First Observations on Portland, Oregon

The Thinker by Rodin

Life finds me on the west coast, attending an information technology exchange meeting. Since I will mostly be near or around hotels during this visit I fear that I will not learn much about the city of Portland, Oregon. I am currently at the Hilton Hotel in the City Center. It is your typical four star hotel: clean, reasonably quiet, modestly upscale but nothing exceptional. The room is adequate but the king size bed seems overkill for one guy sleeping alone. One really needs a second person to enjoy a king size bed.

I arrived late on Sunday night. My flight out of Washington Dulles International Airport was delayed for 90 minutes. In fact didn’t take off until it was close to 7 PM on the west coast. The flight might have been less full had it not been full of the many folks from my office on the flight. It was a long flight: five hours and ten minutes, but it had the virtue of being nonstop. Still, we went through two movies during the flight, a “dinner” with insufficient calories to feed a model and there was still time to spare.

This is my first trip to the Pacific Northwest. Yet so far there is not much to see. Like Binghamton where I grew up the place seems eternally shrouded in clouds. Occasionally the sun peaks through but precipitation always seems to be looming. Fortunately when precipitation arrives thus far it has been showers that quickly pass, rather than drenching rains.

What I’ve seen of Portland so far is inviting in spite of the clouds. My friend Tom who lives here describes it as an unpretentious city. Seattle, a few hours north, has delusions of grandeur. Portland may have similar delusions, but if so they are well hidden. Rather it feels modest and comfortable.

It seems to be a sensible and well ordered city, lacking the chaos of the east coast sprawl with which I am so familiar. Litter seems wholly absent here in the downtown area. There are homeless people here, but they are well mannered people. They petition for dollars quietly.

The streets have cars, but fewer of them. Perhaps this is because the public transportation system is so convenient. I chose to take their light rail system from the airport into the city and it was no problem whatsoever, cheap and very convenient. Unlike Washington’s Metrorail system, this one seems to run wholly above ground. Here in the City Center it feels more like a streetcar. Entire streets appear to exist largely to serve the rail system. Buses seem omnipresent around here.

The city reminds me of Binghamton in other ways than the climate. While I have been told there are mountains nearby, so far I haven’t caught a glimpse of them because the clouds have proven omnipresent. But in addition to mountains, this is a city full of hills. It is not a city for the vertically challenged, but doesn’t seem quite as vertically challenging as Pittsburgh or San Francisco.

For a city it seems relatively quiet. It is shortly after 7 a.m. as I write this. Any comparable spot in the District of Columbia would be a hellish, noisy, car choked mess at this hour. But here the streets are relatively free of traffic. I hear only the occasional honks of car engines.

In general I find the people here to be extraordinarily well mannered, for Americans anyhow. My friend Tom confirmed this last night. Here people seem to live in a time warp, not necessarily anxious to run over pedestrians to shave thirty seconds off their commute. And speaking of pedestrians they generally wait for signals before crossing the street. It is by no means a city devoid of energy. But it does not have the frantic energy of cities on the East Coast. Things move here at a high hum, but never on overdrive.

While the city is diverse, it doesn’t feel quite as culturally diverse as the Washington D.C. area. I guess that is to be expected. Few areas can match the D.C. area for cultural diversity. If there is a primary minority here they are more likely to be Asian Americans than African Americans.

Last night I had the exquisite pleasure of reconnecting with my childhood friend Tom after 32 long years. We have plans to meet again. I may stay an extra night or two if that works with his schedule. I hope so, not just to spend more time with Tom, but also to have the chance to see a bit more of this city. Despite the omnipresent clouds and threats of rain, there is something soul satisfying about this city. I am curious to learn more.