In all honesty, I was prepared to hate Portland. Like many east coasters, my knowledge of Portland stems from sporadic viewings of Portlandia and the general Cult of Conscientiousness adopted by friends who’ve moved there so I kinda expected to be either shut out of the scene entirely or judged for not taking enough yoga breaths or something. Much to my surprise/delight/dismay, Portland is not nearly as pretentious as I thought it would be. In fact, pretty much every single Portlandian we met was warm hearted and free of airs. Despite the fact that they seem more than willing to wait in line for two hours for donuts with ghosts on them, I began to be uneasy about my shifting feelings for Portland. Not only did I not hate it, I really, actually, kinda loved it. The food’s fantastic, trees and bridges abound, the skyline is backdropped by a gigantic, snow capped mountain, and they have a vegan cheese shop. Vegan. Cheese. Shop. Not to mention the fact that the city is home to the word’s tiniest park!
Most importantly of all, Portland sports the best bookstore ever: Powell’s Books. It’s mine and my mom’s first morning in Portland and after two hours of wandering the stacks I haven’t even made it to the third floor where they have a communal board game room set up in honor of International Tabletop Game Day. I try to induce my mom to play a game or two but she just raises one eyebrow and heads to an unexplored aisle. I get it.
We meet back up one more hour later, each of us with an armful of books, and spend yet another hour happily sipping tea in the bookstore cafe and paring down our book selections. In the end, through some freakish combination of jet lag and body snatching, we buy nothing. This is insane. Neither of us have walked out of a bookstore empty handed in our lives, let alone one I’m tempted to pull a Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler at. Needless to say, we regret this decision for the rest of our trip. “It was only $28,” I mumble one night while getting into bed, thinking back on a gorgeous, hardcover book about how trees can sing. “We’ll be back, right?” I ask my mom a few days later without context. “To Powell’s Books?” she says, without missing a beat, “Definitely.”
We spend the remainder of the afternoon at the Japanese gardens that reopened just a few days ago after extensive renovations. We wander past Japanese maples, through the old tea house, and stare, transfixed, at the sand garden before stopping in at the new tea/tree house for matcha tea and red bean paste snacks. A soft light shines through the translucent ceiling and the glass walls look out on nothing but canopy. Every view is meticulously planned and many of them are hidden in plain sight. If you don’t know what you’re looking for you can walk right past the most stunning, unexpected vistas in the garden without having any idea that they’re there but if you do know what you’re looking for or if you’re lucky enough to bend down for a sip of water at a water fountain with a view of the garden that can only been seen from that position, you are treated to a whole new experience of the space.
This principle- borrowed scenery- in which landscapers create unique views for garden visitors from every angle of the garden, including unexpected ones, has had a profound effect on how I experience space and how I craft it as an artist.
My mom, who is an urban planner and an architect, has also had a profound effect on how I learned to experience and craft space over the years. Whenever we were on a family vacation when I was a kid my Dad and brother would go out golfing and my Mom and I would visit planned neighborhoods, Frank Lloyd Wright houses, or whatever other architectural wonders were to be seen. As soon as I could read she put Jane Jacob’s Death and Life of American Cities in my hands and there’s been no going back from it. Spaces matter, and in our respective fields, we are exploring how people experience their surroundings and what we can do to make those surroundings more beautiful, ethical, interesting, and, at least in my case, more unexpected.
In true mother/daughter fashion, we leave the gardens in search of a community of tiny houses that is most definitely hidden in plain sight. The houses were built for homeless women in the Portland area and they are designed to be placed in the back yards of volunteer city residents. We have no idea where they are and are piecing together clues by reading the articles that pop up when we google “Portland,” “homeless,” and “tiny houses.” The search takes us out to the suburbs and back to central Portland where we ultimately find the houses being temporarily stored in an empty lot next to the convention center before being moved to their permanent home- the suburb we’ve just returned from.
Tonight we’re staying with my mom’s friend from summer camp, Corin, and her daughter Sam who’s about my age. We meet up at the Portland Saturday Market and then head over to Corin’s neighborhood for drinks with two of her neighbors. She lucked into living right next door to three other single mothers/wine drinkers. This evening’s hostess, Tawna, has framed quotes in her hallway that say things like “Walk Around Your House Like A Fucking Champion” and she has a gigantic St. Bernard named Higgins who I immediately fall in love with. Corin insists that we sample some Oregon wine (not exactly a hard sell) and the six of us chat easily about lady life on the east and west coast before heading to dinner at a vegan Tiki Bar (This is Portland, after all).
“I came here a few years ago to visit and left three weeks later having just put in an offer on what is now my house,” Corin told us over dinner. I glance over at my mom and I can tell we’re thinking the same thing. We are one margarita away from making a reckless, beautiful, life altering real estate decision. Vegan cheese shop city, here we come.