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a portland collage

What makes a city urban?

Those who live in the Western half of the country have to wonder sometimes. For Phoenix or Los Angeles — and most trans-Mississippi cities — are fundamentally different from the core cities of the East. The Western-model cities are sprawling suburbs, spread like a great tablecloth over the landscape.

It isn’t that they don’t have character. LA has enough character for a dozen smaller cities. And even Phoenix has its personality, although it is that of a raw, unformed, undisciplined adolescent.

But for anyone who grew up near New York, Philadelphia or Boston, there is something urgently missing out here that prevents the West from becoming authentically urban.

Purists may argue that any concentration of population must be considered urban. And they are technically correct. But walk the Loop in Chicago or by the row houses of Baltimore and you instantly sense the difference.

It is true that there are small bits of citiness in the West — a neighborhood in Denver, sections of Seattle or San Francisco. But these are fragments.

There is one place that has undiluted citiness in concentration.

On the banks of the Willamette River in Oregon is a true city. Portland has a downtown that could be a relocated Pittsburgh, bridges and all, and walking through its sinewed city center is a glory of chattering urban detail, all screaming out that this is a real city.

For it is the details that define the urban.

a portland strip 5

Portland is filled with the tiled floors, fireplugs, storm drains, eroded curbsides, overarching trees, root-buckled sidewalks and brownstone stoops that make a city feel urban.

It is all the more significant because the Portland downtown is so tiny. You can walk almost anywhere you need to go.

Yet in those 100 miniature city blocks — less than a square mile — you can discover all the urban detail, ornament and design that you need to serve as a madeleine to your Proustian nostalgia for a citiness.

Along the sidewalk, a checkerboard of frosted glass squares underfoot illuminates an old basement.

a portland strip

A brass fire-hose connection splits like a Brancusi torso.

A dull iron streetcar track in the cobblestones is wheel-shined.

An Art Deco 317 glows above the glass doors of the Loyalty Building.

The city is built of hard, durable metals and stone, yet all its edges are softened and weathered.

There is the steep ramp of the old brick parking garage. a portland strip 2

The spear points topping the black iron fences.

The revolving clock-thermometer at the corner of the bank building.

The equestrian statue in the middle of the park, with its benches and chess players.

”Joy The Tailor” is written in mosaic on the sidewalk in front of an empty storefront. Who knows how many businesses have operated in that building since Joy left?

There is the neon ”pizza” sign in the window, a neon ”Western Union” and a neon ”color copies.” a portland strip 4 copy

In front of a blockwide pit being dug out by the steam shovel, men on their lunch hours gather in a crowd behind a fence to stand and stare. One of them is eating a Fig Newton.

The one thing all those details speak of is age. The rounded edges of the curbs, the worn writing on the manhole covers — these things come with maturity.

The younger cities of the West — or the cities such as LA that seek eternal adolescence — cannot achieve the respectable age of the Eastern cities. It is a miracle that Portland survives.

For in LA, as in Phoenix, any building older than our high-school years tends to be flattened and replaced with one of those brittle, obdurate, unweathered and machine-edged monoliths, too juvenile to know better, too inexperienced to have the wisdom time brings to sandstone and concrete.

In a real city, you see the scoops of accumulated footfalls on the marble museum steps, you see ailanthus trees growing in the unattended spaces between buildings and moss on the gutters.

A real city is a stage set for our lives. We eat at the lunch counters, recline in the grassy parks, live when we are young or very old in the plastered apartments above the storefronts, drink grappa at night in the jazz bars.

The urban city is a setting not only physically but also historically. Its worn details, visible at every turn, remind us that we live in history, too. The city was there before us and will be after us.

In a city of strident newness, such as Phoenix, we can forget the big picture and think we are all that matters. In a city full of its own past, you are always reminded of your grandparents and grandchildren.

And it is all in the details.

USACE Tillamook Bay Oregon

Tillamook has a more interesting history than most towns of its size and obscurity.

While most towns north or south of it on the Oregon coast have catered to the vacationer, with beachfront motels and seafood restaurants, Tillamook remains a working town.

