Down by the riverside

Trip Start Apr 21, 2009
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Trip End Apr 26, 2009


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Flag of United States  , Oregon
Saturday, April 25, 2009

Saturday I abandon my family and the downtown shopping experience this trip has become, and stroll to the riverside.

The Willamette sambas north through Portland, dividing the city into east and west and laying out bridging opportunities for eager engineers. At 9:30 am, the west bank path is meagerly populated but the Eastside Esplanade, which actually drops onto floating paths along the river, is crawling like an ants nest. It's an impressive mass of movement; spandex attired couples pushing strollers pop out of the milieu occasionally.

The west path of the Willamette (emphasis on the second syllable as if it's a line from Rocky Horror, e.g., Willamette, Janet, I love you) has a swath of park the width of a cricket pitch along its length, while the eastern sliver scrabbles for space amongst road systems and wheezing old industrial properties. I'm reflecting on the oddness of a greenspace on the downtown side of the river when my subconscious is tapped on the shoulder. There seems to be more people on the path now. Hmm.

My thought processes don't tend to detect gradual changes in their surroundings, so I continue compiling my mental version of Portland's water front (sort of the nucleus Baedeker's that forms before I can do my journaling) until I realize that yes, I am now dodging more trundling entities. The bridge ahead of me is now teaming with human shapes too. The sound of a marching band playing Walk Like An Egyptian drifts downriver to me.

There's this great scene in a Warner Bros cartoon where Bugs Bunny is trying to question a long stream of animals about why they are fleeing in the other direction. Bison, giraffes, tortoises flash past without Bugs getting a word in edgewise. I have a similar problem here, although there's no Tasmanian devil on the loose. Finally, I mercilessly obstruct an out of shape guy labouring along, who wheezes that it's the March of Dimes.

I let him huff on his way and continue wading upstream until I pass under the bridge and get the path to myself. After the rush of people, it's very peaceful. Then I realize how much less peaceful this place would have been a few decades back. A sign (Portland is well-endowed in signage, most of it helpful) informs me that this was a four-lane freeway in the 70s before the governor gathered support to turn it into a riverside parkway. The picture of the old road system is horrid, a massive pretzel of concrete lanes from which one can imagine any number of cans flying out car windows to the neglected river below. Another sign illustrates the massive projects underway to redirect sewage away from the river to treatment plants. Coliform levels are half what they were 10 years ago.

The magnitude of relocating 8 lanes of traffic to create a park is such an unlikely endeavour that I get another one of those insight bursts that are the benefits of travel -- of removing from one's normal scope and ken. I'm as guilty as anyone of viewing my surroundings as static instead of seeing them constantly (d)evolving. My consciousness needs a lot of tapping on the shoulder before my attention is nabbed: hey, change happening here! It appears that even with the context of history and a new city around me -- even with the newspaper-selling streetguy laying it out for me -- my bias is to view things in stasis.

I met a business associate for happy hour after her work yesterday (great Peruvian restaurant called Andina) . Lori is a project manager for a non-profit education organization, but her real passion right now is her community south of Portland. She's working on an incorporation plan for the 100,000 mainly immigrant inhabitants. The overall vision is to bolster the development boundaries, increasing density in a contained core while freeing up the farmland to feed that population. They have the acres they need to be self-sufficient, and are working on the light transit plan to connect them with the Portland hub. We've both read Barbara Kingsolver's glorious "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" and other variations on the 100-mile diet, but where I've merely expanded my own garden and frequented more farmers markets, Lori has seen the possibility of something more landscape altering.

Portland has as much political bunfighting as anywhere, I'm sure, but certain people here clearly have a sense of being able to get things done -- there's a feeling that change for the better really can happen. They can, after all, replace the onslaught of highway traffic with the slow march of Saturday morning walkathons.
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