Photo by Brian Libby
BY BRIAN LIBBY
In a Thursday Portland Tibune op-ed, PORT editor and artist/curator Jeff Jahn makes a compelling argument that Portland should sieze the day: keeping its creative talent by embarking on an ambitious future.
"Portland is the first U.S. city to grow out of the adolescent attitudes of America in the second half of the 20th century," Jahn writes. "The laundry list: non-car-reliant transportation, green thinking, proximity to nature, a very non-1 percent-centric civic attitude, high-tech savvy and a permissive attitude that was essentially humanistic rather than purely capitalistic."
"In other words," he adds, "the original Occupy Portland started around the mid-’90s by artists and has only gathered steam since...it is clear that Portland is receiving credit as the capital of
conscience for the United States. Portland became a 21st-century leader because it rejected both of the 20th century’s main models: Manhattan’s top-down corporate verticality and LA’s car-driven suburban sprawl. Instead, as a more 19th century-style city of shopkeepers and artists (defined by our citizens more than institutions), we should own the title and take care to not become complacent."
Jahn's op-ed responded to a previous Tribune article by Peter Korn exploring why there are no Portland-based winners of the MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" fellows. He says our community of artists, designers and other creatives is more "MacGyver" than "MacArthur": smaller scaled as a result of the best work happening without institutional support, be it at alternative art galleries or in small architecture firms. "Some call it benign neglect, but it is simply an institutional lag," Yahn concludes.
Photo by Brian Libby
This notion of Portland having a hive of creative activity but too little leadership at the top enabling it to flourish also brings to mind a Wednesday article in Atlantic Cities about a "green revolution" happening in Chicago.
"Daniel Burnham went on to lay out much of the city's central lakefront area as part of his 1909 Plan of Chicago," David Lepeska writes. But the waterfront area often seemed under-appreciated during the latter half of the 20th century." But then came Millennium Park in 2004, controversial for its $450 million cost initially, yet quickly attracting droves. "It's only the beginning," Lepeska adds. "Several major projects remain on the city's lakefront docket, aiming to complete the makeover that began nearly a decade ago and create an unbroken, three-mile stretch of green jewels." Up first is a $225 million renovation of Navy Pier. By 2015, the city is expecting to redo North Island, a former landing strip that will become a new park and lagoon designed by the firm of Macarthur Fellow recipient Jean Gang and her firm, Studio Gang. There is also a $30 million redo of the northern portion of Grant Park, and a $50 million redo of the Navy Pier Flyover pedestrian crossing.
Obviously Portland doesn't have the wealth and resources of Chicago. But there's still a lesson to be learned. Top Chicago architects like Gang are leading the charge in re-imagining the city's most important infrastructure and public spaces. That's very different from what Portland is doing on projects like the Columbia Crossing, in which government highway engineers have forced design mediocrity and 20th Century thinking about roadways. It's an appalling missed opportunity. We're also building Portland's first new downtown bridge in more than a generation, TriMet's MAX/pedestrian crossing south of the Ross Island Bridge. It's going to be a handsome bridge, but the transit agency dismissed its best proposal, dumping acclaimed Boston bridge engineer Miguel Rosales just as his vision for the bridge began to attract excitement.
Besides these bridge projects, there is also the broader question of how Portland re-embraces its waterfront as Chicago is doing. Sooner or later, we've got to do something about the freeway taking up all our prime real estate along the east bank of the Willamette River. The Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade was a good start, providing a walking path squeezed between the freeway and the water. But it's completely isolated from the east side itself by Interstate 5. The Esplanade needs to be a point of entry into the east side, not an outdoor hallway skirting it amongst the loudness of automobiles skirting by. It won't be cheap to bury Interstate 5 in a tunnel, and the alternative - having Interstate 405 on the west side become the new I-5, going from two freeways to one beside downtown - would create its own set of problems. Yet removing the freeway from the east side could increase property values and transform the central eastside, just as new streetcar and MAX lines are making the connections to downtown better than ever.
It's easy to feel cynical about the prospects of Portland taking on any major infrastructure projects given dwinding federal funds and given how badly city and state have failed with the Columbia Crossing. There's not money and even if it were, maybe we can't be trusted with it. Yet Jahn is right that Portland can't just assume its current popularity will last forever, and we must use the social capital being generated today to reinvest in the foundation of tomorrow. Maybe there's a wide chasm between a knitting, feminist-bookstore owning Portlandia urbanist and a Richard Daley-scale ambition for building. Maybe we can take pride in having a MacGuyver attitude rather than MacArthur heavyweights. Yet the "City That Works" (to borrow from the local city-government slogan) still has a lot of it to do, and our conscience should be pushing us to grow hungrier.