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Portlandia: Planning, Penis and more...

With some of the most liberal free speech laws in the country, a lot goes down in this city

all seasons in one day 5 °C
View 2014 Adventure on dzabell's travel map.

Hi there everyone,

For those who have seen the show Portlandia, you'll know that its a hipster's paradise, with cycling, short-leg chinos, cock and balls donuts, bacon and maple syrup donuts, coffee, pub cinemas and all things weird and wacky. Portland is also a mecca for town planners, a stand-out in American cities for public transport, place making, entrepreneurship and preservation, so it was only natural for a massive nerd like me to put this on my list of places to visit. I took the Amtrak Cascades from Seattle, winding along Puget Sound and the Columbia River. Two words: absolutely stunning. While train travel in America is slow (the trains travel up to 120km/hr but more like 80km/hr) this train ride is breathtaking; I can't begin to describe and do justice to the beautiful scenery that flashed past for this four hour train trip.


The first thing I noticed arriving in Portland was the number of new condos being built downtown; the City has bucked the trend of most American cities and restricted urban sprawl, instead encouraging the renewal (read gentrification) of inner city areas. And these buildings are all mixed use, encouraging work, shopping and living all within the same building or at least on the same block. The city skyline is quite low to preserve sunshine and avoid wind tunnels on the streets, and there is little obstruction on footpaths such as signage and bus stops to maintain vistas along the streets. Public buildings are required to designate a certain percentage of land to public art, and most of this is in the form of fountains or statues, the most famous being the statue of Portlandia. Residing on one of the most famous Post-Modernist buildings, the Portland Building (bleghh), Portlandia is a reworking of the city's emblem, the female figure representing the water and bountiful environment. Apparently the artist is so protective of this statue (reserving all rights to the statue), that every year the city is required to wax the copper statue to avoid it rusting, and no commercial images are allowed of the statue. A scene from the movie Body of Evidence starring Madonna had to be reshot as the artist did not want the statue to be included in the background.


Portland developed from the Willamette (rhymes with dammit) and Columbia Rivers, connecting west coast America to Asia. Through the 1800s, the city was rough and dangerous, with saloons, boarding houses, saloons, bordellos, saloons and a whole host of other unsavoury type establishments (think saloons). The city was dominated with men looking for work in the timber industry, as well as on ships. People familiar with Portland will have heard of the Shanghai Tunnels, a series of interconnected basements in the old town leading to the Willamette. Legend has it that the scurrilous boarding house owners would establish a tab for these men, charge them for accommodation, food and whatever else they couldn't afford, get them drunk then sell them on to the ships heading up and down the west coast and across to Asia. The poor guys would get so drunk that they'd pass out, only to fall through a trap door under their seat, to the awaiting buckaneers who would abduct them, covering the exorbitant tab rung up to the boarding house owner (known as crimps). While men were regularly sold to ship owners under the influence, the mystery of the Shanghai tunnels isn't true. The basements were more likely connected to help exchange goods (and bads) between neighbours rather than smuggling them off to the Shanghai-bound ships. Up until the introduction of steam ships, this was a very profitable business for boarding house owners. One famous man even sold off his son!


The photos above show some of the classic architecture of the time. Portland has one of the largest collection of cast-iron buildings after New York, built in response to, yep, a fire that tore through the city. Unfortunately, cast iron wasn't so great in the event of a fire as the building tended to melt. However, cast iron allows for ornate detailing in the columns and parapets, creating a Europeanesque streetscape. While the old town has remained largely intact (until recently, this area was very undesirable, until herald! the gays entered the area) many of the examples downtown have been replaced with modern high rise. Up until the 1960s, development was under-regulated and was on the verge of destroying extensive tracks of Portland's historic areas. It was also a city on the decline with the dismantling of the manufacturing economy. Much of the city has been preserved thanks to a grassroots movement of preservation similar to what happened during the greenbans in Potts Point and the Rocks.

