FORTY YEARS AGO this month, the City of Roses was all blooms and thorns. Citizens crowded downtown to demonstrate against the US Army’s plan to store nerve gas in Eastern Oregon. Riot police assaulted Portland State students protesting the war in Vietnam, sending dozens to the hospital. But soon Oregonians would be aflutter over Paul Newman’s June arrival in Newport to star in a movie adaptation of Ken Kesey’s classic Sometimes a Great Notion. Legendary architect Lawrence Halprin’s bold new fountain plaza in downtown Portland would be hailed as “one of the most important public spaces since the Renaissance.” Weeks later, Governor Tom McCall held the country’s first government-sponsored rock festival, Vortex I.
The summer of 1970 was the crescendo to a year of upheaval, elation, and foresight that ultimately would give birth to a new Portland, one with a pedestrian-friendly, park-rich central city, a beloved pro basketball team, and a reputation for always going its own way.
But to set the scene, let’s beam back to December 31, 1969. Downtown Portland is, according to the New York Times, “a scattered bomb-site of parking lots.” One local police sergeant quipped, “So many prostitutes worked the corner of Third and Salmon, they had to stay in step to keep from walking on each others’ heels.” Portland’s political power has become so calcified that city commissioners begin leaving office feet-first—dead.
And then …