This past August I went with my brother, sister and mom to Portland, Oregon for a week long visit. Having never been before, we were inspired by all the good things we had been told about the city. The first thing that stuck us was the friendliness of the cab driver who took us from the airport to the hotel. Next, the weather. We were coming from humid, 90 degree days on the east coast, and there, in the dead of summer, the air was light and rarely surpassed 75 degrees. When we arrived at our hotel in downtown Portland we were a bit surprised by the lack of pedestrians. The streets we nearly empty save for quite a few vagrants who, I realized, were there for the near-perfect climate.
The next day there were a few more people out; as the week passed, it was clear that downtown was not the most popular area. But that was because it housed the majority of the city’s office buildings. To the north was the Pearl District, a seemingly younger, and more up-and-coming area, full of boutiques and diverse restaurants. Also enjoyable were the Hawthorne and Alberta districts, across the river to the west.
As the week passed, I remained content, enjoying the overwhelming number of food carts, Powell’s books, the greenery, and the weather. It was certainly not what I expected–I had never spent much time in the west, and was used to the more frenetic pace of the north eastern cities–but nevertheless, I grew to appreciate it. Still, despite how pleasant my time there was, I don’t think I was fully fulfilled. Kunstler comments on its favorable zoning code, requiring buildings “to have display windows at street level” and to be “built out to the sidewalk,” two qualities which from earlier chapters we know are very important to Kunstler’s idea of good civic planning. Likewise, the Urban Growth Boundary, past governor, Tom McCall, and mayor, Neil Goldschmidt, helped to instill such civic-minded things as the electric street car, an unobstructed waterfront, and parks (to name a few) and keep out what Kunstler dreads most, suburban sprawl.
To Kunstler, Portland, Oregon is a good place. And I agree. However, I argue that it can’t be seen as the exemplary American city. Although culturally diverse, Portland did seem lacking in some regard. That is not to say it is doing anything wrong, rather, it is just not all encompassing (granted, my time there may have been to short to pass any judgement). I guess it just seemed a bit placid, which, don’t get me wrong, can be idyllic. Nevertheless, being less of an opponent to Modernism than Kunstler, I do enjoy the occasional austere, yet striking buildings of van der Rohe, Johnson, Saarinen and the like. Function aside (I know, that sounds ignorant), I think such boastful buildings, when made in good taste, can often signify a place of rich intellect and artistry. I think this is what concerned me a bit about Portland: it seemed so casual, it’s architecture struck me neither as impressive nor displeasing, but rather sort of unimaginative, and its streets just seemed a little desolate at times. In other words, it seemed quite happy with its current state, and rightfully so, but it didn’t appear to be pushing the envelope. Of course, it seems that New York has all that Portland lacks, yet I do not want to use it as an example, for it too may not be exemplary. Rather, I will look at Savannah, Georgia.
I visited Savannah for the first time this past winter break. I was there for a disappointingly short amount of time, one night and about a half of a day. Still, it left a terrific impression on me. When I arrived in the late evening, the streets were still quite lively, filled with a diverse bunch of people. The following morning and afternoon I spent walking, trying to fit in as much of the city as I could within my time constraints. The parks, as Kunstler mentions early in the book, are tranquil and alluring. The streets are filled with people, professionals and students alike. The architecture is gorgeous, mostly victorian, gothic, and greek revival, and hence, quite close to the ground, comparatively speaking. Savannah College of Art and Design provides the city with a home base for the arts and perhaps stands in place of Modernist architecture as a visible example of the city’s art patronage.
I thoroughly enjoyed Portland. I question not its status as a good place, for surely it is one, but rather it being the closest thing to a perfect American city. To me, Savannah seemed to have it right: the landscape is beautiful, the city is well-planned, clean, and the culture seemed more liminal, closer to the edge of what’s to come.