“Where will I live?” For much of our human history, this question doesn’t exist. We are born into a place much as we’re born into a family, culture and religion— it’s all decided for you. But as a 20th century American with choices, the decision where to settle gets put out on the table as we dream our future. Often it’s work that decides or following a sweetheart, but sometimes it’s that feeling of encountering a place and knowing somewhere deep in your bones, “This is the place I have dreamed of.”
Most people I know have developed this habit of keeping the antennae up as they travel. They visit friends and in the midst of conversations, some secret part of their brain is thinking, “Wow! Nice affordable house, great neighbors, quaint shopping district down the block. But don’t know if I could handle the weather. And the traffic on the bridge is brutal!” And so on. I listened to my 31-year old daughter on the phone with her husband describing Portland as she searches for her next home and felt myself comparing and contrasting along with her even as I feel wholly settled in San Francisco.
Fact is, Portland is an impressive town. (Oregon, not Maine, though the latter is impressive too!) Especially in these past three days of summer without a drop of rain. Like Budapest, Istanbul, Salzburg, it is bi-sected by a river that neatly divides the city into quadrants. Three of the friends we are visiting live in the Northeast section, which is pure suburbia with rolling lawns, impressively tall trees, large houses with twice the square footage and half the price of the unreal estate of San Francisco. But it is an urban suburbia without the sterility of pre-fab houses and an Updikean flat energy. It has character, each house its own architectural wonde, and an urban energy that buzzes even as it offers a tranquil evening chatting with neighbors on the front porch.
We drove to another neighborhood in the Southeast to a little spot named Share-It Square, where neighbors had made a conscious effort to craft a sharing community even as each had the independence of their own home and private property. There is a tea station on one corner, children’s toys open to anyone to play with, a poetry corner, large wooden tablets to post different announcements on and so on. Across the river, we ascended to a place called Council Crest and looked out over the city with Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens in the distance. Acres of pristine park with hiking trails and a gondola tram. I have long thought that the health of any city is directly related to its parks and Portland is impressive in that regard, from the sprawling Arboretum with its remarkable Japanese gardens down to the world’s smallest park, allegedly built for leprauchans! Well, that’s what the guidebook said and it went well with the bumper sticker, “Keep Portland Weird.”
Then there’s the inevitable downtown, both the old and the new, with the usual office buildings and chain stores with one lustrous jewel—Powell’s Bookstore. This has long been the Granddaddy of independent bookstores, as larger or larger than Borders ever was, but with the small cozy bookstore feel. I found the book I had searched in vain for in San Francisco and then made an astounding discovery— my own book The ABC’s of Education on the bookshelf!!! Though I have written eight books, they mostly circulate through Orff dealers or come out of my suitcase at workshops. Now I feel like a real author!! (And for any readers of this blog who are curious, this is the book I feel most proud of and that I think is of the most interest to the non-music teacher reader. Order from Powell’s!)
There are other treasures in this marvelous town. Like the Kennedy School, an old elementary school converted to a place to stay, eat and go to the movies. The rooms to stay are the old classrooms, complete with blackboard and cloak closet, the old cafeteria is the new, hip restaurant and the auditorium the movie theater. The halls feel like school halls from the ‘50’s with class photos on the walls. And speaking of schools, there’s an old “hippy” school called Catlin Gabel where I’ve given many a workshop in the barn, several universities, including the eccentric Reed College that counts among its alum Gary Snyder, one of my favorite poets and thinkers. Go west and you’re at the coast, east and you’re hiking Mt. Hood. Bike lanes in town are numerous, people are friendly and though ethnic diversity is low compared to San Francisco, it has a broad-minded feel and interest in the world far beyond its borders.
In short, a nice place to visit and a nice place to live. Well, at least when it’s not raining for nine months straight.