Portland: Baltimore's happy-faced twin

I travel a good deal. For better and worse, I take a bit of Baltimore with me wherever I go. During one trip to New Jersey, after stopping at a Chinese carry-out, I was shocked to see no bulletproof glass and all the condiments on my side of the counter. And I've caused minor interstate dance floor scandals after DJs cued up a Baltimore club beat.

So it was as an unreconstructed Baltimorean that I recently found myself touring Portland, Ore. A harbor city of approximately 600,000 with a great music scene, a strong hipster culture, and a reputation shaped by a television show with a cult following (in Portland's case, the satirical "Portlandia") — this list sounded familiar. It was also incredibly misleading.

The first sign that I was not in Baltimore was the parking spaces. I began my exploration in Old Town, the former city center that now shows its age. Even here, someone had methodically sectioned off parking spaces with white lines and yellow buffer zones. Once I finished parking and stepped onto the curb, everything was so clean. Apparently, no one litters. There's a bit of graffiti in Old Town and other areas, but it lacks conviction, as if some angry kid let loose with a can of spray paint then quickly changed his mind. "This is not what we do in Portland," I imagine him saying before giving the parking spaces a fresh coat.

As I headed south, downtown, I stopped by a coffee shop-cum-performance venue called Backspace. Here I had my first significant interaction with a Portlander. It was wonderful. "How's it going?" a young barista in a cow-print vest asked. There was no irony behind the question — he really seemed to care about my well-being — and no irony in his wardrobe. Somehow, he pulled off that vest. Every gesture was sincere. He was like some kind of coffee-making Buddha.

I told him I was in town for a conference, and within seconds we were talking about the city. He moved to Portland three years ago, and a number of his friends soon followed. "It's a balanced place," he said, a happy medium between urban life and the joys of the great outdoors.

I thanked him for my hot chocolate and started walking again. Lots of people were walking. There are crosswalks everywhere — sometimes in the middle of a block. Many have no stop sign, no yield sign, nothing. You just walk right out, the cars slow down, and drivers sit there thinking happy thoughts. Traffic that Friday night was substantial but manageable, mitigated, no doubt, by the fact that public transit seemed wildly popular. The buses and light rail lines were well used.

I strolled by the famous Powell's Books, the department stores on Broadway and the Portland Art Museum, part of the cultural district lining South Park Blocks. And when night fell, I learned what the coffee cowboy meant about balance. Portland sits in a valley, and much of downtown is rimmed with trees. Looking south from Jefferson Street, houses in the hills shone like beautifully lit burrows capped by pine. From Vista Avenue, a ridge to the west, the city below stretched out like a glittering toy.

I stopped for dinner in one of those shimmering lights, an Asian fusion restaurant called Tasting East. The fresh bills I'd retrieved from an ATM clung together, so I accidentally over-tipped my waitress an extra $20. She gave it back.

Everyone was like this. If I could make a bumper sticker for Portland, it would read either, "I am genuinely happy to be here" or "How are you? Seriously. I'd really like to know." Baltimoreans are friendly too, but it's still the East Coast. We can be defensive. Portland just walks up to you, naked and smiling, ready for a hug.

I was still processing everything I'd seen as I headed to my car. A guy in a backpack asked if I could spare a dollar. "I'm sorry," I said — my standard response. Then I stopped, took out my wallet, and handed him the twenty that the waitress returned. I was lowering my guard.

I'm sure there's lots that I didn't see. And sometimes, I thought I smelled marijuana. Perhaps that adds to the tranquil vibe. But a weekend in Portland made me wonder how you create a place where people can travel with ease and efficiency, enjoy nature, and be unrepentantly kind. I think the barista knows. He moved, then watched as his friends did the same. Like anything else, maybe it happens one person at a time.

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: lionel@lionelfoster.com. Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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