And although it is situated along U.S. 101, which is the famous Coast Highway, Tillamook is back from the ocean, in a wide flat valley filled with cows and lumber.

There are also a series of prominent mud flats.

But the predominant impression is of green: vast pastures filled with cows. Tillamook is primarily a dairy town, with several cheese factories.

There is a short-line railroad with a diesel locomotive painted in the black-and-white patchwork of a Holstein cow. Tillamook Cheese Factory

Self-guided tours of the Tillamook Cheese factory are available, with samples of curd and Cheddar. The factory produces 40 million pounds of cheese each year. You can watch it being made in 40-pound cubes and then cut by automated cheese slicers into smaller familiar sizes. An small army of snood-headed women watches over the assembly line to keep track of errant chunks of cheese and misshapen cubes.

I briefly considered buying a whole 40-pound block but changed my mind when I discovered it would cost about $120.

The high school football team is known as “The Fighting Cheesemakers.”

Tillamook was also the site of the worst natural disaster in Oregon history, in 1933 with the first of a series of devastating forest fires known as the ”Tillamook Burn.”

The fire had a 15-mile front and in only two days destroyed 255,000 acres. And the fire raged for four weeks.

Fires recurred every six years until 1951, causing them to be named the ”six-year jinx.” Ultimately, 325 square miles were burned. It cost $13 million to reforest the blasted areas, which now look green and woodsy.

Natural devastation also did in the vast land speculation known as Bayocean. Beginning in 1906, a series of investors cooked up a scheme to turn a sand spit at the mouth of Tillamook Bay into a vacation paradise, with cottages, hotels and a gigantic natatorium with heated water.

Bayocean natatorium and dance hall

Bayocean natatorium and dance hall

Lots were sold, buildings were built and sales were slow, in part because there was no way to get to the development. There were neither roads nor trains, and the yacht that was supposed to carry passengers across the bay was too large to pass over the mud bars.

But more devastating was the fact that the builders hadn’t taken into account the nature of spits: They grow and shrink with the waves, and it wasn’t long before Bayocean’s cottages fell into the aggressive surf. There was a brief period of prosperity in the community during the ’20s, but by 1932 the natatorium collapsed into the sea. In 1952, a storm split the spit into three smaller islands. The last vestiges of construction on the spit were wiped out in 1960. Today, it is just a story they tell in town.

Bayocean hotel view

Bayocean hotel view

I doubt many in Tillamook still sing the popular song from 1925, Tillie From Tillamook: ”Tillamook Tillie got wild one day, packed up her things and went away. She got weary of the birds and the bees and living on Tillamook cheese.”

According to the song, she moved to Manhattan and the chorus sings out: ”Wooden shoes, a hole in her sock, knees that knock-knock, knock-knock. She’s lopsided and she got that way getting up at break of day. Tillie, Tillie, Tillie, sweeter than the new mown hay. She’s the crash of Broadway today!”

Another piece of Tillamookana, however, is still there to see, just south of town: the world’s largest wooden building. It is a blimp hangar built during World War II for the Navy. There used to be two of them, but one burned down in 1992 when its contents, $300,000 worth of straw, caught fire. The conflagration was so intense that the fire drew 80 mph winds into the hangar.

Hangar B

Hangar B

The remaining hangar for now contains the Tillamook Air Museum, with a handful of World War II-era planes, a couple of blimps and some helicopters, along with interpretive exhibits that tell the story of the hangars and the blimps that were used during the war to patrol the Pacific looking for Japanese submarines.

The building is 1,080 feet long, 300 feet wide and 195 feet high and covers 7 acres. You can’t miss it as you drive along 101. There are geological features listed on maps that are smaller than this great humpbacked mega quonset hut.

Yaquina Bay Bridge

Yaquina Bay Bridge

Forget the bridges of Madison County, the bridges worth writing about are on the Oregon coast.

As the coastline meanders in and out along the Pacific, the roadmakers were faced with two problems: how to climb the rocky headlands and how to bridge the broad, flat river estuaries. They took care of the headlands with dynamite and pick, but the rivers were something else.

