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June 25, 2008

Summary of My Discontent - Oregoing Green

“How prepared is Louisville for the future?” and

“Is the ’70s porn-star mustache making a comeback?” are two questions that came to mind during my recent economic fact-finding trip to Portland, Ore. (And by “fact-finding” I mean “sampling microbrews,” and by “economic” I mean “giving money to brewpubs.”) 

Like trips taken by mayors, governors and chamber-of-commerce wieners everywhere, my fact-finding trip consisted mostly of boozing it up with friends and listening to the natives brag about their city. But I also took time to dig the street vibe of Portland, which might be America’s second most self-absorbed city (behind Boston, which humbly calls itself the “Hub of the Universe”). 

From its “Keep Portland Weird” bumper stickers to its gorgeous city parks to its controversial $4.2 billion bridge proposal, Portland is reminiscent of Louisville. There are, of course, a few differences. With 2 million people living in its metro area, Portland has more population than Louisville but, as 23rd largest U.S. city, it magically ranks below our 16th. The Willamette River isn’t as pretty as the Ohio, but it also doesn’t have a Hooters. Mt. Hood is gorgeous, but it’s a volcano that could spew at any moment, burying Portland’s expatriate Californians Bluetooth-deep in volcanic ash. So, perhaps it’s not wise to make comparisons. 

Still, after a couple of days, Portland starts to seem like a Photoshop-enhanced copy of Louisville: It has the arts, excitement and vitality, but its citizens all have light-rail passes, can shop for groceries downtown, know how to drive on streets with bicycles, don’t really worry all that much about homosexuality, and appear roughly, on average, about 75 pounds lighter each. 

Then there are the downers: that mustache problem, for one thing. Portland hipsters seem to be forgoing beard, goatee and soul patch for the ’stache-only look. I don’t know much about fashion, but even I know that look should be reserved for Stan Lee and eastern Europeans. Portlanders also seem less friendly. Jethro that I am, I found myself trying to say hello to strangers who looked like they were forming the first few sentences of the restraining order they were going to take out against me for daring to greet them. 

Portland is famously progressive environmentally and might be the easiest large city in America to travel around in. There are 700 miles of bike trails, a comprehensive bus system and a popular light-rail system. Light-rail stops are teeming with housing, entertainment and retail developments, adding life to the city. True, Portland launched its rail system more than 20 years ago, but it’s something Louisville could emulate by building a time machine and sending a team of engineers, construction workers and barbers back to 1986 and — presto — we’d have a thriving train system today! (If we’re going back to ’86, we might as well send barbers to lop the tails off those mullets.) Speaking of 86, Portland long ago 86’d a downtown waterfront highway to widespread acclaim. 

Most impressively, Portland is a city of people who embrace new ideas. Two nascent examples are Zip Cars and Urban Farming. 

Zip Cars (www.zipcar.com) — small, fuel-efficient cars — are available all over Portland for rent by the hour (about $9). The inexpensive rentals make it possible for a bike, bus or train commuter to make grocery runs on the weekend or dash off to Trader Joe’s for a double-shot Café Americano and/or tempeh reuben before the grand opening of that new sake distillery or impromptu Barack The Vote rally without, you know, mussing the Burberry. Thanks to public transportation, a thriving bike culture and Zip Cars, many Portlanders are able to forgo car ownership altogether. 

Equally cool is the Urban Farm movement. Organic farmers are plowing neighborhood lawns and planting crops in exchange for a share of the goodies. Imagine a neighborhood with no lawns but rows of tomatoes, eggplant, lettuce and carrots. At City Garden Farms (www.citygardenfarms.com), the farmers use homeowners’ lots and water, and the farmers do all the work. In exchange, the homeowner gets a free Community Supported Agriculture box, like the kind that are available for sale by local farmers here in Louisville. 

Does local government planning and big left-coast money help make these amenities possible? In many ways, yes. But Portland people are also open to supporting big ideas by changing their lifestyles — and that’s another idea worth stealing. 


Contact the writer at jimwelp@gmail.com