You know those places you step foot in for the very first time, look around, and have an overwhelming sense of calm clarity thinking, "Ya, I like this, this feels right..."?
That was Portland, Oregon for me.
Portland is the kind of city that's not really trying, it's just winning with an air of carefree nostalgia for simple living and nice values featuring a plethora of parks and dog-friendly establishments.
It's a modern and colorful in every sense of the word version of the film Pleasantville where children still ride their bikes around town and practice dance routines in the park.
America has longstanding been known as a refuge, a safe haven, for immigrants to start a new to improve their position in life; a melting pot of diversity and opportunity to attain The American Dream.
Yet, if you’ve seen the opening speech of first episode of The Newsroom, you’ll understand more or less how I feel about the U.S... picture striving for more art, innovation, universal education and healthcare, fighting poverty not the poor, helping our neighbors, putting our money where our mouth is but not showboating our strength, and less self-identification based on party line.
I believe America can truly be great again, and without getting much into politics, I don’t think promoting dividing lines between people, cutting taxes for the ultra-wealthy, or spending more on defense and less money on National Parks is the way to do this.
Put simply, returning to the U.S. after spending 14 months abroad was a rude awakening for me. I was shell-shocked, a fish out of water, back in the country I grew up in but it no longer felt familiar.
Not that other countries are "better", I just feel that the United States have a certain inviting and opportunistic reputation to uphold and has failed recently, especially in the last couple of years.
However, spending a week in Portland, Oregon refreshed my belief in the possibilities for bringing back wonder, creation, acceptance, and community to the United States by following the example Portland sets. Here’s why:
Diversity is what makes America great. Period. Diversity is what this nation was founded upon; immigrants from all over speaking different languages, having different religious beliefs, coming together to achieve a better life.
We need diverse backgrounds, experiences, positions, beliefs, etc. to compliment each other so that we can become stronger. We can’t do this by keeping everyone out, by criticizing or discriminating against people who are different.
All over Portland, Oregon are signs everywhere stating, "we welcome you", "we accept you", “we stand with you”.
In action, Portland is home to the World's Oldest Drag Queen, Darcelle XV. This drag show is truly a hoot with energetic performances and so many fun singalongs!
Reuse Buildings, Not Destroying Them
There are surprising very few skyscrapers for a big city, instead Portland has prioritized updating buildings by keeping the structure and re-doing the insides instead of starting from scratch, which is both incredibly sustainable (no knocking down to produce waste nor producing more materials), and also a beautiful choice to perverse history and culture rather than erecting another boring new building.
In action, the Alphabet District (which includes the famous Pearl District and Nob Hill among others) was once the factory and warehouse area of Portland. Buildings were abandoned and then decades later developers repurposed the insides while leaving the exterior, structures, and architectural integrity of the buildings intact.
For example, the now Mission Theater & Pub (pictured above, right) used to be a place for Swedish Missionaries to congregate. Today it's home to shows, live music, and other events like trivia.
All these charming buildings leads me to my next point...
Portland is a city where you can walk around from end to end, meaning it's a city open to any and everyone. It unites people from north and south, east and west, fostering a better sense of community.
Sadly, I think this is a fairly foreign concept in the U.S., especially on the West coast which was developed with cars in mind so most cities are pretty spread out which separates communities. For example, in San Diego, it would be unreasonable to walk from Pacific Beach where I lived to Downtown, let alone to Chula Vista or North Park.
Then there's the health benefits of walking more. I think Americans are far too eager to jump in their cars to drive to the gym, park, school or work instead of walking 20, 30 or 45 minutes.
Plus it's really a pleasure to walk around as Portland feels more like a small town than a big city. Each block seems to mix a variety of homes and establishments. For example in one city block you'll find a row of Painted Lady houses, a hardware store, a wine store and a pet groomer, then another block would have an advertisement agency, a comedy club, and a 4 story an apartment building.
Thriving Arts & Culture Scene
Portland is home to a vibrant arts and cultural scene - not usual for a big city, but absolutely worthy of a mention.
In action, the historic Crystal Ballroom which in it's one hundred history has always been used as a ballroom and music hall including in the roaring '20s in which people secretly learned the dance Tango in the back room which was illegal at the time.
A city wouldn't be right if it were all brick and no nature, right?
Portland is located between the Columbia and Willamette Rivers which divide the city into it's four sections; Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, and Southeast - so you're never far away from water.
Additionally, Portland is home to one of the world’s largest urban forests, Forest Park. There are more than 80 miles (129 km) of trails in the wild, overgrown, enchanting 5,200 acres providing for ample time explore the woods.
Just outside of the city is ample opportunity for exploring waterfalls, beaches, vineyards, forests, and mountains, including the famous and very large waterfall Multnomah Falls.
Craft Beer, Craft Coffee, Craft Doughnuts...
If you're going to make something, make it well. Portland sure takes an everyday item and puts a funky spin on it. Touché.
While VooDoo Doughnuts might be a household name, I highly recommend Blue Star Donuts if you don't want to wait in line 1-2 hours, which... I didn't. Blue Star makes really delicious donuts, not too sweet, and the perfect mix of unique flavors yet not over the top, such as Blueberry Bourbon Basil and Passionfruit Cocoa Nibs with a dash of cayenne. With a handful of locations all around town so a perfect doughnut is never far away.
Additionally, Portland is home to the world's largest independent bookstore, Powell's Books. It's an entire city block, and together with it's online presence has the largest selection of book titles. You could spend an entire day here and not experience it all!
Portland is one of the few rare cities in the U.S. with a metro or subway. This is straightforward; less cars, less gas, and less carbon dioxide emissions.
The lack of public transportation is one of the biggest problems I have living and traveling in the U.S., we're so reliant on individual gas guzzlers (*cough, cars, *cough) instead of modern, sustainable technology in the form of a metro system.
U.S. Government... consider this my public plea to get with the times and provide efficient, reliable public transportations in cities and between cities!
Keep Portland Weird
Finally, the pinnacle statement of Portland is "Keep Portland Weird". Is there any better motto than one celebrating our unique differences?!
Don't conform to what "society" is doing or what others say.
If you listen to them, you won't really live.
Stay true to you. Stay weird.