Saturday, August 01, 2009

Geography, Architecture, Design and Community in the Pacific Northwest

-- a final response to my experiences in Portland and Seattle and my duties as student ambassador to these cities --

Our 40 States in 40 Days itinerary included two stops in my home region, the Pacific Northwest. I always look forward to that first breath of fresh mountain air, but beyond that it’s sometimes hard to put my finger on exactly what I long to come home to. This was a great opportunity to be able to bring eleven friends, classmates, and professors to the area. It was intriguing to witness their first impressions, midday remarks, and obscure observations about two cities close to home that I didn’t end up knowing as much about as I had thought. Some students had been yearning to visit Portland or Seattle for years, so hearing them talk about the Pacific Northwest as the highlight of the trip before we even boarded the bus made me wonder what exactly they had heard about these specific cities or the region in general. I quickly figured out that it was Portland’s status as “America’s Greenest City” and its reputation as an all-accepting community that had put this city on the radar of socially progressive-minded students nationwide. So going into our day in Portland, my senses were heightened to this organic community that was so highly talked about by my peers. I was thinking about and looking for the specific ways that this sense of community was created, cultivated, and conveyed to visitors like us. Upon leaving Portland we immediately arrived in Seattle the next day. Our experiences in Seattle – though welcoming in many ways -- lacked the same kind of community feel we experienced in Portland. By comparing specific places we visited in each city I was able to pick out several factors that lent our day in Portland a more enhanced community experience. Focusing on intentionally created spaces, such as shops and markets, I aim to explore how the geography of each city, as well as the architecture and interior design of the sites we visited, contributed to our perceived sense of each site’s community characteristics.

Our first stop in Portland was the legendary Voodoo Doughnut. Featured on the Food Channel and by cuisine guru Anthony Bourdain, this was a much-anticipated visit for everyone. After navigating the downtown area’s one-way street grid system and pulling up to find a parking spot across the street, a plethora of remarks emanated from our vehicle, nostalgically comparing the scene at Voodoo Doughnut to our own neighborhood must-do breakfast joint: Nashville’s legendary Pancake Pantry. The line came out the door, continued forty feet down the sidewalk, and wrapped around the corner. The crowd of all ages—grandparents, newlyweds, young children in strollers, entire families—were chatting and laughing contentedly while enjoying the fresh Saturday morning air and waiting for their turn to order up some sugary fried goodness. The historic looking brick building and its neighboring facades provided the coffee shop-lined street with a background full of character. The ambience was reinforced by friendly looking locals strolling about, steaming cups of coffee in hand, heading down to the waterfront just a block away. While in line, slowly moving toward Voodoo’s front door, I was able to catch quick glimpses of the inside. An eclectic mix of posters, bumper stickers, newspaper clippings, photos, trophies, and three dimensional doughnut and voodoo paraphernalia graced the walls while five gallon buckets of day old donuts were set out to entice hungry customers. Right inside the door, a giant plastic glazed doughnut sculpture, at least three feet in diameter, hung prominently against a pinkish-yellow wall, front and center. A little American flag and miniature Empire State Building stood proudly below the shop’s mascot. A chalkboard mounted above the counter listed the various doughnuts, many of them a risqué play on words. The storefront area was small and cozy, and the warmly lit room was a welcome respite from the chilly breeze outside. Everything about it made me want to order a warm donut and hot cup of coffee to enjoy with my friends. Walking out of the doughnut shop, I thought about how great it was that this place is so “to the point.” They don’t bother with showy facades, fancy display cases or making sure that each donut looks exactly like the one before or after it. The line of easy-access cooling racks holding twenty odd pans of doughnuts wasn’t fancy, but it was convenient and it gave us the feeling that we had just been welcomed into the kitchen of an old friend. The experience stood in stark contrast to a recent one I’d had in Nashville.