First, they were unusually broad, combining, as they do, elements of river, estuary and tidal mud flat. The soft ground didn’t make it easy to anchor a bridge. Second, the usual material for building bridges in the early part of this century was iron, which tended to rust out very quickly in the salt-spray air of the coast.

Wilson River Bridge

Wilson River Bridge

Consequently, most rivers were crossed only by ferry, even after the Pacific Coast Highway was dedicated in 1923. It wasn’t until federal matching funds were made available for highway construction, and later the Works Progress Administration kicked in, that the final T’s were crossed and the last bridges were installed.

Now, bridges ordinarily don’t get me excited. I like a good bridge as much as the next guy, but I can’t claim to be a fanatic. conde mccullough

But the bridges that cross the Oregon coast are different. They are some of the most beautiful bridges ever built. And the credit goes to one exceptional man: Conde McCullough, a South Dakota-born engineer who presided over the Oregon Highway Department as bridge engineer during those critical years.

His designs are admired both for their engineering skill — he was an innovative engineer and used many new techniques, including prestressed concrete, for the first time, or very nearly so — and for their aesthetic grace.

I cannot speak with any authority on their technical aspects, but I can say that, taken as a whole, they are the most beautiful set of highway bridges I’ve ever seen.

McCullough had a few recognizable habits. He used a good deal of Art Deco ornament on the bridges. Many have decorated pylons at the entrance to the bridge. Others have abstract floral scrollwork carved into their girders.

And these certainly make the bridges distinctive.

But it isn’t the ornament that makes them so satisfying to look at; rather it is the incredible sense of proportion and rhythmic movement McCullough managed to enshrine in his steel and concrete sculptures.

Anyone who has taken notice of the mint-green steel arches between molded concrete abutments that cross the river mouths on the Oregon coast will be able to recognize McCullough’s handiwork whenever else he sees it.

Coos Bay Bridge

Coos Bay Bridge

The bridge over Coos Bay, for instance, which now is named the McCullough Memorial Bridge, is a series of long arches like the path of a bouncing ball. Over them the roadway passes, rising slightly and connected to the arches underneath with a series of vertical beams, just the same graceful thickness as the arches themselves.

Coos Bay Bridge girders

Coos Bay Bridge girders

And across the main span, an equally graceful series of steel girders crosses the roadway in a series of gothic arches, crossing themselves in a way reminiscent of the great crossed arches of Exeter Cathedral in England.

As you drive across, you can’t help but have the feeling that you are driving down some great dignified nave.

His bridge over the Rogue River is a counterpoint of tall, Roman-aqueduct-style arches against the longer bouncing-ball arches of the spans themselves. Built in 1931, it was the first structure in America to be constructed with the Freyssinet method of pre-stressing concrete and has been designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Cape Creek Bridge

Cape Creek Bridge

Three different types of arch work together in the Cape Creek Bridge at Devil’s Elbow State Park, and in the Yaquina Bay Bridge at Newport, the 3,223-foot structure is a graceful ascending line of highway supported by long, flowing arches, with a center-span arch that leaps high above the roadway. The center span is further set off by the concrete ”finials” that top off the support span.

Yaquina Bay Bridge

Yaquina Bay Bridge

A lot of money has been spent on public art, but very little is of such lasting significance as these civil projects created by an engineer who was also an artist. When McCullough died in 1946, he left a more lasting and distinct personal signature on the state than any political or social leader.

St. Johns Bridge

St. Johns Bridge

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite NP Calif

Scarcely 100 miles separate the lowest and highest points in the 48 states.

There is no more striking contrast in America than to drive from Death Valley to Yosemite Valley. In July, it may be 120 in one place and snowing in the other, only a hundred or so miles to the west.

The range of the Sierra Nevada blocks the way west for hundreds of miles; if anything can be called the bony spine of California, the mountains can. They continually surprise with color, size and expanse. John Muir called it the “Range of Light,” and he didn’t have to be a poet to think that up.

There are only a few places where pavement jumps the hump.

