Among Minor White's photographs from the 1930s is a series portraying an old, beautifully ornate city, criss-crossed with empty streets and trainless trolley tracks. The mood is somber, and one imagines that these buildings, barren streets and unused tracks are remnants of Warsaw or Rotterdam after the bombings. But the city is Portland, and, though it saw no war, it might as well have been blitzed, because the buildings in these photographs were soon leveled and the tracks pulled up to make room for cars. What scraps survive of this elegant lost city are now called Old Town. But when the wrecking crews arrived in the '40s, the area was derisively called the "European part of Portland."
City Commissioner Charlie Hales gets a lot of flack for his stated desire that Portland should become the best European city in America, something he reiterated last Thursday in front of the World Affairs Council of Oregon, the day before the launching of Portland's new streetcar. But Hales and other urban-minded thinkers recognize that the American approach to urban planning has been a disaster, and unchecked development has brutalized cities far more successfully than any Luftwaffe squadron. Rather than bulldozing, blacktopping and big-boxing Portland into oblivion, local planners and politicians have been seeking new ideas for the city's restoration. And the discoveries they've made are actually quite old.
Typically, the European model of urban planning is still based on building to the human scale rather than to the car. European cities are dense environments, often with small streets, mixed-use commercial and residential buildings, and sophisticated mass-transit systems.
From the creation of the Urban Growth Boundary to the building and expansion of MAX, Portland has learned from Europe's successful cities and has applied their ideas to our own urban environment, making Portland a very un-American city. Portland's latest adopted innovation is actually the most dramatic: By replacing the streetcar tracks that were ripped from the streets 51 years ago, Portland, like postwar Europe, is finally rebuilding itself.
Built by Skoda in the Czech Republic, Portland's new fleet of trains will connect boutique-filled Northwest 23rd Avenue with Portland State University, taking in many of the city's important institutions en route. But the line also serves another purpose, which Hales describes as a "development tool," a means of sparking denser development in the Pearl and River districts, the West End and, eventually, North Macadam. These are areas ripe for reconstruction, as the blight of surface parking lots along the route attests.
The new streetcar line is pointedly referred to as Phase One, and plans are already being made to expand lines into the east side. In the meantime, as the novelty subsides, the streetcar will become part of the street's rhythm, as it is in Amsterdam and Prague, where the continual cross-stitching of bicyclists, pedestrians and trams is seamless. The streetcar lacks MAX's speed, but its purpose is to connect neighborhoods, not cover distances--and this it does successfully.
Most American cities still suffer from the mistakes of the past 50 years, where freeway construction destroyed communities and suburbanization vandalized the countryside with shoddy malls and subdivisions, bleeding the cities of life. But over the past few decades, Portland has reversed its decline with thoughtful approaches to planning and transportation, and in doing so has made itself the envy of the country. The introduction of the streetcar is already having an impact. Skoda has just sold some trains to Tacoma, Wash., and officials in other major cities will look to Portland to study the effects of this "European" idea upon an American landscape.
The day of the car is over, especially within an urban context. This was made clear to Hales, a self-professed "student of Europe," when he was invited by the European Academy on the Environment to be the keynote speaker at a conference on car-free cities in Szeged, Hungary. Hales noted that, although we had a lot to learn from the Europeans, they in turn needed to learn something from us: our mistakes. American propaganda is still filled with images equating automobiles with freedom, whether it's SUVs despoiling nature or carefree freeways. What we don't show our global neighbors is the crippling gridlock, smog and characterless miles of commercial squalor that constitute the American reality.
Like MAX and the Urban Growth Boundary, the streetcar has its tireless detractors--who are properly ignored. These proponents of unlimited growth really have two options: They can either move to a city that celebrates its ignorance (Houston, perhaps) or they can "get on board." Portland needs to be a city willing to throw out bankrupt ideas and explore alternatives; the streetcar is only the latest inspiration. We must all become students of Europe on the way to becoming teachers.
Minor White's photographs can be found at both the Portland Art Museum (1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811) and the Oregon History Center (1200 SW Park Ave., 306-5198).
The streetcar makes 33 stops in its loop between Portland State University's Urban Studies Center and Northwest 23rd Avenue.
The streetcars are lighter and slower than MAX, but the most important difference is that they will be ad-free.