A beach in the middle of Portland? Will Levenson wants three of them. Until a couple of years ago, it would have been a ridiculous thought: Regular sewage overflows had Portlanders viewing the Willamette River as a giant septic tank. But after the massive sewage upgrade engendered by the 2011 completion of the $1.4 billion Big Pipe project, Levenson wants you to know that itâs safe to go back in the water.
Since 2010, the Popina Swimwear co-owner has organized an annual Willamette River flotilla of kitschy inflatables called the Big Float; this year, he helped organize a world-record 620 people holding hands on inner tubes. And now heâs building three public-access beaches in the center of Portland. WW sat down with Levenson to ask how he wants to change the way Portland thinks about its river.
WW: I grew up here. We didnât swim in the Willamette.
Will Levenson: When I came to Portland, I got indoctrinated not to touch the Willamette because it was polluted. First I was disappointed, and then I got pissed off. Iâve been here 15 years and Iâve tried to figure out how to impact this discussion; the biggest impetus for me was the Big Pipe. Itâs the largest public works project in Portland history. It took 20 years to complete. After a tenth of an inch of rain, raw sewage used to flow into the Willamette; itâs disgusting. It happened all the time.
But itâs safe now?
The Environmental Protection Agency, the Oregon Health Authority, the city of Portland all agree: Itâs safe to swim. Whatâs stopping people? First, it was unsafe to swim in the Willamette five or seven years ago. And thatâs hard to overcome.
But the other thing is access. When you look at other major citiesâVancouver, Victoria, Seattleâthey all have water access. When youâre up top looking down at the Willamette, itâs like looking at an elephant or a tiger in the zoo from far away. âHey! Look down there, itâs a tiger!â
Where are the beaches you have planned?
Tom McCall Bowlâa stretch of rocky beach access by Waterfront Parkâis the lowest hanging fruit. We had a public event called Unrock the Bowl. [Mayor] Charlie Hales took part in that. At Marquam Beachâunder the Marquam Bridge on the west sideâthereâs a perfectly good sandy beach made by people about 10 years ago. The only way to get to it is to climb over riprap rock at the breakers; it doesnât invite you down there. We got approval from the city and the Army Corps of Engineers to make a path down to it. Also, we removed 140 tons of concrete from the east side of the Hawthorne Bridge. Weâre calling it Audrey McCall Beach until weâre told otherwise.
So why not just go to the Clackamas or Sandy rivers?
The Clackamas is an awesome river experience; itâs my favorite river experience. The Sandy isnât bad. But wouldnât it be great if you could just ride your bike down to the river in Portland and go for a swim? Take the bus downtown? Get off at lunchtime and take a dip? What I want is for people to drive over the Willamette and say, âThatâs Portlandâs giant swimming pool.â
What will get people swimming downtown?
You have to create a human habitat. People have said to me theyâd never swim in downtown Portland. I said, âSo where do you swim?â âOh, at Sauvie Island.â Well, you understand that Sauvie Island is downstream from a Superfund site at the confluence of the Willamette and the Columbia. But at Sauvie Island thereâs sand, thereâs trees. Thereâs packaging.
There are three things I like to see: One, a sign that says, âYouâre welcome here, this is the swimming area, go this way.â Two, a path leading down to the swimming area thatâs welcoming. Then, when you get to the end of the path, it should be a nice place to hang out.
As the owner of a swimwear company, do you have a certain incentive to get people swimming more?
The only incentive is just to do it. When you get into the water, itâs so liberating. Itâs like having this crazy aunt you never got to know so well. But one day you maybe had a drink [with her], and sheâs actually pretty cool. All the sudden thereâs this great new friend of yours.
And the riverâs the crazy aunt?
The riverâs kind of like the crazy aunt. Maybe she went through a bad year of her life, but she pulled through it. We all understand that humans have the ability to screw up nature. Do we have the ability to unscrew it up? Right now you can make a difference by just getting in the water. Itâs the worldâs laziest revolution.