One of those is the Tioga Road over Tioga Pass. It climbs and twists to the 9,945-foot summit and the first time I drove it, it closed over with gray sky and fog. The fog turned to ice and, just as we passed the entrance gate to the national park, it turned to great gobs of wet snow. The road winds around the mountains and though there are sharp twists and drops of thousands of feet, there were few guard rails.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But I hardly knew the danger, because there was no declivity to be seen, not much of anything but wet, icy pavement and the occasional car going in the opposite direction.

I drove slowly and with tight fists on the steering wheel. As we descended from the pass, the snow changed slowly back to sleet and then rain. The glorious views promised by the road markers were curtained by the mist. All but the road and a few trees alongside it were white with fog.

We reached the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center in a heavy drizzle and went in to find a warm and dry wood fire in their Buck stove. Outside, it was in the low 40s; inside was a toasty 70 degrees. The building was an old one of log and hand-hewn boards.

I had always wondered how to pronounce “Tuolumne” but I had never guessed “twa-lum-nee,” which is what the ranger said.tuolumne meadows

The meadows, the biggest in Yosemite, stretched for a mile or so, rolling softly in short grasses and erratic boulders. It was bissected by the Tuolumne River, a shallow brook meandering among the oozy weeds. The fog was lifting and we could see the bases of the mountains that ringed the meadow, but their peaks were still obliterated.

Tioga Road continued all the way through the park, past Lake Tenaya and Porcupine Flat. The lower mountains, beginning to show themselves, were shear domes of exfoliating granite with twisted junipers growing from solid stone in their higher elevations. All the naked stone and rushing water filled every expectation I ever had about the high Sierra.???????????????????????????????

We had not planned on stopping at the valley. I half wanted to go and see the glories pictured in the Ansel Adams photographs, but I also knew that Yosemite Valley is one of the most crowded places in all the national parks, and I hate crowds.

And I knew that many of the Adams pictures had been snapped in the ’30s and ’40s, when there were fewer tourists and fewer buildings:  Judging from our map, there appeared to be no fewer than 200 buildings on the valley floor.

But we went, anyway, and it turned out wonderfully. There are giant hotels and vast campgrounds in the valley, but a short jaunt around a bend in the road and they disappear.

The gray rock walls of the valley were showing to a height of 800 feet and were obscured higher than that with the low-hanging scud that scooted by in the breeze, changing the face of the valley from moment to moment. Yosemite Valley, Yosemite NP Calif

Through the center of that stony valley cascades the Merced River. In the spring, it floods and in the late summer, it can dry up. We were halfway between the extremes and it burbled satisfyingly between lines of rustling willows.

With the dark trees in the foreground and the cloudy ceiling over the vertical rock walls behind, it would have been hard to come up with a more sublime scene. No Bierstadt can compare, no Moran, no Cropsey. They seem literary; the scene before us was breathing the now.

For the next several weeks, this blog will chronicle a road trip taken from Tijuana, Mexico, to Vancouver, Canada, up through California, Oregon and Washington. In 1937, photographer Edward Weston was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and set out on a similar trip, and in 1940, published a book of his photographs, with text by his wife, Charis Wilson, called “California and the West.” In some humble way, this is an update. 

Avenida Constitucion

Avenida Constitucion

 VISITING TIJUANA

I hadn’t really looked forward to visiting Tijuana. It is, after all, a border town. Such places traditionally are tacky beyond belief. I’d seen Nogales, Sonoyta and Ciudad Juarez, and must say they give me the creeps.

But I was pleasantly surprised by Tijuana. Of course, it’s tacky. It wouldn’t be Tijuana without that. But it is also a legitimate city and, if you get off the main tourist drag, a thrilling town to be in.

Just a few hours in the city will teach you things about your own country that you hadn’t considered. Our own folkways contrast to the Mexican so that for the first time, you understand your own quirks.

Noise, for instance. In the United States, we are used to a lower level of sound than you find in Tijuana, where every store seems to blast musica into the street in deafening volumes. tijuana storefront

And there are smells. Almost all of them are wonderful smells. I didn’t smell any stale urine until I walked back into the U.S.

