Urban Planning and the bourgeois tourist, or “Oh hell, how did I miss that?”

So, I have this friend James. James and I would, when we both lived together in Southern California, get in his Toyota pickup and drive to all sorts of weird remote places.. ostensibly to look for telephone company related crap (a lot of which is now gone).

One of the side effects of this extensive traveling is I’ve discovered I get this weird.. well, “Spidey sense” for urban planning. I get this minor “unsettled” feeling when I’m in a neighborhood and I haven’t seen what I consider to be the “normal” parts of a neighborhood.  “Is there something I’m missing,” is the feeling.

Even the worst planned neighborhoods typically contain a school, a gas station, a grocery store, a fast-food establishment (or, the seemingly Pacific Northwest variant of same: a coffeehouse), and a family restaurant somewhere within it. In post-war Southern California, the tendency was to build major boulevards about a mile apart on a Euclidean 1 grid, put the businesses along those boulevards, and fill in the spaces between with residences. 2

Since moving to the Pacific Northwest, I’ve noticed the trend is more or less the same. In Portland and Seattle, you need to think a little outside the box.  The lines tend to follow old streetcar lines instead of the modern automotive street: in Portland, this has resulted in most of the major retail corridors being on east-west streets, and the pattern seems to imply the housing was built FIRST, and the commercial corridors added later.

The point is, if any attempt at urban planning is being done there is somewhere within a neighborhood some commercial development for people to buy food and fuel.

As a side effect of this observation, whenever I’m exploring a new urban landscape I always seek out these neighborhood commercial clusters, because they give you a great window into the demographic makeup of a given area.  Five minutes in the grocery store and lunch at the neighborhood fast-food joint (or coffeehouse) will tell you more about a particular place than any map or Chamber of Commerce summary.  You see (what the neighborhood considers) “normal” people doing the normal things people do.

I recently discovered a neighborhood in Bend that had me stumped.  There was no commercial corridor here.  In fact, it was kind-of an island by itself, a little bit disconnected from the city (although still very much IN the city).. but it puzzled me.  There was no grocery store I could find, no gas station.. nothing.  It was a little unnerving: I wound up saying to myself “where the hell does Mom get the sugar she forgot to get at Fred Meyer?”

Today I discovered the shopping district I missed.  It was actually buried on the southern edge of the development.  It didn’t have the gas station I would have expected, but it had the grocery store, the coffeehouse, and the sit-down restaurant I would have expected.  When you looked at it on the map, you could almost tell that this wasn’t supposed to be where the city stopped, this was supposed to be near the center of this little development.  The economic realities of the housing market bubble of the 2000’s stopped “progress” dead in its tracks.

It’s interesting that I’ve developed this sort of “sixth sense” for knowing that there HAD to be a grocery store / strip mall there.

But more interestingly, maybe if I spent less time as a young adult trashing around looking for phone company shit and more time with biochemistry maybe I would have cured cancer by now.


Show 2 footnotes

  1. Orange County went so far with this Euclidean madness they actually named a major north-south boulevard.. “Euclid St.”
  2. It’s worth noting that even in South Orange County, which attempted to get away from the “uniform grid” style of city building, does the same thing except the roads are curvy and often don’t follow any general cardinal direction: but the tendency to build commercial strips along them and fill the spaces between with residences is still the norm.

Moving to Seattle

So, I’ve decided I’m moving to Seattle regardless of the outcome of my most recent job interview.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Portland dearly. I’m not a huge fan of Seattle, the city. As I’ve said previously, it sort of has all the things that annoy me about San Francisco and Los Angeles combined into one city. I don’t like the traffic. I don’t like the way the transit works: granted, the transit is pretty good compared to Los Angeles, and almost on-par with San Francisco. Seattle also “smells funny.”

But increasingly there is little opportunity in Portland for me to thrive. I’ve been struggling with this for years. Even when I’ve had a job and doing financially well, there are things that just never quite fall in place for me. Things always seem just below the threshold of “awesome,” and it’s frustrating operating at just under optimal for me. I’d almost rather be operating at 75% “awesome” than 98%. I can work around that 25% difference.

Except I have this feeling that life for me in Seattle is going to be 75% awesome. Increasingly, it looks like it’s going to be, at worst, me switching out a collection of 2% annoyances with another set of 2% annoyances. Considering that one of the annoyances of life in Portland has been opportunity, that seriously skews things.

See, Seattle is a Big CityTM. Portland is, at it’s best, a small city.. but in reality, it’s perhaps the biggest small town you’ve ever seen. There are few big city opportunities here. Unemployment here is historically high, and given the financial situation of the past few years it’s been downright appalling.

I scan the job boards in Seattle, and there’s a ratio somewhere around 40:1 of jobs advertised. It’s that bad here in Portland.. for every job I see here in Portland, there’s at least 40 in Seattle that I could apply for. I understand there’s a huge talent pool up there, too.. but the odds are just overwhelming.

Add to that the social element. I’ve made friends in Portland, don’t get me wrong. But every time I’m in Seattle, I come home with at least one new friend there. EVERY TIME, WITHOUT EXCEPTION. It has taken me the better part of eight years here in Portland to collect 1/4 of the friend circle I have in Seattle, even though I don’t actually LIVE in Seattle. The social groups I’d be involved in there have hundreds of members, not just a dozen or two. All of my interests are hyper-present in Seattle. Hell, the Seattle anime scene (something I’m not completely immersed in, but have a passing interest in Japanese culture generically) hosts the [arguably] largest con of it’s kind outside Japan. These scenes are healthy and vibrant, to varying degrees. There’s living, breathing hacker spaces (the ones here in PDX seem to die the minute I find them), a couple of wonderful occult groups I’m already involved in, and very interesting communities that appeal to my more.. um.. prurient interests.

Portland is an oddly insular city. I still don’t understand that.

City life is always a collection of compromises, regardless of the city. I’ve tolerated Portland’s compromises to the point that they are seriously challenging my ability to thrive. Being unemployed for .. what, well over a year now? … has created a situation that is unsustainable. If things were financially going well for me here, I’d have no reason to leave. But with the job situation being so sucky, it makes no sense to stay here, even though I love everybody I’ve met in Portland, and would do anything to bring all of you with me…