Revolutionary Road

Published: October 5, 2010 - 17:59 Updated: October 5, 2010 - 18:02

You can feel it in the moist air, a new progressive, libertarian, liberating ethos. A Great New American Dream is blooming down the shimmering waters of the Willamette river
Amit Sengupta Portland/ Salem (Oregon)

The shimmering Willamette river, its colours changing with the seasons, flowing like a life stream inside the green city's heart, wakes up early with the orange horizon becoming its incandescent mirror. Men and women, young and old, everyone is jogging, walking, biking. It's been raining incessantly, in scattered bursts and in drizzles, becoming "suddenly dreary unlike Portland in September", as elderly Ron will tell you in a slow drawl. And then suddenly, a rainbow might appear, or a thin film of sunshine would envelope its rain-soaked streets, lingering into the evening, gently beckoning the soft arrival of winter on the blooming flowers on the lampposts.

The night moves with no hurry, and you can walk endlessly across downtown and beyond into the meticulously crafted residential areas, with 'thinking walls, sensitive corners, shared squares, inner lanes, little, living, active parks and gardens', and across the suburbs where factories have become spaces of performing theatre and open air cafe and beer bars - all no smoking, celebrating fizz and deep conversations. Young girls and boys are smoking on the streets, leaning on the walls, others walk briskly back home in black overcoats anticipating rain, even as a man plays violin at the next crossing, his face suddenly illuminated by the neon signs of a jazzy mall. 

A young, solitary Afro-American musician has found a little shelter beyond the street. He has no band, but he plays in complete control, a one-man orchestra in stunning symphony with sound and synchronisation. Playing with no audience, eternally in transit as people walk past and pause to inhale his music. He is a drummer, but he has no drums. He has collected an assortment of empty cans and containers, and with two sticks, he creates amazing music from the hollow of this assembly of discarded vessels. He is relentless, continuing in the night, even as the rain arrives yet again, filling the night with amazing sensuality and sound. 

This is my first night in this beautiful, unknown American city. I have just arrived. I am a stranger, an outsider, invisible. I walk into the midnight rain. Chasing yet another stream of music in the distance.In the central plaza, next to the old courthouse, there is a carnival going on. Hundreds of young and old are dancing, while a Mexican band plays music. Food carts sell cheap, hot food, couples kiss for long and dance holding each other, and others drink red wine and bottles of local, delicious Oregon beer, getting drenched. This is going to be a long, slow, sensuous, wet night. 

Welcome to Portland, the city of the past inside the green zone of the rivers and forests and waterfalls of Oregon, once a 'Red Indian' twilight zone, fast becoming the slow knowledge city-state of the aesthetic, ecological future of America, an anti-thesis and anti-catharsis of all that stands for advanced mechanical capitalism's insatiable Hobbesean desires and appetites - Cartesian and machine-like, profit-driven, automobile-driven, highway-driven, celebrating rapid consumption and commodity fetish, with speed-driven affluent zones of to and fro, with no time to breathe the clean air of the north wind, or drink the pure pristine waters of the earth. Hiding amidst American fast capitalism's restless, relentless quest for fast, breathless, mindless accumulation of power, wealth, capital and quantitative meanings of life, this city is now showcasing a different qualitative map to Barack Obama's America. After the decade-old bloody ravages unleashed by George Bush, this is like a miracle. And no one's complaining.

An ecological miracle, beyond the boundaries of advanced capitalism. A meaning of life where quality is determined by the slow and steady, sensitivity and sensibility, song and serenity. A society based on 'livability', sharing creative, social knowledge, work and home and public spaces; where small is beautiful, deeply sensitive to climate change, greenhouse emissions, ecological, human and social thresholds of sustainable development. Back to nature, this is a sweet, melodious whistle in the dark, which those in thoughtless, stupefying, dazzling lights are suddenly noticing. "People in New York are now saying, this is not the kind of life we want. Let's go to Portland," says Steven Johnson, adjunct professor at Portland State University.

