Imagine: you are in the middle of downtown, in a major American city, and you walk right into a clean, pleasant public bathroom. No strings attached: you don’t have to buy a coffee or stride purposefully past a store clerk or a hotel concierge or a librarian. This restroom is there expressly for you. You, the visitor. In fact, it is in a place called the “Welcome Center,” which also features racks of brochures and maps and friendly volunteers who will answer any questions you might have. Hot day? Water bottle empty? They’ll point you to the drinking fountain where you can fill it.
I know what you’re thinking: I really am imagining this. There’s no such place. But you know what? There is, and it’s closer than you think. One hundred seventy three miles south of Seattle, there exists a strange parallel universe called Portland, a cityscape that resembles ours, only everything is easier.
The Welcome Center is located in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, right in the heart of town, right where tourists can find it.
“Why can’t we have one of these in Seattle?” I thought, as I walked in, two minutes after stepping off the many-branched MAX light rail, which had just whisked us downtown from my nephew’s outlying neighborhood. I know: Seattle’s working on it. I live on our Link light rail line, and I love it. I just wish it were a real network, like the MAX, instead of one lonely line.
Light rail is expensive and it takes a long time to build. Public bathrooms downtown probably aren’t so easy, either. But there are a few other things Portland has figured out that Seattle has not. That maybe wouldn’t be so hard to do. For example, sidewalk dining. SO much nicer when it’s not crammed behind a chain. Walking along the Willamette River on the Fourth of July, café tables and chairs stretched from one restaurant to the next the way they do in Paris.
My husband and I were there for the Portland Blues Festival. We took a strolling break in search of coffee. Sitting at our little outdoor table was so pleasant we decided to keep strolling after we were done. We came to a restaurant, sat down and ate dinner—still on the sidewalk, taking in the scene as people spread their blankets to watch the fireworks—before we finally went back into the jam-packed festival area, which also sprawled along the river.
Here, too, there were no fenced-in beer gardens, as there are at Seattle’s festivals, for people who wanted to have a beer or glass of wine. Instead—what a concept!—you could buy your beer and sip it as you walked, or bring it back to your own blanket or lawn chair and sip it while you took in the music.
Like many Seattleites, my husband and I are not often tourists in Portland. We pop down for a day of work or a visit with friends or relatives and then we head home. But after our recent three-day jaunt, I get the magic. I understand why young people are moving there in droves. Sure, it’s “twee”—you can buy a book at Powell’s that explains what that is—and many people have many, many tattoos, some of them quite beautiful. But Portland also boasts great art, music, food and drink. You can get to the ocean beaches or the Gorge in no time. And on top of all that? Portland is easy. It’s friendly. It is so welcoming it has a Welcome Center.
Seattle, I know we’ve got the guys who throw the salmon around under the Market clock. But I think it’s about time we learned a few things. From Portland.
Save the date for the Her Beautiful Brain book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. You can pre-order now from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the large or small bookseller of your choice.