The reason that Portland is as it is today, a seething hipster's paradise, stems from a movement in the 60s and 70s to remove the motorway from the banks of the Willamette, the deep river running through the city and into the Columbia River. It also stems from the Downtown Plan which arose in response to a plan for an 11 storey car park in the heart of downtown. Thankfully, the resultant Pioneer Square is instead a multifaceted event and gathering space for the city, including a strange art installation that creates an echo that only the person making the sound in a particular spot can hear. It's so strange and works really well, but serves no real purpose; just a bit of Portland whimsy! The highway was just moved to the other side of the river, but it left room for a park, now known as Tom McCall park. Tom McCall was a popular Republican Governor who spearheaded much of the change in the city, although the consequences of his actions are probably antipathetic to the current Republican movement. For example, in 1970 Richard Nixon was to deliver a speech to the American Legion during the Vietnam War, drawing the ire of the city's liberal residents. With the threat of a counter demonstration twice the size of the American Legion, Tom McCall organised to this day the only state sponsored rock concert in American history, Vortex 1. Rumours spread that the biggest bands of the day were to play at the week long event, and McCall advised the police and DA to overlook the licentious behaviour that was sure to occur (think LSD, marijuana, nudity, sex tents etc). In the end, Nixon ended up cancelling his visit, and the Jamboree and the American Legion demonstration went on without trouble. Three months later, McCall was re-elected.

Another noteworthy Portland figure is shown below. I was so excited to see this picture, as those of you who have been to my parents' house in Wollongong will have seen this image. The man "flashing" the statue, known as the Kvinneakt, is Bud Clark, Mayor of Portland between 1984 and 1992 (he did in fact have clothes on underneath). Apparently he was quite an eccentric fellow, who also enjoyed bike riding to work, alerting pedestrians with a 'whoop whoop' as he passed. He was also instrumental in the development of the light rail system, redevelopment and reconfiguration of downtown, the diverse arts programs and developing policies to help the city's homeless. However, even though Portland has strong foundations for public transport, cycling and walking, the city is incredibly reliant on cars. While the city's bridges are iconic, they funnel traffic into the motorway that surrounds the city (think the Eastern Distributor encircling the CBD). And while there is a ban on new parking lots downtown and in the old town, there remain quite a lot which is a blight on the streetscape. The issue of downtown parking and homelessness have been brought to a head much to the chagrin of city officials.


Gentrification of the old town has displaced the city's poor (damn gays), with the exception of a soup kitchen and injection centre that have been in the area for decades. On a walking tour of downtown, we passed what is known as Right to Dream Too, a collective of homeless people on a disused plot of very valuable real estate. The developers have been stymied by planning restrictions, so have allowed the erection of a tent city on the block. Accommodating up to 80 people a night, the space provides shelter and support for the homeless, and a prominent space to get the attention of the city. A few plans have been thrown around, including the city buying the plot and permitting people to continue occupying the space; building temporary accommodation for the homeless with services and facilities; however the city's preferred option is to relocate these people to an underpass. Out of sight out of mind I imagine. I tried talking to some of the men manning the entrance to the compound however they weren't too receptive. I left a donation and let them know that I hope they can find a solution. As in Seattle, the homelessness in Portland was incredibly confronting. People avoid certain areas of the old town where drug dealers and uses, prostitutes and whomever else congregate.



I want to point out the statue of the man with the umbrella, in Pioneer Square (the square was originally bought for $24 and a pair of shoes back in 1849 to build the public courts which still exist). He is probably the only person in Portland with an umbrella, as most people deal with the drizzle wearing a hoodie. Well, they're nuts. It was so bitterly cold the day I toured downtown, the "drizzle" so constant, that you need an umbrella, a hoodie, a jacket, scarf, beanie, gloves, thermals, two pairs of socks and a partridge in a pear tree just to avoid going numb. In the photo below you can see I was a complete idiot and totally under-dressed for this horrible horrible weather. The bitter cold put a dampner on my experience of Portland, as did the fact that my hostel (while within beautifully restored and listed building) was just too far out of the way, in what is known as the Alphabet District (the cross streets are named in alphabetical order). The old saying of location, location, location is so important in travelling, and I hope that the accommodation I have booked for the rest of the trip satisfies those three important criteria!

So I've covered the boring town planning stuff, now for the reason penis features in the headline. Portland has some of the most liberal free speech laws in America. What does that mean? Well, the Oregon constitution strong free speech provisions that are far beyond that of the federal constitution, which has allowed peep shows and strip clubs to flourish, considered "free speech". The largest nude cycling event is also held in Portland, which began by people purchasing bikes from chain department stores, then returning them the next day after being pulled over by the police. The courts have dismissed appeals against these lurid acts in several court cases. The state constitution also prohibited slavery but also, up until 1927, excluded free black people from residing in the state. Portland was also incredibly enthusiastic in rounding up Japanese residents during internment and, up until the 1960s, was hostile towards ethnic minorities. This has left Portland the least ethnically diverse city in America over 500,000 people. Thankfully, this is changing and the city is embracing diversity.

