Sydney has its harbor, Venice has its canals. Even New York has Coney Island. Let's be honest, Portlanders: Maybe we'd have more success in luring tourists to our waterfront if we stopped making fun of them for mispronouncing "Willamette."
Jokes aside, efforts to revitalize Portland's waterfront have met with mixed results—mainly because no one is quite sure what "revitalizing" it means. Conservation groups want to restore native habitats and developers want to build (sustainable) condos for all those young families moving to the Rose City. A lot of people would just like to kayak without being afraid that their eyebrows will be blistered off (the Willamette along Portland Harbor was declared a Superfund site in December 2000).
"There's 17 miles of waterfront running through Portland and lots of variation in the density of uses—commercial and industrial uses, as well as tourism," said Rick Bastasch, program director for the City's new Office of Healthy Working Rivers. "I wouldn't say that the river's been overlooked, but these are opportunities that we haven't taken advantage of."
Port cities have a rich and storied tradition of transitioning into cultural and economic hubs—from San Francisco's Embarcadero to Seattle's Pike Place Market. "River commissioner" Amanda Fritz also recognizes the economic potential of the Willamette. In an op-ed written for The Oregonian, Fritz acknowledged that reviving industrial and commercial sites along the riverfront can provide jobs and alleviate Portland's sky-high unemployment rate.
In recognition of the fact that the city's prosperity and the river are tied together, Portland City Council established OHWR in January to provide mediation among business, private and nonprofit organizations that have an interest in the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. OHWR also sponsors cleanups along the Willamette.
And OHWR hopes to renew residents' interest in the city's rivers with the second annual Portland RiverFest, a three-day celebration of all things Willamette.
Whether your goals are to start a residential development or rent a canoe, promoting the health of the river is one of the fest's most important goals—in short, to answer the dilemma of why the closest river to Portlanders is often the last one picked for a refreshing summer dip. Two of the biggest events at RiverFest are the Aqua Zone Portland Mile and the Freshwater Trust Portland Triathlon, the goals of which are to get people down to and into the water.
By doing so, Freshwater Trust race director Jeff Henderson confronts the widespread idea that the Willamette isn't safe to swim in. "The perception of the Willamette as a polluted river has a lot to do with rainfall and sewage overflow," said Henderson. "So don't swim in the winter or early spring...but in summer, it's as clean as any river in Oregon."
This statement is backed up by data provided by Willamette Riverkeeper, a nonprofit devoted to the preservation of the Willamette. The Riverkeeper monitors the Willamette's levels of E. coli, which of all present pollutants and bacteria poses the greatest threat to swimmer's health. Willamette Riverkeeper vouches that E. coli levels during the summer are at safe levels. "There's a folk memory from the 1960s when the river was clogged with pulp and municipal wastes," OHWR program director Bastasch said. "Our perception hasn't kept up with the cleanup.... If I swam, I'd be in there." The Freshwater Trust sponsors weekly swims starting from RiverPlace Marina, and Henderson reports that during last week's heat wave, the water was a balmy 75 degrees.
Don't like the water? The civic minded can attend the dedication of the Bill Naito Legacy Fountain in the newly redesigned Ankeny Plaza on RiverFest's opening day, or visit the grand opening of the Saturday Market in said plaza Saturday and Sunday. For those who want to get active, Portland Kayak will be offering guided kayak tours at 10 percent off, which comes to $40 for a two- to three-hour guided tour of Ross Island, all equipment inclusive (reservations required, see portlandkayak.com). There's also an Audubon Society's wildlife-viewing cruise and performance-art walking tours hosted by Bohemian Storytelling Tours. And of course, it wouldn't be a Portland celebration unless open-air drinking was involved. The South Waterfront Greenway is hosting a celebration Saturday, Aug. 22, that will feature music by PDX Jazz, food, drinks and more than 50 booths distributing everything from handmade crafts to pamphlets on river education.
If RiverFest's agenda seems sprawling and somewhat disjointed, that's because it probably is. While Fritz says the OHWR was created to cut through bureaucracy and "add value by improving connections and communication," coordinating events between so many different organizations, of different size and with different goals, remains a monumental task.
Bastasch acknowledges the difficulties—at least 25 organizations are involved with preparations for RiverFest alone. Still, he maintains that OHWR will not be limiting its agenda anytime soon. "It's a fabric of many colors," he says, "and one organization does not distract from the others. What they all have in common is an interest in getting people down to the river."
And since RiverFest is only in its second year, there is plenty of time to see whether it will succeed in re-creating a Willamette river culture. "I have a postcard from my great-grandfather to my grandfather from Oaks Amusement Park, sent in the 1900s," Bastasch says. "It was idyllic, and part of the fun was splashing in the Willamette."
Portland RiverFest takes place at Tom McCall Waterfront Park and other sites. Thursday-Sunday Aug. 20-23. Schedule of events and more info at portlandriverfest.org. Free.