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Portland Architecture: A visit to the Crescent City brings fresh perspective on Portland.


SUBMITTED PHOTO: BRIAN LIBBY - New Orleans reminds Libby that the most important architecture is not the office towers and courthouses and museums of a downtown central business district but the fabric of houses and neighborhood storefronts.

Last month I boarded a plane and left the Pacific Northwest for the first time in two and a half years. It was also my first trip to New Orleans.

While admittedly there were worries (about catching Covid) and frustrations (a delayed flight) associated with air travel, there was undeniable delight in the Crescent City's unique architectural beauty, its music and its muffuletta sandwiches.

At first glance, Portland and New Orleans couldn't be more different: in demographics, geography, climate and even nightlife offerings. Yet they are both small, somewhat isolated river cities, set amidst incredibly lush, green landscapes where rain is a serious phenomenon. They both have outsized cultural presences for their modest sizes. Both places are walkable (except for where midcentury highways tore through their Black neighborhoods) and both cities love a parade. Both PDX and NOLA are blue-city islands surrounded by seas of small-town red.

New Orleans residents have dealt with natural disaster of a magnitude Portlanders have never known: 2005's Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing failure of the city's levees. (We do, of course know something about flooding). And with a massive earthquake forecast for our region, there are lessons in the resilience of New Orleans residents.

Most of all, traveling has allowed me to see Portland with fresh eyes. It's clearer now that while this metro area grapples with ongoing urban problems exacerbated by the pandemic — homelessness and addiction, inflation and crime — Portland has also been burdened by an increasingly misleading narrative. Driving or biking through the overwhelming majority of these zip codes, the city has almost entirely come back to life.PMG IMAGE - Brian Libby's Portland Architecture

It surprised many locals earlier this month when Time magazine made Portland one of only four U.S. cities on its 2022 World's Greatest Places list. While such accolades are in some ways just glorified PR, cherry-picking a few random facts like hotel openings and new infrastructure trumpet, in this case Time's praise could be seen as a corrective of sorts.

After all, two of the other four cities on the list — Detroit and San Francisco — have also struggled to overcome being labeled as failed cities. Time noted a host of new Portland lodgings, as well as our new pedestrian/bike crossings over various highways. It's admittedly modest momentum, but it shows there is more to taking a city's socioeconomic temperature than tents and graffiti.

New Orleans also reminded me that the most important architecture is not the office towers and courthouses and museums of a downtown central business district but the fabric of houses and neighborhood storefronts: the places people live and hang out. I love the Craftsman bungalows and American Foursquares and the ranch houses here. Yet what Portland ultimately has going for is its focus future.

Beautiful as those old Garden District houses and French Quarter commercial buildings were with their wrought-iron balconies and arcades, and as much as there is to cherish about the heritage of jazz music or Creole cuisine, New Orleans was hundreds of years old in the 1850s when Portland was just being founded. It's a city of traditions. SUBMITTED PHOTO: BRIAN LIBBY - Libby appreciates the Craftsman bungalows, American Foursquares and the ranch houses in New Orleans.

Our relative youthfulness means Portland at times seems less culturally diverse and rich, yet less burdened by tradition and ghosts. It's what allowed the city to reinvent itself over the past two generations. This is not a place you go to get famous, but it's a place of innovation and experimentation: a continuing frontier.

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 (

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