Instead, I smelled lemons, roasting chickens, fresh leather, chile peppers, piles of fresh vegetables, cilantro and vanilla.

There are some less pleasant smells, too. Cigarette smoke is everywhere. And Mexican ideas of automobile emissions are very different from ours. They seem to think the more emissions, the more money you make.

Money is the single ubiquitous thought in Tijuana. Economics blot out every other concern. I didn’t see any religious symbols except those for sale, I didn’t see any art except that for sale, I didn’t see any culture except that for sale.

At every square inch of the city, there is somebody scratching out a buck, or a peso — although almost everything sold on Avenida Revolucion is priced in American dollars.

Jewelry, leather, tequila, cheap blankets, more marionettes than I’ve ever seen in one place — they tend to be Disney cartoon characters.

And questionably Cuban cigars — the sign on the store awning read: ”Cuban Cigars Since 1492.”

And mannequins. Most stores show off their wares on stiff Anglo-looking mannequins. In one, gender identity turned into street theater as fake beards were displayed on women’s fashion-model heads.

In another, the most elaborate wedding dresses were in the storefront, on mannequins with their faces turned away from the street. tijuana wax museum

MUSEO DE CERA

If you don’t find enough of the mannequins in the stores, you should try the Tijuana Wax Museum, which advertises ”More than 60 figures,” although I didn’t count quite that many when I walked through.

Many of the figures are distinctively Mexican: There are Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Cantinflas has his place of honor. But so do Elvis and Michael Jackson.

Mexican history is prominent, but the figure of Father Eusebio Kino looked uncomfortably like Bela Lugosi. I wondered if he had been recycled from an old Dracula tableau.

I was there at opening time, but no one else was, including the people who ran the place. About 15 minutes later, someone showed up and unlocked the door, flipped on the lights and began taking admission money.

Don’t miss Rita Canseco — she is a national heroine, although we know her here better as Rita Hayworth. And whole halls are devoted to the Mexican equivalents of Merle Haggard and Hank Snow.

I knew I couldn’t leave town without eating some Mexican food, so I wandered into Tilly’s Fifth Avenue, a dark little smoky place on Avenida Revolucion. An attractive young woman stood outside the door hawking for the place. There are people outside every door in Tijuana like carnival barkers trying to draw you in, even in mid-December, when I seemed to be about the only gringo on the streets. tijuana streethawker

The food was very good, a great deal funkier than the normal American version of the cuisine — with more character and flavor. The big combo plate and a homemade lemonade came to $6. But the best thing was the bowl of chips and salsa.

The chips were thick, crunchy and corn. The salsa fresca was the best I’ve ever eaten. It came in a tacky plastic bowl textured to imitate the ancient soapstone molcajetes of the countryside.

Meanwhile, American TV blasted over our heads on multiple monitors, flickering like moths. You couldn’t hear it, however, because the Beatles played on the jukebox without end. ”Love, love me do.”

TWO TASKS

I had two things I wanted to get done in Tijuana. First, I needed to find a place to buy crepe paper. My wife had charged me with the responsibility of bringing her the paper so she can make paper flowers.

Second, I wanted a Tijuana haircut.

I know that sounds like something you say about Mexican traffic: ”That bus cut me off so close, I got a Tijuana haircut.” But really, I just wanted to try out a Mexican barber. Mexican barber

It was a chilly, drizzly December day and I walked up and down the streets of downtown. Men on street corners asked each time I went by, ”Taxi, you want taxi?” Others held out armfuls of cheap costume jewelry necklaces, ”Hey, Mr. Whiskers, look at this. You buy?”

Tijuana is a border town and full of all the heroic tackiness that implies, but it is different from Nogales. For one thing, it is bigger. It is the fourth-largest city in Mexico, with a population of about a million. Which makes it considerably more urban and cosmopolitan. You know you are in a city.

