City Limit: A Poet Takes the Measure of Portland on Foot

Starting early this century, poet and professor David Oates set out to walk the boundary line that Oregon drew around the city of Portland decades ago to concentrate its development and discourage sprawl. What is today called "the New Urbanism" is not new in Portland: it’s been part of the political process since l973.

As Oates writes in a forward to a book he recently published about his adopted state’s experiment in urban utopianism:

We hope to grow in, and in some places, up. To get richer in connections and cleverness — to get deeper — instead of wider, flatter, and shallower.

That simplicity of language and depth of thought is part of the charm of "City Limits: Walking Portland’s Boundary." Like Thoreau, to whom Oates alludes in his first chapter — titled "Where I walked, What I Walked For" — Oates has a knack for linking a bold action, such as walking over 250 miles around the city, to a self-deprecating description.

Oates lightly mocks himself for getting lost, for his fear of dog attacks in redneck neighborhoods, and even for his own occasional tendency to stereotype people. This willingness to reveal his flaws helps the reader trust Oates’ discussion of the issues raised by Portland’s boundary (known as the UGB, or Urban Growth Boundary). Oates also dares include in his book brief essays from others, including philosopher/writer such as Kathleen Deen Moore, winemaker Eric Lemelson, as well as a planner, a landscape architect, and even a developer — the sort of voices not usually heard in "environmental" books.

Most surprising of all, on his walks Oates occasionally encounters legendary figures — such as John Muir, Paul Shepherd, Italo Calvino — who just happen to have inspired Oates. These ghostly figures turn out to be quite chatty, and yet utterly themselves, giving the book a jolt of originality to match its open-mindedness. Every encounters with these ghosts has a wistful quality; one can tell that Oates hates to see them go.

Calvino especially inspires, with his discussion of the city of the labyrinthian spiral, the city of multiple desires, the city "that fades before your eyes," he tells Oates. "Like all of Portland’s inhabitants, you follow zigzag lines from one street to another…all the rest of the city is invisible. Your footsteps follow not what is outside the eyes, but what is within, buried, erased."

It’s a wonderful, original, eye-opening book. Although sometimes the multiple introductions and voices give it a patchwork quilt quality, in the end the book resembles the city Oates obviously adores: vibrantly alive, defiantly progressive, fearlessly contentious. Oates kindly agreed to answer a few questions about Portland and its attempts to control its development for me at Gristmill…for more, please follow the link.

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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