"People in America have forgotten how to walk," comments senior architect and planner John Fregonese. "I am biking to work, enjoying it, and losing weight too." People in Portland are into biking with a passion, their eyes full of fresh, clean wind. They smile easily. Officially, almost 10 per cent of the people are into cycling, with bike lanes like sacred spaces. Unofficially, it's almost 30 per cent, says young Alex Joyce, also an architect. Alex does not have a TV at home, he bikes, walks, listens to radio. Almost all young people, especially, are into bikes. Street cars are free in much of downtown, to encourage bikes and 'walkability' from one point to another. Street electric trains, which were once banished in the great American dream of the past, are back - you can hang your bicycle in allotted spaces inside the trains. And walking and biking is damn easy too. Accident and crime rates are low.

People love their corner houses, explains Alex, so the city planners made small, rectangular, airy public squares of sunshine, so almost everyone will have their own corner home. The inner lanes were 'deactivated' from the main streets, so that people can walk and 'hang out' in their own little shared garden backyards, in the heart of this quiet city. All fountains and parks are living, active spaces, where children can play and others can write letters, meet friends or read a book, as in the Jameson Square's 'recycled waterfall plus amphitheatre' and Teacher's Fountain in the Pioneer Courthouse Square, "dedicated to those who educate and inspire". The mobile steel chairs belong to the city, and no one steals them.

Next to these are beautiful, sunshine soaked houses which are marked for low income groups. Those who are rich also share this space. The city maintains, regulates and subsidises 'affordable housing' run by private developers, so that low income groups can have their own homes.

The 'thinking wall' outside the Eco Trust Building has been given an exemption by the planners - despite the huge windows on the walls with ancient rusted doors. All walls facing residential areas are thinking walls - not blind concrete staring at you - they have to be 'active', a bookstore, library, coffee shop, like that old theatre hall in what was once a factory, with its windows now suddenly showcasing young, athletic girls in black, learning ballet, even as the rain falls in the dark night in torrents. 

The Eco Trust Building is a marvel. It was an ancient building. It was broken down and the architects created a new building using every little brick, wood and scaffolding from that old building, with solarp-panelled interiors. So now it has offices, bookstores, a cake and tea store, and a Laughing Planet Café, the ancient building's wooden walls and pillars with their ancient wooden smell, decorated with notices of jazz concerts, protests, book readings, green messages, global warming warnings.

The central plaza, surrounded by commercial offices and global food carts, was an old parking lot. The planners asked the people what they wanted. They said they want ed shared space. So the undulating staircases, fountains, open-to-sky courtyard, little chairs and tables all belong to the people. There are bricks donated by citizens with their names carved for this collective space where people protest, bands sing songs, loners gaze at the sky, and lovers kiss in the dark.

Concerned locals say that America is stuck with the clichéd dream of post-war capitalism, with big machines, big money, big technology, affluent consumer societies of insatiable commodities, big highways and freeways, endless automobiles and fast cars on long highways, mindless industrialisation, mass displacement, big dams and big streets, concrete and skyscrapers, and the destruction of the countryside, forests and rivers. Big is beautiful. This must change. "We have to go to old traditional knowledge systems. To civilisations, festivals, togetherness, walking, sharing an ethos which knew how to live differently," they say.

"Portland was not like this 40 years ago, you would never believe what it was then. We created a story. A new myth. A lot of myth-making went into changing this reality," explains Steven Johnson. "Forty years ago, people were not involved in the city government here or elsewhere in Oregon. We created the story of an open society with an open government, and the people loved it. We said that we love recycling, biking, ecological sustainability, good, healthy organic food, green tree-lined streets, clean rivers, air, drinking water. We created our own story." "It's a nice place to live," says Noah Siegel, Director of International Affairs, Portland. "I have a wonderful job. To show a wonderful city to the whole world."

