Saturday Diary / Pittsburgh's not Portland, and that's just fine with me


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When Pittsburgh's coolest kids (or mayoral candidates) close their eyes, they dream of Portland.

Even before the IFC satire "Portlandia" made Oregon's biggest city a household name -- OK, maybe only in co-op households -- many already knew Portland as a paradise of sustainable development and good brunches.

Those green bike lanes Pittsburgh just painted on Liberty Avenue? Portland had 'em years ago.

Light-rail transit? Ding-ding -- here comes the MAX, a slick iPod of a train that makes the Port Authority's T look like a Walkman.

Everyone with an urban planning degree and a pulse lauds Portland's commitment to responsible growth and preservation of "weird" culture.

Given the similarities between Portland and Pittsburgh -- former industrial cities, anchors for far-flung metropolitan areas and blessed with bridges -- some have said our town could take cues from our hipper cousin to the west.

My take? Do what I did -- visit the place. You might be surprised.

Last month, my friend and I took a two-day train trip that ended in Portland. Hopping off at Union Station, I said the same thing my Philadelphia relatives first remark upon visiting Pittsburgh:

Dang, this city is clean.

Day 1 was great. Hitting up a cafe for brunch, my friend and I noted that, yes, our waitress really could tell us where our eggs were from. ("It's just like the show!" we marveled.)

We wandered up Mississippi Avenue, drank some craft coffee and stumbled upon what can only be described as a cross between an organic Meals-on-Wheels distribution center and an impromptu harpsichord concert.

To top it off, our hipster Marriott hotel appeared to be permanently serving brunch.

But in the days that followed, I realized several things:

• No one is actually from Portland. A man lugging around his newborn in a sarong directed us around downtown as if we were in Manhattan, pointing out Portland's "Chelsea" one way and "Midtown" the other. Compare that to Pittsburgh, where one practically has to prove three generations of ancestry to get Steelers season tickets.

• Portland is a jack of all trades when it comes to public infrastructure projects, but master of none. For all its shininess, I couldn't figure out how to pay my fare on the light rail without help; the city's miles of green bike lanes are used by only 6 percent of city commuters. As one regional planner (they're everywhere!) told me at a bar, "Portland doesn't do anything that well. But we do everything, so we get credit anyways."

• I have no idea what people do for a living. I saw high-rise office towers, grungy co-ops and little in between. It seemed like everyone split their time between being a barista and a website designer. Worth noting: Portland has one Fortune 500 company; Pittsburgh, the smaller city, has six.

But above all: For all its hipness, Portland lacked a sense of happening. Ask someone what makes Pittsburgh into Pittsburgh, and you'll be listening for an hour: pierogis, the Steelers, old steelworkers at older bars, our indefatigable sense of pride in our bridges, "yinz" n'at.

Portland? Uh, maybe "Portlandia"? The culture of the place is so centered around oddity, it's lost any sense of cohesion beyond the race to become more odd. The place had little bedrock beyond its shifting 20-something demographic.

"Keep Portland Weird," reads a much-photographed mural downtown. They'd better, or they'd have nothing else.

Proponents of "Pittsburghia" ought to look past the stat sheets and take a second look at our city. I'll tell you this: Portland is a great place to get organic goat cheese on a waffle or pedal a bike for free beer, but it's missing something we have here.

opinion_commentary

Andrew McGill is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (amcgill@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1497).


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