One of the features of Portland that is hard to miss is the central jewel that is Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Throughout the 50s and 60s, Interstate 5 cut right through the heart of town on ‘Harbor Drive,’ bringing with it the onramps, offramps, noise, pollution, and danger that is still found in many American urban cores. Portland decided in the late 60s to replace that freeway with Waterfront Park. One of the main forces behind that movement was the beloved Governor Tom McCall. To this day, we can thank him and the others involved for giving us a downtown that is approachable to cyclists as well as pedestrians.
Day-to-day, people use the park as they do most parks- a place to gather, a place to stroll, a place to sightsee. Over the summer, however, it takes on a different character. The park is busy with a seemingly countless number of fun events. Now that summer is winding down, it’s a good time to reflect on the bounty of community events we have seen as we close the book on the summer of 2019.
As the weather starts to warm and the clouds think to abate (think about it at least) in the city of Portland, the first time that I notice an event that brings me to realize that we are kicking off the non-stop party on the waterfront, it’s Cinco de Mayo. This event, although it commemorates a barely remembered battle in Mexico, is a huge undertaking in America, and Portland is no different. The grassy areas of the waterfront are no longer allowed to breathe free. For the next few months it never stops.
For those of us who are pedestrians and cyclists in the city core, the summer season comes with a welcome boon: Better Naito. A lane of Naito Parkway is set aside just for us. This means that we can safely and efficiently pass on either side of whatever is going on on the waterfront. It’s just another terrific example of how the city of Portland supports alternative forms of transportation. Learn more about the benefits and the movement to make it permanent here.
The months of May and June, we are especially active. The Rose City knows their roses, these are traditionally the months that we celebrate the historic Rose Festival as they bloom in the warming weather and lightly decreasing precipitation. This includes so many events it will make your head spin, but the Rose Festival Parade is probably the highlight, with local groups laboring long hours to make floats out of flowers and display them proudly. This is in addition to concerts (Sir Mix a lot, anyone?), Dragon boat races, a terrific 5k running the pre-parade route of the Twilight Parade, and golf courses. See the whole lineup here.
On the more counterculture side of Portland, June in particular means Pedalpalooza. This includes themed rides all over town that anyone can hatch up. The Tweed Ride, the Lit and Loud Ride, (my favorite this year) the come-help-pick-up-my-friend-at-the-airport-who-thinks-I’m-driving ride. Everything culminates, however, in the World Naked Bike Ride. That’s right, ~9,000 people ‘bare as you dare’ flooding the streets of Portland. This is always a ‘mystery ride,’ meaning only the people at the front know the route and destination. This year we finished the party at Waterfront Park. Surely, this exactly fits the vision of Governor Tom McCall who fought so hard to make that space available to the public. Learn more about Pedalpalooza here and the WNBR here. No photos here, this is a family site. There’s some carefully done photos available here to get the idea, though.
Of course, all of this corresponds with Pride weekend in June, and even better, sometimes as this writer recalls, all that is the same as Fleet Week, when the streets are filled with land hungry sailors in uniform. That magical confluence of events is arguably when Portland is at its very weirdest. Witnessing this combination will never leave anyone the same.
Of course, soon after the madness that is June, 4th of July weekend hits Portland hard with a world-class blues festival. Many days of amazing blues on multiple stages fills the night air. The entire city rocks. It’s also when we gather for the traditional fireworks shot off from the river in a spectacular display.
The stages are barely taken down from the 4th of July party in time for The Big Float- an exponentially growing event the last few years. Important for locals because there was a time not even very long ago in which it was a very bad idea for one’s health to swim in the Willamette River. Now, after a federal cleanup (thank you taxpayers), it has become much more common to see people in the river each summer. The Big Float is a coordinated effort to encourage this and to reclaim the river for normal humans doing a very normal thing- playing in the river on a hot day. Learn more here.
By the time everybody finds their swim buddy, and loads up their enormous inflatable dolphin into their car, it’s time for a beer. Or three. Or 20. The Oregon Brewers Festival, modeled after German Octoberfest celebrations in the 1980s is one of the largest of its kind in the world, the website claiming to attract up to 50,000 people over 4 days. We were on location this year with the Unipiper as well as some. . .er. . .pirates? The beer is world class, and spontaneous applause is common. Check out these sudsmasters.
The vision of Tom McCall was a place that could be used for cyclists and pedestrians at the expense of cars on the freeway. The next step of that is that now Waterfront Park acts as the finish line of our classic Bridge Pedal ride each August. The Bridge Pedal closes down the freeway bridges to the North and South, and allows for pedestrians as well as cyclists to enjoy the views from on high. It’s almost the end of summer when those bikes come whirling in and finishing along Naito Parkway. For that glorious, twinkling morning, we can pretend that the city belongs to the people on bikes. That is what Waterfront Park is all about.
Whew! After all that, of course the grass is either brown where it was lucky enough to be protected from stages, or it is a dustbowl after being trampled by countless thousands of revelers. Another summer has come and gone and the vegetation can begin to heal. Until next time, Waterfront Park, thanks for being the place Portland can celebrate many things that keep us unique.