“The coffee isn’t delicious because of anything I do.”
Liam Kenna runs a small tasting station that freckles a stark warehouse space with glazed concrete floors, an artful exhibit of historic coffeemaking tools, and a table of beakers to measure coffee pours with lablike precision. “My job as a barista is just not to mess it up.”
Wait, this is a barista in Portland? Where’s the self-importance?
Along with bikes, microbreweries, and food carts, Portland is famed for its coffee scene, sometimes taken a tad seriously. But Liam is an easygoing coffee barista/manager of Stumptown’s Annex (or headquarters), which marks the peak of Portland’s highbrow java world.
“I’m a big believer in the wiggle, then the spiral,” says Liam, describing his “two-part pour,” which involves adding hot water to freshly ground beans.
And I’m taking notes. This is a one-hour lesson to help me and three other students create a “coffee plan” for home, done chiefly by snagging the right bean-to-water ratio to sap only the tastiest soluble parts of a coffee bean. The math confuses me at first. Does the 1-to-17 ratio he suggests equal one gram of coffee and 17 milliliters of water or the other way around?
Portland’s eccentricities are well advertised: the nude bike rides, dog yoga, craft rumbles, vegan strip clubs, Reed College’s unofficial motto (“Communism, Atheism, Free Love”). But visiting for the first time a couple of years ago, I realized I had no idea what Portland looked like. Even after moving here from New York last year, I still don’t know if there really is a clear landmark or icon, something you can photograph that says “Portland.”
So I’m going around to ask locals. By bike, of course.
I begin in the forested hills backing the downtown skyline to the west. I ride there on the red line of the city’s MAX streetcars (equipped with bike hooks) to the Washington Park stop near the entrance to the oldest zoo west of the Mississippi. It feels like cheating. Within a minute, I’m coasting down a weaving road as scattered rays of sun cut through the towering Douglas firs packing the steep hillside. Occasionally a view opens toward houses you want to live in, downtown buildings, and the Willamette River. I see a jogger and no one else.
Some people call Portland “rose city,” largely for its International Rose Test Garden, down the hill from where I’m riding. I reach it after 15 minutes and have a quick look at the red and yellow blooms, then go to its neighbor, the Portland Japanese Garden, to meet Adam Hart, a 31-year-old transplanted Virginian. As a gardener here, his duties include raking pebbles into rippling concentric circles on the karesansui (dry landscape) garden and watching over 50 koi fish.
Standing in the Strolling Pond Garden, he calls them out by name. “There’s Henry, John, Ellie, Partner, Sparky. And there’s Claire!” She’s the largest, solid orange and just back to health after a yearlong illness that Adam tended to. He admits, with a wince, that he does speak to them most days. “Claire’s the best. She’s a big girl, and we love her for it.”
I bring up roses.
“Roses are the exact opposite of this,” Adam says playfully, referring to how Japanese gardens are intentionally built for each season to symbolize a period in life—and be appreciated equally. “Roses are beautiful for a set period of time, then butt-ugly the rest of the year.”
For a city landmark, Adam leads me to a pavilion where, on clear days such as this, you can see across the cityscape to the snowy peak of Mount Hood.
“The view is actually best in winter,” Adam says, “when the sun rises directly over Mount Hood. When it’s not too overcast to see it, of course.”
Back on my bike, I coast on into Goose Hollow, a pocket neighborhood just below Washington Park, with gorgeous seven-figure homes and quaint hand-drawn local history lessons in sidewalk concrete. At the Goose Hollow Inn, I meet its owner—and surely one of Portland’s icons—Bud Clark, a beloved two-term mayor from the 1980s who got around by bike himself.
His tavern is a cozy place, with a slanted roof, vintage wood booths, and a wonderfully messy Reuben that I ate with the help of a half dozen napkins. Bud’s daughter drops by to share the secret behind a new Halloween special she’s concocting, the Haunted Reuben. Basically, the difference is in the added chipotle.
“What’s chipotle?” Bud asks.
Bud figures much of the so-called “weird” Portland character discussed by outsiders actually began with neighborhood activity decades ago, including fights against urban renewal. “We got them to stop a freeway in the northwest,” where he grew up with his single-parent mom.
“This is absolutely a grassroots town. A city, but small enough that people feel empowered.”
But as for a physical landmark, Bud has no answer. “I’ve been here too long to know that.”
I ride downhill—quickly!—into downtown’s South Park Blocks, a narrow strip of a dozen leafy parks by the Portland State campus to meet someone with another connection to the past. Doug Kenck-Crispin, of Kick Ass Oregon History, uses his podcasts, walking tours, and diorama contests to connect modern notions of Portland with (often) playful origins in the past.
