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Opening our streets

Walking in the middle of Congress Street at December’s First Friday Art Walk provided a welcome glimpse at what the open street movement is about and what the concept could contribute to Portland.
 
Thanks to the closure of Congress Street between Longfellow and Monument squares, we enjoyed the first opportunity to experience the Art Walk without cars, trucks and buses growling past. As a big bonus, we saw the Circus Conservatory of America perform in the middle of the intersection at Congress and Park. (Check out a video of the performance.)
 
Missing were the blur and noise of traffic; the exhaust fumes; and our tentative steps off curbs into the street – with vague hopes that approaching drivers could comprehend the concept of “crosswalk.” 
 
Instead, for a few blissful hours, we enjoyed the opportunity to see, fully, the Congress Street landscape, to view the street without the disruptions of navigating a busy traffic corridor.
 
So, what did the closure do for Portland on a chilly, misty December night? The streets were full, restaurants were packed, and a stream of people flowed into art venues.
 
It’s clear that the roots of something good are taking hold in Portland – at least for people who care about a city built around people rather than vehicles. (In fact, the City of Portland has recently tackled strengthening public transportation, while taking into account “urban livability and sustainability.”)
 

Part of a trend

 
The street closure, a first for the Art Walk, is part of a national trend, which is having an impact on Portland. Starting this spring Baxter Boulevard will be closed part of the day on Sundays, allowing bikers, runners and walkers free reign along the city’s popular road/walk way, which was designed by the Olmstead Brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmstead of Central Park fame. In addition, there are periodic murmurs about closing Exchange Street.
 
At the heart of the open street movement is the belief that, for too long, our cities have been too vehicle-centric, with negative consequences for those not at the helm of great, mobile pieces of steel.
 
A quick overview of Portland reveals a city scarred by the euphemistically named Urban Renewal, where cars trumped all. Spring Street and Franklin Street Arterial consumed land and stranded neighborhoods. Lincoln Park, once a vibrant urban oasis, and Deering Oaks lost valuable green space to traffic routes. Mercifully, our “renewal” was cut short before a proposed thoroughfare was blasted through the West End.
 
Reversing the vehicular tide has been long overdue, and the Art Walk closure was a welcome taste of stepping back from auto-topia.
 

Making it happen

 
Closing a major street doesn't happen overnight. There was a lot of prep work and support for co-producers Creative Portland and Portland Downtown District. Sponsors included Coffee By Design, VIA, Clark Insurance, Bayside Bowl, OTTO, and the State Theatre
 
There were innumerable “i”s to dot and “t”s to cross. One of the biggest challenges was working out the logistics of accommodating Portland’s bus service, Metro, which uses Congress Street as a major artery. Fortunately, early discussions and thoughtful planning for re-directing routes created a viable model that can be used for future events. 
 
Of course, what’s a significant event without some glitches? High Street remained open, with cars crossing Congress Street next to the Portland Museum of Art. Event volunteers tried in vain to funnel pedestrians to the crosswalk next to Congress Square Plaza, while some people preferred to play Frogger by jaywalking through oncoming traffic. In a perfect world, High Street would be closed.
 
(Also, on a crowd control note, a woman walked about while barely controlling two giant German shepherds. As her dogs barked, she snarled at pedestrians who were walking leashed, terrified small dogs. Turns out the woman, who wore no signifying clothing, was providing “security.” Not ideal.)
 
Finally, a water-main break on Cumberland Avenue temporarily introduced a bit of chaos into the traffic flow around the blocked-off streets. 
 
But considering it was a first effort, the logistics worked surprisingly well, with only a few grumbles from the usual Debbie & Don Downers who can be counted on to complain about anything new.
 
Here’s hoping for additional, well-thought-out street closures in 2014. Portland is a better place for them.
 

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