Saturday, February 6, 2010

Utopian Visions: Bikes, Books, and Better Living

photo by The Oregonian

When Fritz and I first moved to Portland, Oregon (on whose outskirts we first rented and now within the last lingering rays of whose aura we still reside)  we found the one place we could both agree to rejoice in. 

We had long suspected Portland would be this place.

When first deciding we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together, we had debated valley width (wide, said I, and wooded, thinking the places I had loved in Ohio and Wisconsin; narrow and high, said he, even though -or maybe because?- his "stomping ground" had been the wide dryness of the agriculturally Magic Valley in Idaho).  We debated altitude (the higher the better, said he; I want neighbors, said I, and not those with an unhealthy interest in chainsaws), which led to discussions of population size (which fell out in lines you may easily imagine), access to libraries, universities, art museums vs. mountain trails and bikable country roads, whether we should go west or east (Vermont, said I; Montana, said he) . . . 

We decided the best we could do would be to visit each other regularly.

Which of course we didn't do.  We married and lived in a tiny little house just behind the liquor store and Cullins Electric Supply in a small town over the hill from our Happy Valley university and dreamed of other places. 

Portland, Oregon, was the only place we could agree to dream about together.  After seven years telling each other  our dreams (and yes, sometimes arguing over same), we decided we could at least go North by Northwest on a visit.  I set about planning the trip.

What is Portland famous for?  asked the guidebook I bought.  Books.  Bikes.  Beer.  Very promising, considering the first two were our separate personal obsessions and as for the third . . . even for the non-fermented like us, Portland's numerous idiosyncratic microbreweries suggested the kind of inventive, local, artisan culture we had both decided was necessary for a livable place. 

photo by Miles Hochstein at Portland Ground: Pictures of Portland Oregon

Then high-tech lay-offs played their serendipitious magic and a change in employment changed all our plans.  Suddenly we were here, flying in from our parched high desert summer to green trees and wild pink sweetpeas growing along the highways. Not on a visit. But looking for a place to live. We drove into the city in the early evening with the lights twinkling on the river and the bridges shining.

Portland and its environs have proved wonderfully livable.  The greenness, the roses spilling over the overpasses, the prehistoric sense of  only slightly dormant volcanoes appearing and disappearing in the mist amazed us from the first - and more subtly and steadily, the sidewalks alive with people walking - old ladies walking fluffy dogs and daddies with babies on their shoulders as well as street musicians, brisk business suits and the down-and-out lined up at the Lighthouse Mission for a hot meal. Chefs in white hats stepping out to smoke behind the cooking school.  College students in retro dresses and tights and hiking boots.  Cyclists riding right through town.  This was not a city like others we had lived near - and never in - Dayton, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Salt Lake, Indianapolis, D.C. - all interesting places in themselves, but not for us so appealingly livable.
Nearby the suburbs of Hillsboro and Beaverton are crowded and . . . well, suburban . . . but they keep the rest of the areas around more real.  Real country.  Real city.  We chose country, but have sometimes wished we'd realized at the first how good life in a city like Portland could be. 

photo by Miles Hochstein at Portland Ground: Pictures of Portland Oregon

Bikes, you know by now, I have caught the contagion for from Fritz, and it happened here in Portland.  My first ride as a grown-up was around the block by River City Bikes past a greengrocer's painted (aptly) with huge fruit & veg (see Corno's Food Market above - sadly gone now).  

Books I have infected Fritz with.  "You thought I was saying books, I thought you were saying bikes," he used to tease me.  But in Portland we found not only the Multnomah County Library, but also Powell's, a city block of books from which we have had to gradually wean ourselves away (shelves at home being a finite quantity, books infinite):

In those early years, we found ourselves wandering around the stacks of books with starry eyes every other weekend I think.  And then Fritz found a bookly treasure of his own,  "I bet you won't be able to find a book you like here!"

Oh, he of little faith!  Three of the most satisfactory books I've read I found here while Fritz trolled slowly through the physics and biochemistry and meteorology aisles. 

