As I grappled to understand Portland, Oregon, the city in which I was new (I moved from my hometown for the first time to attend an MFA program) and everything else seemed fresh but firmly rooted, I read, on assignment, a chapter from Tom Finkelpearl’s What We Made. In this chapter, artist and educator Harrell Fletcher and Ethan Seltzer, an expert in land use planning and urban development, discuss Portland in a way that made it familiar and exciting. I was struck by the tenderness with which Seltzer described the culture and history of the city. Wanting to hear more, I asked Fletcher, whom I luckily already knew, to introduce me to Seltzer. After a brief back and forth on email to set a time to talk, we met over Zoom and had the conversation you are about to read.
Caryn Aasness: I moved here recently so some of my questions are going to be more about moving to a new city and getting to know Portland, but I’m interested in your specific point of view on that, based on the work that you’ve done.
Ethan Seltzer: Yeah, you know, Portland has been and continues to be a city of newcomers. You’re not alone.
Caryn: If you moved to a new city, how would you go about getting to know that place?
Ethan: Really good question. If I wanted to get to know a place I guess I would do a couple of things. First of all, I’d find things in the community that I cared about. And I’d volunteer. I would get involved without any expectation of profit or position. Just to meet people, and meet people who care about the same things that I care about. Because I think so much about getting to know a place is done through the people that you get to know. It’s a profoundly social kind of experience, so I guess I’d start by thinking about the things that I care about the most, and then look for places where I could volunteer, where I could get engaged, where something could happen.
Second thing I would do is, I would learn as much as I could about the history of the place. I would figure out who the local historians are. There are local historians in every community. Some of them are more formally oriented and trained and anointed as historians; they self-identify as historians. Some people are just simply the people in the community who know about the community. And I’d seek out the stuff that those people, the formal historians, had written. I basically find ways to get to know other people who are kind of local historic experts. And you can call up anybody, and the worst thing they’ll say is they’re too busy, No one’s ever died from trying to make an appointment with somebody, so it’s like I would do a little ethnography, right, and use that as a way of learning as much history about a place as I could.
And then for me, I guess the third thing that I would care about a lot would be nature. What’s the natural history of the place, what’s the ecology in the place? And then I guess the last thing I would look for over time is— I think it’s really helpful to kind of develop your own rituals in place. Like here in Portland in October, people go out to Oxbow Park and watch the salmon spawn. Or find a group of people to have Thanksgiving with and have Thanksgiving with them every year, or choose some other holiday, Solstice if you like. Find something to celebrate with other people. And do it again and again.
Caryn: If someone moved to this city, how would you recommend that they get to know Portland specifically?
Ethan: It’s really interesting. [I would want to know] what brought that person to Portland. I would poke around a little bit first with that person to figure out why they are here, what do they care about, what about this place can reward the things that they are most interested in or feel most passionate about? Because I think there are a lot of different aspects to Portland, some of which I don’t pay much attention to and other people value very highly, and other things which I pay a lot of attention to, but I’m not sure many other people care about, so it’s hard to say.
But I guess what I would start with is I would say, Read some books by Carl Abbott— he’s an historian. I would say, Get on your bike and go find some local parks. I would say, Figure out how the TriMet system works, and use it as much as you can. I would say, Make a point of going to farmers’ markets and seeing what gets grown and talk to the people who are selling, ask what’s for sale and ask them where they’re from and get acquainted with what’s coming in and out of the community. And I would say, Pay attention to local community scale festivals and exhibitions and attend, show up. I think the hardest thing in going to a new place is that you’re constantly putting yourself out there, you know, and it can feel a little relentless or a little unending or something like that, but you’ve just got to get out the front door and see who’s out there. There’s no other substitute.
Caryn: What’s like maybe one thing about the history of Portland that is compelling to you?
Ethan: One thing about the history of Portland that is compelling— well I think one of the things that’s important to keep in mind about Portland aside from the fact that we are and have been a city of newcomers— I’d add two other things to that. So it’s not one but it’s like two other things. The first is that this is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in North America. It’s been a really good place for people to live for over 12,000 years. And, as a consequence, there’s two aspects that are really important. Number one is, our personal presence here is just a blip in the timescale of people living in this place. The second is, this is a very, very abundant landscape. This has been a place that’s provided people with a good home for a long time. Pay attention to why that’s true.
But the second thing I would add to that is that Portland is a land of small things, which is to say that we do things in little tiny bits and pieces. Property here is divided up into very small units. In Arizona, or Texas, you know suburban subdivisions might have 5000 units. In Portland, a big subdivision might have 50 units. We don’t have many enormous employers, and the biggest employer in the state of Oregon, I think, is still Intel, which has less than 20,000 employees. But you know, Boeing up in Seattle has 75,000 employees. So we do things in little tiny bites. Organizations are small, jurisdictions are small. We use the term city really loosely around here. The City of Portland is a city; it has 640,000 people. It’s pretty big actually, but Johnson City is a city and Johnson City, which is out by Clackamas Town Center, has about 450 people in a trailer park. Both of those are regarded as cities in the context of things. So we’re a land of small things, we’re a time deep land, and we’re a land of newcomers. And I think those three things are important to keep in mind.
