Apr 21

During my brief layover before getting back on my bicycle to resume the TransAmerica Route with Russ, I have had the opportunity to read books on cities that have influenced by life the last 50+ years. I plan on a 5-6 day bicycle trip the long way down to Portland, taking the train home, but have been interested in the history of both Seattle and Portland. Though I have lived in the Seattle area longer than Portland area, I still consider Portland my home. But, Seattle has a stronger “sex” appeal as a city. Though not exactly true, it has tried to paint itself as the most cosmopolitan and dynamic city. Contrariwise, Portland is the more artsy, colorful, environmentally friendly, and more comfortable place to live. True, it doesn’t have the Space Needle, but then, it doesn’t need a Space Needle. That’s my bias. It has nothing to do with the judgment of these two books. Both books paint a history of its city from its settlement by white man to the present day.


Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle, by Murray Morgan ★★

Murray Morgan grew up in Seattle, but lived for the most part outside of Seattle, and is most remembered in Tacoma, by having a bridge in Tacoma named after him. He also wrote a history of Tacoma, and is buried in Tacoma. Yet, Seattle consumes his interest in this book. Starting with settlement by Doc Maynard, a somewhat sleazy if not incompetent merchant, Seattle fought hard to achieve supremacy over rival cities of Tacoma and Portland for the ascendency as the “great” city in the Northwest. Morgan paints a very patchy history of the city, mostly dwelling on various personalities that shaped the city. Unfortunately, these characters were all somewhat dubious personalities, either more in the show business, disreputable souls, or socialists/communists. Perhaps Morgan’s choice of characters only represent his own thinking and personality, or perhaps Seattle is best described by these persons; I’d like to think the former and not the latter. From John Considine and his efforts to establish brothels in the Skid Road area to Dave Beck and his corrupt leadership of unions, one is left with a bad taste of the city. Morgan does a very poor job of describing Seattle, its development and expansion, its physical development (such as the building of the locks, or the dismantlement of several of its downtown hills), its more reputable founding fathers, and the factors that molded Seattle into the city that it is. Morgan writes well, and it was easy to get through the book, but one was left wondering about the actual history of Seattle outside of what Morgan describes. Perhaps Seattle truly is the sleaze town that Morgan describes, but I’d rather think otherwise. I long wistfully for a solid history of the city of Seattle. It is sad that Morgan suggests that this book has been sold to school children as a credible history of the city.

 

Portland in Three Centuries, by Carl Abbott ★★★

Portland in Three Centuries is a different sort of book than Skid Road, written in perhaps a bit drier style, and yet significantly more informative. The book could have used maps for those uninformed as to the geography of Portland, yet each region was familiar to me, with many familiar names of historical figures that form community place names, though I was unfamiliar with the historical grounds for those names. Abbott has written other histories of Portland, Oregon and the surrounding areas. In this account, he was able to carry through history into the twenty-first century. He occasionally compares the personality of Portland with that of Seattle, as they are two radically different towns, even though they are both Northwest cities. Particularly, Portland has been far more environmentally sensitive, and possessing a far more stable economic base. Both have had their issues with corrupt politics, with dealing with race issues, with issues regarding trade unions, with the sleaze element and red-light districts, with fires and natural disasters, but Abbott does not linger on the problems, but rather, presents a dynamic city, eager to confront problems before they become unsolvable. A simple example is transportation issues, where Portland has been able to build a quality public light-rail system while Seattle picks its nose. I was amused that even in the 19th century, Portland was known as a bicycle town, and today stands as one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the world.

Next week, I will be bicycling away from Puyallup, hitting the coast in Washington and riding down to Astoria, and then taking the Banks-Vernonia trail to Hillsboro, where I hop the MAX light rail to downtown Portland, and from there to Union Station (hopefully with a brief stop at cousin Dee’s world renown Ovation coffee shop) before coming back to Tacoma after the five day adventure. With my arrival in Portland, I will celebrate my love for that city, which I have known since moving there in 1964. In childhood, I dreamed of a bike trip from Portland to the coast, but now will be able to fulfill that dream, assuming I am not attacked by the weather, as my most recent other bicycle escapade.

 

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