Back to the penises. Big shout out to Charles who I met in Seattle the morning I left, who decided to come spend the weekend with me in Portland for a laugh. Now, that was an awkward segue to introduce Charles, but it is due to the events of the first night Charles came to stay in Portland. That Friday night, we drank with one of the hostel staff (a gorgeous lezzo named Lindsay) and an Aussie named Jo. We all toddled off to Silverados, a recommendation made by Sean from Seattle (jokingly?). Well, I was not expecting the Magic Mike show. I'm not kidding, some of the most ridiculously attractive men grinding themselves and each other on stage. And they were all amateur gymnasts and pole dancers, twerking it better than Miley. One of the strangest things I saw was a guy we referred to as elevator nuts; he could lift and lower his testicles with his groin muscles. It was insane. I gave him a $5 tip just for that trick. And of course the guys on stage were only playing for tips so there was no sexual solicitation, just exploitation (of the audience that is). Interspersed was a 'show' where guys and girls could get up on stage and flash their junk. Most of them were pretty unimpressive but points to them for having a go, and I think reflects the attitude of Portland that free speech and flashing are a way of life. Shamefully, we went there for a second night with Charles' friends when they unexpectedly came down too. The really strange thing is that this seemed to be a common feature of at least the (two) clubs we visited in Portland, C.C. Slaughterhouse being the second.

I've been told that the food in Portland is fantastic and diverse. Unfortunately, I didn't get much of an opportunity to sample it, choosing instead to cook for myself most nights. Although I did buy myself a bacon and maple syrup donut from Voodoo Donuts which was sickly sweet but so satisfying. Portland has the highest concentration of food carts per capita in the USA, mostly congregated on car parks around the city. My tour guide told me that this shows the city's support for small business and entrepreneurship, but something tells me that it creates a false economy within the hospitality industry. However, the food was delicious (I had a burrito and General Tso's chicken), its fun and redefines those unsightly car parks. Some other photos I just want to point out are the smallest park in the world, as a result of a local journalist's frustration with an unfilled pot hole. It is really really tiny. The coin was used to determine the name for the city; it could have been called Boston! The sign "Hung Far Low" is a popular landmark so much so that when it fell down during renovations to the building, a local campaign took hold of the issue with both hands, known as 'Re-erect Hung Far Low' (always with the penises). I've seen a lot of ATMs in the cities so far housed in these wooden boxes, some of them quite detailed and unique. To me, this one is trying to seem organic and earthly, to tap into the hipster wallet.


I want to thank Charles so much for following me down to Portland on his crazy whim. If you're reading this Charles, I hope I didn't misinterpret your intentions, and please do not let this discourage you from coming to visit in San Francisco as it would be amazing to see you. I just hope you come down to have a weekend of fun and adventure and not just to see me like you did in Portland. Charles unashamedly said that he has a massive crush on Aussies as a result of his two trips there in previous years, so there was definitely something more than adventure driving his decision. I take some blame for also 'encouraging' his decision, and we did have a great weekend. However, I have a feeling that I didn't really live up to the standard of Australian he is used to, and that he was particularly happy to have his friends down to entertain him on the final night. But I also learned that, while it is fun to have a travel buddy, this trip is definitely something that I need to do on my own, in that I avoid offending, inconveniencing or just generally annoying anybody with the things I want to do (as will invariably happen). I am meeting some amazing people every where I go, and people have been so kind and generous to give their time to show me around. Charles was even so kind to battle the most terrible drivers in the world in taking me to the airport on the Sunday. But I probably am not the best partner in crime for travelling right now.

Anyway, sorry this has taken so long to write, and that it is also a regurgitation of every thought and movement I made in Portland. I'll try to truncate mah New Orleans experience for y'all. These blogs are also in place of a diary so they are a bit heavy in detail. Hope you enjoyed this edition of my travels, next stop New Orleans for Mardi Gras :)

Hugs and kisses xoxo

Posted by dzabell 16:07 Archived in USA Tagged portland

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