Caryn: Where in the city are you most aware of city planning or land use planning?
Ethan: Well, I spend a lot of time trying to understand land use planning at a pretty granular level, so it’s kind of like, when I look out at the city and I look out the window of my house here. I mean I see a lot of different stuff, right. So planning to me is kind of evident everywhere and if not planning, certainly the decisions people have made at various points in time. There’s a book by John Stilgoe called Outside Lies Magic, which is just kind of a story about what he thinks about as he walks around outside. And Stilgoe is a landscape historian. And this is kind of a book that was inspired by his work with his students, and ways of getting them to think about what they were seeing when they saw it. But there are a couple of things that I really think are kind of essential parts of Portland’s planning history.
Every structure, every neighborhood, every part of the city, whether you’re talking about Northeast Portland and redlining or Chinatown, or the east side versus the west side, there’s all kinds of history embodied in the structure of the city. But from a planning point of view, I think, two of the plans that have been most important to me have been the 1972 Downtown Plan, which is the reason why a lot of what you see in central Portland in particular is what you see in central Portland, I mean it really happened. And in a profound way, in a way that set Portland apart from other cities, which is really really interesting. And then the other one that is really important to me is the Urban Growth Boundary, which is a way of recognizing the kind of profound and irreversible impact of urban development and urbanization and urban land markets on rural and natural land resources. The Urban Growth Boundary is proven to be maybe the only effective tool at really enabling places like Portland to manage growth.
Caryn: One big old question. Do you think about utopias?
Ethan: Oh, fun question. So utopias are pretty interesting because in every utopia, there’s an element of dystopia. Right. And so, I don’t think a lot about utopias. To be honest, I’m less interested in what the perfect arrangement among people is than I am with what we can learn from the relationships between people and each other and people in the places they’re in. So to me, you know again back to the notion that we’re in this place, but this place got a 12,000 year headstart on us, basically. So what we’re doing now is really part of a long, ongoing experiment. Our legacy is not streets and roads and buildings, it’s how those streets and roads and buildings intervened in this place we found, and that will be found by others after us. So I look at it more as, you know, we’re participants in a big experiment of our own devising simply by living here, much more than we are engaged somehow in creating utopian communities or ideals. Yeah, have you ever read the book Ecotopia?
Ethan: Okay, Ernest Callenbach, nineteen seventy…I don’t know, six or something like that. It was kind of a description of Northern California, Oregon and Washington, breaking free from the United States and creating Ecotopia. Yeah. Check it out.
Caryn: Is there a book or movie or TV show that gets Portland right?
Ethan: Well, there was a movie back in the ‘70s called Property by Penny Allen, it was about hippies and gentrification. I think that’s pretty interesting. That was kind of fun. Let’s see, what else has been a good book…I don’t know, I’m trying to think. Yeah, I think certain parts of Ecotopia kind of get some things right, or did once upon a time, anyway. But I think if you are interested in writing a book, there’s room for a better book.
Caryn: Do you have any final thoughts?
Ethan: Well, tell me a little bit about the work you want to do.
Caryn: There’s a lot of things I guess, but I’m interested in getting to know this place in as many ways as I can because I’ve only ever lived in one other place and so it’s a brand new experience not only to be here but just to be somewhere new. And especially moving during quarantine. I feel like the way that I’ve been getting to know this place is through Craigslist ads, or just looking at the maps. It’s interesting to try to grab as many little pieces of the culture and the history and all of that from mostly being inside and on the internet.
Ethan: Yeah. Right, exactly. Because I mean so much of what we’re talking about is so tactile, isn’t it? Smelling things; it’s the sensual experience of a place really. One of my favorite definitions of urban design is the management of the sensual experience of the city. So it’s the breeze on your skin, what you smell, what you see, what you hear. It’s kind of the engagement of the senses, and in many ways it’s about creating environments that are much more successful at engaging the senses than we often find in the most urban places— it’s very much part of getting to know a place. Absolutely. I mean, I hope you get a chance to try swimming in different places to see how they’re different— you know, swimming in the Columbia and the Willamette and swimming in lakes, on mountains and other rivers and seeing what that’s all about. Hagg Lake, for example, out by Forest Grove, is this largely rain-fed lake. The water is incredibly soft. It’s amazing. Yeah, it’s really great. So when it gets hot and you’re looking for swimming, go try Hagg Lake sometime.
Ethan Seltzer (he/him) moved to Portland in 1980. He is now retired and has worked in the city in a number of capacities including as a land use supervisor. His roles at Portland State University included being the Founding Director of the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies, the Director of the School of Urban Planning and the Director of the School of Art and Design. He has held jobs in the nonprofit sector and has volunteered widely.
Caryn Aasness (they/them) moved to Portland in 2020. They are a graduate student in the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University and are still trying to figure out the city.
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