Back in Nashville, there has been a recent cropping up of several frozen yogurt shops in the area. I’m what one might call a “fro-yo fanatic,” so I’ve tried most—if not all of them. Just a few weeks before the trip I visited a new yogurt shop that had a good product, but was greatly lacking in community spirit. The décor was postmodern, the chairs brightly colored plastic with hard lines, the tables glass, and the walls painted a glossy bright orange, white and green. The stark reflection of the fluorescent lighting on the vibrant walls, bright white ceiling, and shiny white tile floor made the space feel more like a surgical room than a yogurt shop. All of the furniture was lined up along one wall, and the streamlined white-and-stainless steel counter gleamed from the center of the back of the room. No other customers were present during my visit on this warm Saturday evening, so I found myself alone in front of an impatient high school-aged employee, squinting as I tried to read the animated menu that changed too often on two flat screen televisions mounted on the wall above the counter. By this point I had begun to lose my appetite but felt bad walking out since, after all, I was the only customer. After quickly perusing the meager selection of toppings in their sterile tins, I put in an order and then quickly took my yogurt out to eat in the car.

Comparing these two situations provides insight into not only the “dos and don’ts” of the food service business, but into the importance of architecture and interior design in community-building. People would rather eat in a warm, comfortable environment than in a cold, sterile room. Furthermore, warm is associated with friendly; warm colors such as pinks, deep oranges and reds, creams and browns are all important in creating an atmosphere where customers love to be and feel comfortable meeting new people, old friends, and family.
After grabbing our delicious doughnuts, we made our way down to the waterfront, near
Burnside Bridge, where the Saturday Market takes place every weekend from March through December. This market, featuring over 400 vendors, was well-loved by everyone in our group. After perusing the wares for an hour and a half, we met back up and decided to extend our visit another hour, giving us the opportunity to taste some of the delicious aromas coming from a line of Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Moroccan, Mexican, and American food stands. In her blog, Emma describes the market and some of its patrons:

[I] loved the atmosphere of this market- it called to mind the street fairs of my hometown, Franklin [Tennessee], where everything is busy and crowded, but there is a friendly and leisurely feeling to the event overall, and for the most part, people are there to enjoy the community rather than just get some shopping done…One striking thing about Portland was that the homeless seemed to be a part of the community, compared to other cities we’ve been, like Salt Lake City where across from the nice Italian deli we ate at, there was a crowd of what appeared to be homeless people just alone in a park. Here in Portland, homeless people sat all around the edges of the market, some of them selling newspapers, some of them playing music for tips, but definitely more visible than in other communities” (Shouse 2009).

