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A mass-transit trek through Portland's singular sites (LA Times)

A mass-transit trek through Portland's singular sites (LA Times)

In Portland, 7.2 miles of streetcar track is enough to cross town, to win over about 8,800 riders each weekday, to link several inviting neighborhoods and tempt some tourists out of their rental cars.

By Christopher Reynolds

(Originally published in the LA Times on May 4, 2007.)

"Keep Portland weird," the bumper stickers say. I have no idea what they're talking about. I'm here on business — public transportation infrastructure tourism business.

Let me say that another way. I am here, carless, to see what's new in downtown Portland, to eat Oregon produce and drink Oregon concoctions, to briefly live that Southern California dream of chucking it all and moving to someplace cheap and rainy. And to ride the streetcars.

I step out of the airport terminal, a bag on my shoulder, feed $2 into a machine and step onto a regional commuter train called MAX. Forty minutes later, MAX delivers me to downtown Portland, land of half a million left-leaning people, 37 inches of average annual rainfall and too many bicycle commuters and solar-powered parking meters to count.

Around Southwest Yamhill Street and Southwest 10th Avenue, I step off MAX, walk a block and board a long, narrow, clean light-rail cabin. This is a Portland Streetcar, which costs $1.70 to ride all day, or nothing if you stick to downtown's "fareless square." They come along about every 15 minutes.

In the early 20th century, the streetcars of Portland ran all over, like the Red Cars in Los Angeles. Then, like the Red Cars, they died, the grisly details obscured by vast clouds of automobile exhaust.

So in 2001, Portland started over, and a new line, running as a city-operated sibling to the local light-rail and bus systems, has grown to cover 7.2 miles. Which may not sound like much. But in Portland, that's enough to cross town, to win over about 8,800 riders each weekday, to link several inviting neighborhoods and tempt some tourists out of their rental cars.

At the northwestern end of the line, upscale shops and restaurants have been multiplying like bunnies in spring. At the southern end, near the Willamette River, a $57-million aerial tram began carrying customers in January to and from a hilltop aerie on the Oregon Health & Science University campus.

Meanwhile, in the middle, the city's foremost art museum has expanded into a recycled building. So has the city's leading theater company. And the postindustrial Pearl District, now artsy and lofty, looks more polished than ever.

Where to begin?

A Northwest passage

I start at the northwestern end of the line, sometimes known just as Northwest, occasionally known as Nob Hill. The first good news is that my hotel, the Inn @ Northrup Station, a 6-year-old venture on 21st Avenue whose interiors were apparently designed by the Jetsons, gives guests free streetcar passes. Already I'm saving money.

But Northwest has never been a neighborhood for penny-pinching. Its history as a haven for eating and shopping goes back decades, and sellers and buyers alike reserve their greatest passions for locally grown ingredients and locally originated designs.

On 23rd, which is the backbone of the neighborhood and carries the moniker Trendy-Third, I stroll past the fancy soaps of Lush and kitschy trinkets of 2-year-old Hello Portland.

On 21st, I browse the lavish produce at City Market. On Northwest Lovejoy Street near Northwest 19th, I pause at the 3-D Center of Art and Photography, where a temporary exhibit (through May 27) details the history of the View-Master since its 1938 invention in, you guessed it, Portland. (Yes, they're still making View-Masters, but not in Portland.)

For dinner one night, I join Oregonian friends at 23 Hoyt, an elegantly restrained dinner place that opened on 23rd in late 2006. The menu is full of dishes such as pork from Carlton Farms (in the nearby Yamhill Valley) and lamb from Cattail Creek (in the Willamette Valley), accented by all manner of asparagus, morels, pea shoots, leeks and fennel. From our window seat, we watch an impeccably put-together middle-aged man arrive for his dinner date on an impeccable red bicycle, then sit so that he can see the beloved bike over his friend's shoulder.

Another night, about seven blocks away, we scorn elegant and restrained in favor of the red lights and twirling mirror ball of Le Happy, a restaurant and bar that makes tremendous crepes and steak. That is followed by dessert in the distinguished quarters of Papa Haydn, where we sip apple and pear brandy from the Clear Creek Distillery, the fruit grown about an hour away, the distillery about 10 blocks off.

It is in this neighborhood that I spot the first bumper sticker about keeping Portland weird. And just a few hours later, I encounter Jessica Hulse, 23, outside a coffee shop on 21st.

She wears black, a cigarette at her lips and a Remington portable typewriter at her fingertips. She looks like Edgar Allan Poe's receptionist.

"It's a 1922," she says, fingering the keyboard. She has just bought it for $15 at a thrift shop, and she estimates it's worth several hundred dollars. But this, she quickly adds, is not about money. It is about pleasure.

"I do like typing," she says. "It's nice after working a computer all day."

At the next table, a bearded man pauses at his laptop to look over and solemnly nod.

A cultured Pearl

The next neighborhood over from Northwest is the Pearl District. After more than a decade of urban pioneering and adaptive reuse, it's thick with galleries, lofts, lofts that look like galleries, tea merchants, full-service bars and at least one tea merchant with a full-service bar. (That would be the Tea Zone and Camellia Lounge on Northwest 11th, where the "marTEAnis" and yerba mat