Salem, the capital of Oregon state, actually limits the number of parking spaces. This prohibits cars indirectly; "When there are no parking lots, or it becomes too expensive to park, why take the car out, why not walk, cycle, use public transport?" says a city official. Parking lots are being restricted, people are being cajoled, persuaded, convinced not to use cars ('Come to Beaverton, don't bring your cars'), fuel and gas use is being discouraged and state subsidised solar power is being subsidised as state policy - "a kind of socialism within capitalism," says a top city official. Land use and transportation are top priority concerns; they are being redefined to protect the countryside, forests, rivers, water bodies, streams, drinking water and air quality. Those who use solar housing are directly subsidised by the local government. Electric cars are being pushed widely, and industries are being asked to go eco, and the city and state will help them in different ways.

"Clean energy and transport, large wind companies, solar panels, renewable energy, tidal energy from oceans, green buildings, instead of electricity, coal and gas, and automobiles. Others are dumping public street cars, we are bringing them back. We are all for energy that doesn't burn - wind, wave, solar," says Siegel, close advisor to the Mayor of Portland.

Construction of river floodplains is prohibited. Mixed land use area, with public transport, strictly controlled fuel emission, and walking and cycle zones all around, with home, office, entertainment, bookshops, library, grocery store and coffee homes in the neighbourhood, and dogmatic monitoring of air and water quality, all this is helping people redefine the daily meanings of their lives. 'Zoning' - aesthetic and visionary land-use - is the keyword. 

This is the local governance philosophy in all neighbourhood cities like beautiful, democratic Corvallis and Lake Oswego, with their one storeyed-houses in most parts and artistic streets enveloped with flowers crafted with the city's own principles of community participation, committed to an alternative lifestyle, with state-of-the-art water treatment plants, drainage systems, river fronts and public spaces, and strict regulation on encroachments, destruction of water bodies, high-rises and forests. "One thousand people in the Committee of Citizens designed our 2020 vision. This is not a sitting-on-the-shelf document - it is involved with every level of community life," says Ken Gibb, Community Development Director. "For Corvallis, sustainability means that quality of life is more stronger than business interests."

Agrees Lynn Peterson, County Commissioner, Clackamas County (inherited from) the Clackamas Indians), "Oregon is 70 per cent forests. Our cities should also reflect its beauty. We first designed a flower-decked tree-lined street 10 years ago at Lake Oswego. Everyone loved it. So the idea spread."

"When I was a boy, the Willamette river was dirtier. Not so anymore. We have water treatment plants, and the garbage is buried in the desert miles away. Indeed, they say at Wilsonville that the sewage water has been treated to such fine standards of purity, you can actually drink the water," asserts veteran Robert Liberty, Metro Councillor, who himself bikes, and is a key catalyst in the great vision of the new 'cultural and spiritual consciousness' of Portland.

Indeed, across San Francisco and capital Sacramento in California, people are proud to say, that we drink straight from the tap, we have the best drinking water. In Oregon, they are prouder, we have the cleanest rivers, and we purify our ground water with more precision, they say, our drinking water is tastier, purer and lighter, and here also you can drink it straight from the tap. 

Across cities, there are little recycled fountains of water, where you drink water to your fill, on the streets, inside offices and universities. There is no bottled water, paper cups or plastic anywhere.

Indeed, Robert Liberty is proud that Portland resisted and stopped a massive highway through the heart of the city and across the river which was sanctioned by the state of Oregon, and backed by the federal government in Washington. The people said no, after all the plans were regulated and passed, including new 'redevelopment zones'.

"No corruption? Guys in Chicago and Detroit might find it real strange," says a city official. An official delegation visited Detroit and found the quality of life abysmal - no sir, this is not what we want in Portland, they were unanimous. "Corruption in Portland must be zero," argues a researcher.