I felt that this setup, in which the booths were arranged close together but mostly without walls, encouraged conversation between vendors and customers; by being closed in on most sides by permanent businesses the market was contained within a certain area and had a definite boundary, but was filled with interesting booths even to the extremity of its four corners. Heather also commented on her experience at the Saturday Market: It “reminded me of the farmer's markets and festivals back home in Illinois. Organic clothing, natural soaps, crafty jewelry and bags, earthenware, henna, flowers, cat toys and food stands full of ethnic cuisine dipped in grease” (Gillespie). It was an outdoor market—very open, and all on the same ground level. The food stands were arranged around the perimeter of the art and craft vendors, reminding me of pioneers on the open prairie setting up camp for the night, surrounded by their covered wagons arranged in a horseshoe configuration. White vendor and exhibitor stalls were set up in a grid, through which wandered mostly middle-class families, often toting babies in an African-style body wrap or in strollers. An unshaven, raggedy performer on a drum set, complete with hands-free harmonica, drew in a handful of children joining in with the various musical instruments – maracas, triangles, and mini-djembes – that lay at his feet. It was a community oriented, family-friendly atmosphere. Even the thirty or forty homeless people sitting against walls and in front of the central fountain seemed happy. Among them were two families whom I found myself thinking about later on in the day. One family consisted of a mother and father, seemingly in their early 30’s, a pre-teen daughter, and a 6 year-old son. They had a dog with them too. The young son was skipping around, collecting some scraps of paper, and ran up eagerly to show his dad, who smiled and congratulated his son on the find. What struck me, though, was that these homeless families appeared to be part of the larger Portland community, not living on the outskirts of society in some park that no home-owning person would ever venture into, like so many of the homeless in other cities we’ve seen. By holding the market in a convenient, downtown public park that is easily accessible to all, the market’s organizers allow for a more broad and encompassing community environment.
I had us scheduled the next day for what I anticipated would be a similarly enjoyable experience at Pike Place
Market in Seattle. I was interested in comparing the atmosphere and visitor demographics of these two markets, since they’re both set downtown in major Pacific Northwest city-ports. Pike Place had a very different “vibe.” The first thing I noticed was the diversity of its patrons. Asians, Native Americans, Germans, Northern Europeans, Mexicans, French, Moroccans, Greeks; they all blended together into a steady blur of passing sights and unintelligible sounds. The shopper demographic indicated a more upscale, wealthy clientele, and the street musicians reflected this image as well. The market consists of an abandoned warehouse, renovated and divided into stores, and during a few days of the week local farmers may set up tents in the courtyard to sell their fresh produce. Built into the side of a hill, the indoor portion of the market is distributed among three or four levels. Permanent shops make up a good portion of the bottom levels. These shops are partitioned by walls, so shoppers cannot flow from one little booth to another. Instead they must navigate through small doorways and between bargain hunters, up stairs and around winding ramps. The top level, a hybrid indoor-outdoor area with a cobblestone-paved courtyard, is bordered on one side by covered produce stalls—fresh strawberries, blackberries, lettuce, teas, pears and apples, just-squeezed juices and smoothies, not forgetting the famous flying fish at Pike Place Fish Market. The other side of the street is lined with upscale, European imported specialty food shops, the original Starbucks, and a few very expensive home décor boutiques. There was no lack of energy, but I didn’t feel as engaged or connected with the people around me. Seattle’s Pike Place Market wasn’t as stable a community as Portland’s Saturday Market; there was more traffic and less fellowship. I enjoyed the vibrant ambiance that reminded me of the excitement I feel when I go into an airport, the hustle and bustle of people going places. But I also enjoyed the leisurely quality family time that I saw taking place in Portland. Seattle’s market was focused on commerce, fast and dry transactions, getting in and out as quickly as possible. Portland’s was slow-paced, enjoyable, focused on the arts. Both have their place.
For me, these respective markets were representative of my overall experience in
Portland and Seattle. I think of these cities in conjunction with different stages in life. Heather mentioned recently that she thought of Los Angeles as High School and San Francisco as College. In a similar analogy, I think of Seattle as a great place to spend my young adulthood while my interests and focus are on building a career, meeting new people, and living on the go. Once I get married and want to start a family, Portland would be more the type of city in which I’d like to settle down in and raise my kids.
I wish I could expand on several more examples of the ways in which geography, architecture, and design contributed to the sense of community I witnessed at different locations throughout Portland and Seattle, for there were many. Had I chosen to compare Portland’s Rose Garden and one of the many Seattle coffee shops we stepped into, my argument for the sense of community in each city might be entirely reversed. Whereas the rose garden was peaceful, but lacking an information booth and any sense of permanent community, the coffee shops I entered in Seattle were very warm and welcoming.
My goal is not so much to emphasize
where I find certain types of community, but more so the understanding of how that community was created. In the spaces I just discussed, as in any place of business, the intention is to make people feel comfortable---comfortable enough to open up their wallets. We live in a society that is ruled by technology and even though we claim to desire community, most of us are disconnected from the people around us. Personal connection with strangers seems rare in a public space. In recognizing this and working to rebuild a sense of community with the people around us, it’s important to acknowledge the ways in which geography, architecture and design contribute to the enhancement of a community space.


Gillespie, Heather. 2009. “The College Years.” Explore. Dream. Discover. Retrieved July 19, 2009 (

Greener World Media, Inc. 2008. “Portland Named America’s Greenest City.” Retrieved July 25, 2009. ( city).

Shouse, Emma. 2009. “Portland, Oregon.” 40/40 Rediscover America. Retrieved July 25, 2009 (


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