Taking it to the streets
Broadening how we use our roadways is a silver lining to the dark cloud of the coronavirus.
When I was a kid, my parents' record collection introduced me to legendary musicians like The Beatles and Stevie Wonder.
Yet today I'm reminded of another group my mom loved and I didn't: The Doobie Brothers. One of their songs is playing in my head surprisingly often these days: "Takin' It to The Streets." It's a fitting theme song for a change afoot.
Maybe it's just the runner in me, who enjoys jogging down the middle of my neighborhood streets lately. I still dodge the occasional car, and I don't press my luck on a multilane thoroughfare. But in residential areas, even drivers seem to understand they have a bigger responsibility now to share the asphalt. This sensation will only grow because the city of Portland has closed about 100 miles of residential streets to through traffic to ease pandemic-related sidewalk congestion.
Maybe it's just the memory of growing up working in my family's McMinnville restaurant. It's hard not to worry about the thousands of eateries closed by COVID-19. Even when Oregon and America open back up, though, there will be a mental lag time where people are hesitant to be close together indoors. The idea that many restaurants could be saved by introducing or expanding outdoor-dining options, not just onto the sidewalk but into formerly curbside parking spots, is encouraging. Even before the pandemic, we didn't need every inch of street-sides to be parking spots.
While quarantine is a temporary condition, we also may never quite go back to the way things were: where nearly everybody drives to work and school at roughly the same time, twice a day, five days a week. And due to a leadership vacuum, it's becoming clear that the pandemic may continue to linger in the United States when it's already been brought under control in other countries. All the more reason to adapt. It doesn't mean cars should be excluded, but simply that the biggest behemoths can learn to play nice.
And it's an exciting opportunity. Anyone who's spent time at an outdoor café in Paris, or browsed for books from street vendors in New York's Greenwich Village, or for that matter attended a street fair like Turkey Rama in my little Willamette Valley hometown, knows that devoting more outdoor street space to pedestrians also makes these places hubs of commercial activity. Why not at least follow through on modest plans like closing the two streets that band the South Park Blocks so they can be lined with food carts or making Northwest 13th Avenue, with its historic loading docks in lieu of sidewalks, a pedestrian-only street?
We're all concerned about not just the pandemic but its impact on the economy. That's all the more reason to look for creative ways to flourish in a public realm that allows us to stay more than 6-feet apart, and preferably without going indoors much. It means extending the marketplace and the playground just a little further.
To borrow from that yacht-rock icon and Doobie Brother singer-songwriter Michael McDonald, it means taking it to the street: into space we can clearly spare. It won't be a burden. It will make us want to sing.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com
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