Out of Control Policy Blog

The Narcissism of Portland

Joel Kotkin had a great piece in Sunday's The Oregonian drawing an analogy between the Mecca of urban planning -- Portland, Oregon -- and Narcissus:

    Portland is becoming what I call an Ephemeral City. What do ephemeral cities do? Not much by traditional standards. They don't create a lot of jobs for working or middle-class people. Instead they mostly exist to celebrate themselves and provide an attractive setting for visitors and would-be migrants.

    But can a city survive -- and thrive -- primarily as a marketer of an urban experience?

    An ephemeral city doesn't compete with lesser places -- you know, those ugly cities with functional warehouses and factories, Wal-Marts and strip malls -- for jobs, companies or investors. An ephemeral city's economy relies largely on a high level of self-esteem among its residents.

    Four decades ago, author Neil Morgan used the term "narcissus of the West" to describe an already self-indulgent San Francisco. Now it's time for the City by the Bay to move over -- the City of Roses wants to take its place in front of the mirror.

    To some extent, this high regard, like that of any well-chiseled middle-age narcissist, reflects something of a Portland reality. Portland, as its boosters are forever telling everyone, is a physically attractive place. Parts of the city -- like the much ballyhooed Pearl District -- look very much like famed urbanist Jane Jacobs' idealized urban district.

    Rhapsodizers often miss the differences between Portland today and Jacobs' gritty Manhattan neighborhoods of more than 40 years ago. Those New York areas were home to large numbers of families and immigrants; they boasted both real bohemians (those without money) as well people who worked with their hands. Most residents were there for employment and family; many hoped they'd move up into a nicer neighborhood someday.

    . . . .

    Even before Al Gore, looking out from one of his estates, discovered sprawl, Portland's planners declared war on single-family homes, backyards and insufficiently dense development. To stomp out such deviant behavior, the city -- to the hosannas of the planning profession -- proudly imposed tough restrictions, notably the urban growth boundary, on new development.

    Unfortunately, Portland's green urbanism has produced some unexpected results. As regulation helped boost the housing prices in the close-in areas, the middle class has moved farther and farther out. It turns out that most families -- yes, they still exist -- usually opt not to raise their kids inside sardine cans if they can at all help it.

There's a lot more. Read the whole thing for an on-target assessment of Portland's past, present, and future.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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