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The Difference In River Cities

Paul Shigley on
Jul 1, 2006

Maybe it was while I was strolling amidst the mixed-use projects rising in the historic Pearl District. Or maybe it was while I was sipping coffee at a Powell’s outlet in the funky Hawthorne District. Or maybe it was while walking down the full sidewalks of Beaumont Village to a brewpub on a Tuesday evening.

At some point during a recent visit to Portland, Oregon, I realized I wasn’t in Sacramento. The cities’ populations are roughly the same — Portland is about 570,000 people in a metro area of 2.1 million, Sacramento is about 470,000 in a metro area of 1.9 million — and both cities straddle one river while bordering a second. Both cities have an impressive number of mature trees.

But I can’t think of much else they have in common. Portland is a city. Sacramento is a pretender.

I’m not necessarily knocking Sacramento. OK, I am. But I don’t dislike the Big Tomato. I know it has charms. I lived there during the 1980s and continue to spend quite a bit of time there for work and socially. I’ve enjoyed watching the slow renaissance of my old midtown neighborhood into a modestly urbane district.

But Portland has numerous districts all over town that top midtown Sacramento — districts where people fill the sidewalks, parks, eclectic shops and restaurants with life.

And don’t get me started on downtown. There are more people out and about in downtown Portland on a Sunday afternoon than at any time in downtown Sacramento. They ride into the heart of Portland on the MAX light rail line by the tens of thousands to eat and drink, shop, go to the park or library, catch a minor league baseball game, or simply to hang out with friends. Ever walked down J Street in downtown Sacramento on Sunday afternoon? Right, no one has.

There are a million big and small things that make Portland the city that Sacramento is not. Suffice to say that the late Jane Jacobs was right. A true city has a lot of unprogrammed commotion, a lot of people bumping into each other as they go about their lives. A city has vitality.

After four days in Portland, I headed north on I-5 and stopped in the suburb of Vancouver, Washington. Although I had traveled only a few miles, I knew instantly that I wasn’t in Portland any longer. The streets were wide and fast, lined with cheesy commercial strips and huge parking lots. No one was on the sidewalk. I felt like I was in Sacramento.