With corruption in public money "very small" and auditing as a public process management, Portland and Salem represent the great new mainstream-alternative city-state dream which the state of Oregon is showcasing to America. The cities are the masters of their destinies, though they operate within the planning plans of the County (countryside) and State power structure. "Democracy blooms in many layers. In Oregon, things are different," almost everyone argues, with great pride. 

"If people are travelling 20 per cent less, saving on travel time, fuel, gas and petrol, that's big dollar savings and tangible," says Dr Ethan Seltzar, Professor, School of Urban Studies and Planning, Portland State University, describing how people here coped with recession. "So coping with recession is different out here. The dominant argument is that planning works against the market. But planning can make communities more resilient in tough times. There will always be tension between what's good for individuals and what's good for communities. A new airport might be good for those dealing with land profit and land politics, but it might not create too many jobs. When times are tough, what might be nice, might not be necessary." 

So, does the government listen to the people, or to big business, construction companies, commercial developers? "What do people want, that's the main question," says John. "It helps governments if there is a variety of opinion. It only shows democracy is working - everybody has a right to speak. You have to have a symbolic conflict. One can then say, I don't agree, but I can learn to compromise in a democracy. Portland's long legacy of success proves that patience and difficulty can move together."

"I accept a certain amount of conflict. Poli¬tics is not avoidance of conflict but turning it into something positive and good," argues Liberty.

"For certain governments, resistance helps them to move forward," says Jill Fuglister, Co-Director of Coalition for a Livable Future, with several feminist, anti-war and ecological groups in the network. "Sometimes opposition, pushing them helps, they like it; sometimes they hate it. We are also insiders, but we are not check boxes. There is creative tension."

Jill explains that public mobilisation and collective consensus where people speak their mind out on what they want is crucial. For that we need catalysts, and public discussions, even political protests. "I can go anywhere," she says. "I have a band. I am always ready to play free," says John. The idea is that community participation and decision making is not only hard, boring work, it can be fun - food, music, social dos, togetherness, even dance perhaps can bring good local governance back.

Steven Johnson says that a huge army of professional catalysts and students are the new vanguards of the movement for an alternative, creative, green society. He calls them "professional citizens" who will stake everything for good governance which is transparent, eco friendly, anti-militaristic, fighting for sustainable development. "Portland was basically a whites only city. This is fast changing. More immigrants and refugee cultures are building a creative synthesis. A new social and aesthetic capital."

Explains Liberty: "We have no one cuisine here. We eat Mexican, Indian, Lebanese, Thai, Vietnamese food. People from Central Europe, Italy, Russia, Czech Republic, Poland, later, from the rest of the US, Central Americans, Chinese, Asians, Ukrainians, they all came here in the last 100 years or more. Indian restaurants are closing down because they are going back, because they live in upper class areas and have a strong economy back home. Others are bringing in new cultures."

John and Alex argue, and Stephen and Jill agree, that all cultures in which segregation of class and race happen have their intrinsic problems. "Those who segregate are less prosperous. All across the US, young entrepreneurs are not only whites. You need to be comfortable with one another, you should cross lines, that's how societies and economies can become dynamic."

Indeed, you can feel it in the moist air, a new progressive, libertarian, liberating ethos across Portland and the state of Oregon, despite the dark side of the moon (see box). But, as of now, the full moon is shining, and even the rain is not able to hide it. It's because a great new dream is once again being born in the United States of America. Walking the revolutionary road of a new knowledge society, beyond the one-dimensional fetish of advanced capitalism's insatiable affluence, success, consumption, alienation and loneliness. 

The study/journalistic trip to California and Oregon in the USA was supported by The Asia Foundation

You can feel it in the moist air, a new progressive, libertarian, liberating ethos. A Great New American Dream is blooming down the shimmering waters of the Willamette river
Amit Sengupta Portland/ Salem (Oregon)

Read more stories by Revolutionary Road

This story is from print issue of HardNews