BY BRIAN LIBBY
Perhaps the best thing about traveling is how it alters the way one sees one's home, and the ideas one brings back. It's not that I've returned to a different Portland after 16 days in Germany, Austria and Great Britain, but the little differences stand out, as do the underlying foundations.
First I visited Nuremberg, a city in Franconia dating to the 11th century which became known as the unofficial capitol of the Holy Roman Empire in the 13th. The city was also home to much of the Protestant Reformation under Martin Luther and, more recently in the 20th century, became associated with the largest Nazi Party rallies under Adolph Hitler.
Unfortunately, though, the World War II reference point touches upon all of the history that came before it. Although Nuremberg's old center contains numerous historic cathedrals and the towering Nuremberg Castle, not one survived the Allied bombings of WWII. Be it the majestic St. Sebald and St. Peter's cathedrals or Hauptmarket's Schöner Brunnen fountain, each is merely a replica of the architecture that used to be there.
But that brings up an interesting question that may apply to how I see Portland.
Each of the quasi-historic buildings I visited in old-town Nuremberg felt authentic. I'm not sure if it was the detail with which they were restored after the war or the fact that some of their facades and structures remained intact from the bombings, but I found myself more receptive to the present-day versions than I expected.
As a result, I thought of the most historic and architecturally significant buildings that Portland lost: the collection of late-19th Century and early 20th Century cast-iron buildings along the waterfront that Portland lost in the mid-20th Century: the ones torn down by short-sighted developers for the sake of surface parking lots. Even today, more than a half-century after they were first razed, a walk or drive along the Portland waterfront feels like looking at a smile missing too many teeth.
I've always felt in the past that rebuilding old buildings from previous eras to exacting specifications is inauthentic, an act of well-intentioned fakery. But what if we were to actually rebuild some cast-iron buildings? Would that really be so bad? Just as in Germany, it would restore our connection with the past. I'm not saying this should happen, for both practical considerations (nobody builds cast-iron buildings anymore) and lingering questions of faux triteness would still make the process inadvisable. But at the very least, I've been forced to alter my sense that only a building continuously standing since its original construction is authentic.
Yet if some of Nuremberg's historic cathedrals were rebuilt, one of the most famous buildings in the city was left to ruins: Congress Hall, at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds. Designed by Albert Speer, Hitler's favorite architect, the massive building, intended as a 50,000 seat arena, was left to decay after the war, and now a portion of the structure is used as the Nazi Party Documentation Center, a museum chronicling the rise of national socialism in Germany. It reminded me, along with the rebuilt old churches, of the ongoing question of ruins and time, first articulated in a talk I once heard by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. In the east, Isozaki said, people think of time as circular; the Japanese, for example, ritually rebuild the famous Ise Shrine every 20 years, while in the west we allow historic ancient structures like the Acropolis in Athens to decay - an indication of time viewed in a linear fashion. Either way, the visit to Speer's arena was a sobering one, even with the crowd of teenagers laughing and generally making light of the otherwise sobering atmosphere.
Congress Hall/Nazi Party Rally Grounds, Nuremberg (photo by Brian Libby)
On a transportation front, two things about Nuremberg got me thinking.
The first was crosswalks and the "Walk"/"Don't Walk" sign. At least in my experience, almost no one in Nuremberg or its adjoining city, Furth, seemed to jaywalk. The crosswalk light could be flashing "Don't Walk" in the middle of the night and not a car coming in either direction and locals would still wait for the green "Walk" sign. After growing up in a small Oregon town where behavior was similar, then attending college in New York City, I'd previously thought of jaywalking as a twisted mark of sophistication. The fact that here, and in my next stop, Vienna, the locals were very reluctant to jaywalk, made this notion more complex. Instead of being an indication of big city or small town inclinations, the matter of jaywalking seemed instead to relate to national character. For when my travels moved from Nuremberg and Vienna to London, suddenly as many people were jaywalking as I'd remembered in New York. What does jaywalking, or its absence, say about a society? Are Brits or big-city Americans more rebellious? Are Germans and Austrians more willing to acquiesce to authority? It'd be too easy to suggest that a nation of non-jaywalkers is more likely to accept something like a fascist government. But I still wonder what treating traffic laws as guides rather than absolutes says about the people who live there.
The second Nuremberg traffic difference was that instead of having bicyclists ride in dedicated cycling lanes at the side of a street, the city uses extra-wide sidewalks with half the space reserved for bikes. This would require a lot of retro-fitting of Portland's sidewalks to accomplish. After all, many of the outer areas of our city don't even have sidewalks. But given the succession of cyclist fatalities that have plagued Portland, could shared sidewalks for bikes and pedestrians be a possible solution?
Although Nuremberg has history dating back a millennium, the city was comparable to Portland in that it isn't particularly huge and is not considered one of the city's foremost cultural capitols. Yet Nuremberg was teeming with museums: for contemporary art, for cinema, for design, for homegrown artist Albert Durer, and much more. It made me think about the relative lack of significant museums in Portland other than the Portland Art Museum, and the lack of wealth underscoring our efforts. What would it take for Portland to have a contemporary art museum? Or given how Nuremberg venerates and celebrates Durer, could our city ever have a museum devoted to, say, Mark Rothko, who grew up here?
One other thought, this time relating to London: as I was flying into the city for the fifth time this year after first visiting in 1995, I was reminded once again of - its great collection of parks not withstanding - just what a massive megalopolis the English capitol truly is. Though Portland can never compete with London in population or cultural offerings or historical significance, once again I was reminded of the majesty of that which is not city or suburb: the fact that our urban growth boundary and corresponding state land use laws have kept hundreds of square miles preserved as wilderness and as pastoral farmland.
Look, I know the UGB isn't perfect. It raises property values, making home ownership out of reach for more people. It can limit the ability of landowners outside the growth boundary to make the most profit on their parcel. Yet the landscape of Oregon is, without any hyperbole, a spectacular treasure that must be preserved. More than 150 years ago the Great Migration brought countless pioneers to our state and region with the notion that, if one could handle the rain, there was a veritable Garden of Eden awaiting: a landscape of forests and beaches, of high desert and rolling valleys. It made me think of the patriotic English song "Jerusalem," with lyrics by William Blake, which likens England to a modern-day Holy Land:
And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land
Yet in Oregon it is not Jerusalem that we are building. It is a land of wonder, with the emphasis on land itself, and space: the wonder not of city but the natural wonders outside it.