Oregon envy: Can a Seattleite turn green wishing to be there?

Much as I hate to admit it, Portland and Oregonians come closer to the Northwest ideal than we do.
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Portland: pigeons by the water

Much as I hate to admit it, Portland and Oregonians come closer to the Northwest ideal than we do.

It's hard not to look south to Oregon with some sense of envy.

Not only has Portland successfully out-sourced its suburbs, but it maintains its rep as a cool, livable, transit-oriented place that has most of the virtues of a Northwest city with few of the downsides. In many ways, it's the most Northwesty city in the region because of its scale, and the hype and hip-factor surrounding it are mostly manmade, in other words, not the consequence of dramatic surroundings.

One thing Portland lacks that Seattle and Vancouver, BC have is a grand entrance. Seattle has Mount Rainier and the sweep of two snow-capped mountain ranges; Vancouver has steep mountains that seem to rise out of the city itself. Both have dramatic settings on salt water and the smell of the sea. From a manmade standpoint too, Seattle and Vancouver stand tall, their skylines often inducing an Oz-like pause in those first entering the cities.

In contrast, Portland is still modest, hunkered down by the river. Mount Hood is pretty, but not really impressive at this angle. Portland lacks a certain architectural squeal factor. Where's the ambition and fizz of Vancouver's cosmopolitan downtown? Or the hubris of Seattle's skyscrapers? Driving south on I-5, the view of Portland is blocked by bridges and overpasses, and it appears to be a dingier version of Spokane (even more so if you come by rail). When a tallish tower appears, it seems out of place and sports a giant "for rent" sign on top as if to cap any urbane ambitions. Another high-rise is being renovated to be a giant potted plant.

Portland seems to have density and vitality without having sold its soul. Its gem is a hidden Pearl District, not a forest of look-alike skinny towers. It still has the feeling of comfortable shoes and old parka about it. Unlike Seattle, it doesn't seem spoiled by money and Chamber of Commerce ambition; unlike Vancouver, it doesn't feel as if it is trying to become the new Hong Kong. Much as it pains me to say it, Portland makes a much better Seattle than Seattle does.

One reason for this is the differences in civic priorities between Washington and Oregon, which were spelled out so beautifully by author Ivan Doig in his book, Winter Brothers. He wrote:

A basic division begins at the Columbia River; south of it, in Oregon, they have sounder citizens, we in Washington the sharper strivers. Transport 50 of each state as a colony on Mars and by nightfall the Oregonians will put up a school and city hall, and the Washingtonians will establish a bank and a union.

This contrast is very evident in Clark County on the Washington side where sprawl and striving are the order of the day. Portland still feels like a city of citizens, not a free-for-all of competing strip malls. It is a city that doesn't seem to see itself as primarily an economic engine.

It's easy to indulge in grass-is-greenerism, but Oregon's "sounder citizens" have often led the way, on growth management, on death-with-dignity, and last week, on raising taxes. Vancouver, Washington (or "Fort" Vancouver if you like) was licking its chops in hopes that the voters would pass ballot measures raising income taxes on the wealthiest households, and increasing corporate taxes too. They saw this as a boon for southwest Washington. Some in Oregon's business community warned about the commercial impact as well. Phil Knight of Nike called the Oregon tax measures "assisted suicide for business." If so, a majority of Oregon voters chose a poison pill over a slow death of budgets cut to the bone. A culture of schools and city halls indeed.

Much has been made of Oregon's "counter-cyclical" behavior. The voters defied the pundits of the Wall Street Journal who have declared that Americans in the Great Recession want tax cuts only. But they ignore the power of local attitudes in elections. It seems to me that Oregonians are behaving in the best tradition of Northwest populism, which has mostly been less about hate than fairness. In hard times, who are you going to turn to for help? Who can shoulder more of the burden for keeping things going? Surely the haves can spare a dime.

Oregon has one thing that neither Washington nor British Columbia have in abundance, which is a sense of itself. Vancouver, BC often touts itself as the "San Francisco" of Canada, and Seattle and Washington State look to the Pacific Rim and ride Boeing and Microsoft coattails as a "world class city," but Oregon has always felt like an end in itself. You live in Oregon to live in Oregon, not to pretend you're somewhere else.

The Wall Street Journal sees Oregonians as jumping off the California cliff, but Oregon has done much to avoid Californication. Once, some 30 years ago, Oregon's green Governor Tom McCall told CBS News that people were welcome to visit Oregon, "But for heaven's sake, don't move here to live. Or if you do have to move in to live, don't tell any of your neighbors where you are going." There's a difference between raising taxes progressively and staying right-sized and buying into the growth-for-its-own-sake fantasies that have helped to drive the Golden State into a ditch. In Oregon, the city of Bend stands as a warning of what lies down the "California Here I come" path.

If you're rooted to place, you have to make where you are work, especially the schools and city hall. That sometimes means digging deeper to keep a good thing going, and I envy Oregon's exercise in regional populist wisdom.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.