The first, found within five minutes of that ill-fated prophecy:  The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander, which I admit I picked up for its lovely yellow cover.  A philosophy of design and city planning - this is a book I have thought up college lit and writing courses to teach around.  It has great black & white photographs and a free-wheeling Zen-like writing style.

The second, Divorce Among the Gulls: An Uncommon Look at Human Nature by William Jordan, convinced me once and for all that science writing was more than stale non-fiction.  Witty, incisive, sharply observed.

The third, How to Live Well without Owning a Car by Chris Baylish, made me wail that we hadn't thought more carefully before buying a house so far away from work and other necessities.  We had briefly discussed the idea of living close enough to bike everywhere we needed to go.  But our experience of living in and near cities (full of crime and asphalt) and suburbs (identically soulless) had left us both with a desire for a town that was small enough to know itself and be known.  A desire for green fields and ungroomed roadsides full of wild vetch and blackberries. 

Since reading this book I have wanted to take part of what is looking like a shift in paradigms - slow food, slow travel, the slow bike movement.  Something is changing.  And for the better.

But I feel a strange urgency now - is it because my darling Eldest is leaving in months, not years, to live elsewhere and who knows where after that?  Or is it that I feel there are changes in the wind.  That our nation is maybe waking up to what the Good Life really is.  I know I want to see livable towns - safe, green, walkable, bikable - with little cafes and bookshops and local greengrocers - everywhere and anywhere any of my children and their children may ever end up living.  Which makes me hope there are many other livable places than Portland.

(for more great photos of Portland check out Portland Ground)


Neighbor Jane Payne said...

Wonderful reading from top to bottom. What a great topic to let us in on in your life. Here are three of my favorite lines:

"We decided the best we could do would be to visit each other regularly."

"Books I have infected Fritz with. 'You thought I was saying books, I thought you were saying bikes,' he used to tease me."

"Books. Bikes. Beer. Very promising, considering the first two were our separate personal obsessions and as for the third . . . even for the non-fermented like us, Portland's numerous idiosyncratic microbreweries suggested the kind of inventive, local, artisan culture we had both decided was necessary for a livable place."

I feel your angst about Eldest going to college. It was a painful time for me, too. (I didn't describe it near so poetically/correctly as you. I said that each child leaving was like cutting off the tail of a dog one inch at a time.) I thought in a small way that life was ending when the children left. So wrong I was, the initial pain of their daily absence is filled with oh, so many good things that they bring back into your life and share with you--experiences, people, talents, knowledge. Hang in there Emma J. This mourning is necessary and good, but it does have a wonderful ending.

Lisa B. said...

Love this post. My brother lives in Tualatin, and my friend G used to live in Lincoln City, so we've visited Portland many a time and I love it. My husband's daughter lives in Seattle, and we've been there lots as well--it also seems livable, although a citier city than Portland--but with neighborhoods that seem enchantingly walkable and livable and bikeable.

I feel that part about your daughter leaving, too. Oh, we could talk.

Emma J said...

Neighbor Jane - I'm waiting for that wonderful ending with confidence only because people I trust (like you) tell me it's coming. This is NOT the way I ever meant to be. Because I can see how good this change is going to be for her. And my life is plenty full. But just like her coming completely rehauled me, her leaving is turning me inside out all over again. I almost wish she would just go and get it over with - love your dog's tail analogy.

Lisa B. - I like Seattle neighborhoods, too. My aunt lives there. Do you find once you walk around, bike around places like these you can't help but feel that every place ought to be, probably could be so easy to live in?

Melissa said...

I must have mental problems. Even though I knew why you relocated to Portland, when you reminded me it was because Fritz had lost his job and you were forced to relocate, I felt a pang of frustration and sadness that my partner in crime isn't in an industry that his job could be eliminated, forcing us to move to another state. Shouldn't that bring a sense of security? But instead it makes me feel a tiny bit trapped, reminded that there really is very little chance I will ever get to live in any of places I would so much rather find myself. I would never wish to find ourselves jobless, but if it meant living closer to you, in a livable, bikable, walkable community...I fear I am a horrible ingrate.

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