“When you say ‘history,’ people will say, ‘Ah, I hate history,’” he admits. “I’ve found using goofy sounds and the F-word helps make it more accessible.”
When we talk about city symbols, Doug—like most locals—admits he struggles to find one. (“We’re in a bubble here, out of touch with the rest of the country,” he says.) He admits that the TV show Portlandia has helped awareness, and that it’s spot-on, almost like a documentary.
“Maybe that’s why I find it annoying.”
He brings up another, more iconic “Portlandia”—the country’s second largest hammered-copper statue.
“But you can’t put it on a T-shirt.”
A recent Willamette Weekly article covered the controversy: D.C.-based artist Raymond Kaskey claims copyright on his 1985 public-funded sculpture. That means when Madonna walks by it in the horrible 1993 film Body of Evidence, the scene has to be cut. Postcards, beer labels, and T-shirts can’t use it either. Not without prior permission, which doesn’t come easily.
Much of the city isn’t happy about it. Or with where it’s located.
The Portland Building, built by Michael Graves in 1980, is considered one of the ugliest buildings in the world. One commenter likened it to “the box Disneyland came in”—a shame considering Portland has few other contenders for recognizable buildings.
Somehow I had missed all this before, so I bike a few blocks and find a boxy modernist grab bag of geometric lines. Rimming the base—where a vacant corner spot is for rent—are the sort the teal tiles you’d expect to find in a public park’s bathroom. Above, jutting bloatedly skyward and punctuated by lifeless square windows, a cubey cream frame thickly envelops an inset of salmon-colored columns set out from glass windows. Below, crouching on her teal perch, is our copper “Portlandia,” holding a trident up and reaching in futility to the sidewalk. She looks distracted.
It’s a mess, but I find myself oddly moved.
I bike to the river, reaching riverside park lawns, and follow the water to the south toward the Portland Aerial Tram, a jet-set “ski lift” that connects branches of the Oregon Health and Science University building on the hills 500 feet above. By the terminal, glittering buildings and a Thursday farmer’s market mark an ongoing revival of an area that was once made up of littered old ship parts.
I ask Henry Matsuo, the conductor of one of the two trams that carry 1.8 million passengers a year, about the best views as we look back over the river toward Mount Hood.
“It’s nice to see the mountains, but night is best. You see more of it up here,” says Henry, who presses a button to begin the ride and alerts passengers once of a dip that might cause a sway. He started here over a year ago, after the tech company he worked for got “bought out.”
His vote for city landmark? “Washington Park?” he answers, uncertain.
I head north to the century-old Steel Bridge, a unique double-level through-truss bridge that looks like it was playfully put together with an Erector set. The bike path runs along the rail linem just above the water. Nearly halfway across, I hear an old-fashioned school bell ring out and an iron fencing swings shut before me. Lucky timing. A mid-bridge lift noisily lifts the path before me as a golden tug scurries by.
Everyone I’ve talked to gives about the same suggestions for a Portland icon (the biking, the bridges, the beer, the hikes), then they talk about why they came, or stayed: the lifestyle. Portland’s not interested in big-city zest, just the knowledge that anywhere you go, the food, the beer, the scenery, the crafts and—yes—the coffee, will be very, very good.
And probably made by geeks.
“You get a lot of people here who are creative and passionate. And prone to obsession,” Liam explains at Stumptown as he tries defining “nerds”—his word—and the city spirit in one go.
“Portland is a place where it’s just easy to get excited about things … For me, it’s this. Of course, it would be absurd if everyone was as into coffee as I am. And that’s fine.”
As long as you know where to find it.
HOW TO DO THIS TRIP:
Biking Portland. My route makes up a logical one-day ride around town. Rent a bike at, and pay $2.50 to ride MAX up to the zoo. You can follow a couple of roads through Washington Park and down into Goose Hollow. A few roads have separate bike lanes, but—despite Portland’s bike rep—not as many as you might think. Download these maps to plot your best crosstown trips. Downtown’s Waterfront Bikes rents bikes daily.
Study coffee. Stumptown’s Annex offers free tastings at 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Held at 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays, the Introduction to Brewing class is $15 and includes a half-pound of fresh beans and a concrete “plan” for hand pours at home.
Eat the mayor’s Reuben. Goose Hollow Inn, across from the neighborhood’s MAX stop, has great food. Bud Clark frequents it. And there’s now a café just behind it.
See city lights by tram. Many visitors incorporate a tram ride with the 4T walk that includes a train and trolley ride. Avoid rush hours—around 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.—for more viewing space, and check out OHSU’s small sculpture garden while at the top. The trams are closed on Sundays.