Avenida Revolucion, the main street in downtown, exists mainly for the tourists. It’s hard to believe there is a large enough market counting the entire world for all the leather that is being sold. Open-front stores with piles of cheap blankets alternate with shops selling cheap watches and restaurants selling cheap tequila. Outside every one of them, someone is calling out to you as you walk past: ”Look at this. You buy?” and ”Hungry, Mister? We got lunch.”

Even at 10 in the morning, they are selling lunch.

I soon wandered off Revolution Avenue. If you walk west a few blocks, past Avenida de Constitucion, you come across something a little less like Mexican Disneyland. Markets sell food, stationery supplies, wedding dresses — all the things a normal Mexican needs.

I was looking for a store that sold crepe paper. I stopped at a magazine kiosk and asked, in my best dime-store Spanish, ”Donde esta un papelador?” The news vendor looked at me as if I were speaking Uzbekh, so I tried again, ”Necesito papel para flores.” tijuana street

This made sense to him. His eyes lit up and he held up four fingers and pointed west. ”Tres cuadros,” he said, pulling back one of the fingers. ”Three blocks this way.”

So I walked through the rain past the hordes of people, smelling delicious food from streetside vendors as I went. After four blocks, there still was nothing that looked like it sold paper. I found lots of cassette tapes, more leather, plenty of fruit-juice stands, but no paper.

I asked another news vendor. He held up one finger, then held it up again, but covered the top joints. One and a half blocks, he means, and back the other way.

TIJUANA HAIRCUT

I walk, but find no store. What I do find is a barber. It is a tiny storefront shop with red and white stripes above the door. It is an old, falling-apart building wedged between leather shops.

So I go in. An elderly man is seated in the near chair, getting his hair trimmed. A woman sits in the other chair, waiting for a customer. She is not sure I am it.

I make the international gesture of haircut to her, swooping a karate chop over the top of my head, and she smiles, gets up and tells me to sit. I am not sure what to tell her. I want a crew cut — my semiannual hatchet job.

”Corta?” she asks.

”Cortissima,” I reply.

The shop is large enough for only two ancient barber chairs, a few waiting chairs and a mirror that hangs shoulder-high along the wall. At the back of the shop near the ceiling is printed, in very neat block letters, professionally painted, ”El Trabajo todo se vence” — Work conquers all.

I had the odd feeling that this sounded rather too much like the words over the front gate of Auschwitz, but I’m sure it had more to do with the barber’s work ethic.

And she gave me a full going-over. I swear before God and man that my ears have never been lower. After the buzz saw came the scissors to clean up anything left and finally, lather and straight razor to make a passing lane between my ears and hairline.

All this was accompanied by choking clouds of powder, brushed on liberally, and the splash of flowery, yet medicinal, cologne up the back of my neck.

It was all I could have asked for, short of macassar oil. I got my Tijuana haircut and I will wear it proudly for the rest of my travels.

FINALLY, PAPER

And as I left the shop, dropping a huge tip into the barber’s hand, I asked again for a paper shop. The barber took me outside the shop, pointed down the street and told me to go one block, cross the street, go a half-block up and on the right would be a papelaria. He repeated it.

And sure enough, when I walked there, a huge warehouse of a store was filled with everything you could possibly make from paper, from school notebooks to wallpaper. And down the end of the store were huge racks of crepe paper. Mexican papelaria

My wife had sent me to Mexico to buy the paper because, she says, American crepe paper is no good anymore. If you want to make Third World crafts, you have to start with Third World supplies.

I piled up about $20 worth in an assortment of floral colors and wrapped them up in a plastic garbage bag I had brought along for the purpose.

I felt like Martha Stewart or something: I had planned ahead, knowing it would likely be raining in Tijuana and I would likely be buying paper products, so I brought the bag to protect the paper from the rain.

And when I got back on the bus to return to the United States, the sun broke through and briefly scratched a piece of rainbow against the dark clouds to the north.border crossing

As I left town, I passed more shops, more barkers yelping. I passed old women sitting on the sidewalk with trinkets for sale. I passed bars, restaurants and more leather.

And when we got as far as the lines of cars backed up at the border when the bus driver told me it might be faster if I got out and walked the rest of the way. I did.