, launches and classes. There are also lots of readings and other events at the Elliott Bay Book Company and the Ballast Bar at Capitol Cider, and even a monthly Silent Reading Party at the Hotel Sorrento. Open Books is devoted purely to poetry, Kinokuniya to Japanese books and comics, and there are great second-hand bookshops on the lower level of Pike Place Market that the tourists never see. And being Seattle, many bookshops contain a congenial coffeeshop – Little Oddfellows at the Elliott Bay,  Raconteur at Third Place Books, El Diablo at Queen Anne Books, and the Bookstore Bar & Café (more of a gimmick than a bookshop) at the Alexis Hotel on Pioneer Square.

The Seattle Public Library
And finally

Also in January 2018, a few days after I left, the first Amazon Go automated supermarket opened at 2131 7th Ave (near Blanchard, just north of downtown) – this has no checkouts, but customers tap in with a smartphone app and are then tracked by cameras and shelf sensors and billed automatically. The technology seems to be working fairly well, despite journalistic attempts to beat it, offering another alternative to queuing and dealing with human beings in shops. In 2017 Amazon bought the Whole Foods chain, beloved of the organic middle classes, and was soon generating bad publicity for introducing new stock-control technology which led to empty shelves and rotting food. Most amazing of all is that Amazon opened a genuine physical bookshop in Seattle (at the University Village shopping center) in 2015 – talk about reinventing the wheel.

I flew quite a few times with Alaska Airlines when I was writing the Rough Guide to Alaska, and they’ve always been one of the better US airlines – but they’re now very much a Pacific Northwest airline rather than an Alaskan one, firmly based in Seattle. So it’s a little surprising to see that they’re opening a new base in the area, at Everett – they’ll fly to eight cities from there, none in Alaska.