Yesterday afternoon I drove to Bend for an evening book signing. It was the first time I've been to Bend in a few years, and if you don't keep up with this town's astonishing growth, it'll probably feel substantially different every time.
When I was a kid we used to visit here annually, and I remember the population then being about the same as my hometown of McMinnville: around 15,000. Today, about twenty-five years later, Bend's population is over 75,000.
As I was driving into town, I saw two signs. One said, 'Entering Bend.' But the next one, about a mile down the road, said 'Bend: 3 miles.' That's how quickly this town has sprawled outward. On that front, the way in which the town has grown is unfortunate and similar to most American cities. But there is also substantial development downtown. This morning, walking around downtown in search of an espresso, I passed a circa-1920 fire hall that had been converted into shops. Next door was a super-cool coffee place serving espresso. I figured I'd have to settle for Starbucks out here, but this was a superb shot.
I also saw a brick three to four-story mixed use condo going up. It was kind of a funny feeling, because the architecture was very traditional and tame, like something I might give a luke-warm review to at best in terms of its design. But here, where the alternative feels more directly to be a cookie-cutter house on the outskirts of town, it seemed like a masterwork. Everything's relative, ya know?
Yesterday my book signing was in the Old Mill district, where some sort of former industrial place has been converted to a kind of outdoor mall. The place was again in the tradition of something I hate: the so-called 'lifestyle center' malls that create a kind of fake urban environment for their chain stores. At the same time, this Old Mill shopping was right along the Deschutes River, with a delightful little walking path across from the Bend Amphitheater, where superlative Portland band The Shins were winding down a concert amidst the thunder and lightning of a summer storm. My problem with lifestyle centers is that they take a step towards urbanity, but don't really integrate with the existing city's fabric. When it's more part of the environment and blends in like this, though, the verdict is a little different. Oh, and I love that smell of pine and sagebrush in the air - it's like mother nature's potpourri.
I certainly don't want to whitewash some of the less attractive things about Bend. It's growing so fast the city could probably do a lot more to be progressive about planning and architecture. Yet there's also a lot to like about this town. It seems clear that Bend could someday equal or even surpass Eugene and Salem as the second biggest (and most relevant) Oregon city.