Sunday, August 18, 2013

Street Twig

Street Twig

Today's obscure public art adventure takes us outside of downtown Portland for a change. Street Twig is at the corner of NE 16th & Weidler, a few blocks north and east of the Lloyd Center mall, next to a mid-2000s condo complex. CultureNOW describes it briefly:

The Big Leaf Maple tree, Acer macrophyllum, is represented here as a single branch with abundant seedpods. There are some impressive specimens of this Northwest native in the Sullivan's Gulch neighborhood. Big Leaf Maples have great breadth and support a quantity of life forms within their branches. These tree-born gardens are suggestive of the Sullivan's Gulch neighborhood, which is evolving organically, layer upon layer.
Street Twig

The RACC page for Street Twig leaves out the melodramatic, booster-ish last sentence of that description. That last sentence is key, though, as it gives a little insight into how a public artwork ended up outside the I-405 loop. Over roughly the last 20 years, the neighborhood around NE Broadway & Weidler has been promoted on and off as the Next Big Thing, but it's never really taken off the way places like the Pearl District and Mississippi Avenue have. They keep adding urban amenities that did the trick elsewhere, but this area is somewhat more immune than other parts of the city. It's kind of an odd and interesting part of town, with wide busy streets, the Lloyd Center shopping mall, and a number of big national chain restaurants. There are a lot of small local businesses too, but the area still feels like an island of quasi-suburbia planted in the middle of the city.

Portland has a reliable formula for gentrifying old industrial areas, and a similar formula for gentrifying working class and minority neighborhoods. Taking an area that's already somewhat upscale -- but upscale of the wrong sort -- and making it more "urban" is something they've had less success with, not only here but in areas like SW Macadam south of downtown, or the Gateway area around the I-84 & I-205 interchange. Thanks to these ongoing efforts, at this point the Broadway / Lloyd / Sullivan's Gulch / Irvington area now has condo buildings, public art, and a shiny new streetcar, but still has a Toyota dealer, a very suburban-style McMenamins, a Taco Bell drive thru, and the only Red Robin & Applebees outlets anywhere near downtown. (The next closest locations of both chains are at, you guessed it, Gateway.) And you typically get to all of these places by driving. I actually think this is great; it would be terrible if every business district in town was hip and trendy in exactly the same way. I don't often get a hankering for a platter of chain restaurant mozzarella sticks and a Coors Lite. Ok, that pretty much never happens. But it's somehow reassuring that the option still exists.

Street Twig

Before the condo building went in, this block was home to the original Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour. Farrell's, which later grew into a national chain, traded in 1890s nostalgia, kid-friendliness, and noise, and several generations of Portlanders have nostalgic fond memories of the place. We went to the Washington Square location a few times when I was a kid, but never for a birthday that I can recall. The ice cream was ok (though strictly of the vanilla-or-chocolate-with-wacky-toppings variety). The noise and commotion maybe not so much. After the demise of the national chain, the original location stayed in business as The Original Portland Ice Cream Parlor, but was eventually sold to developers in 2001; in 2009 the new owners of the Farrell's trademark announced a new restaurant was coming to town, but this doesn't seem to have happened yet.

Street Twig

The bigleaf maple turns out to be an interesting sort of tree. I admit I've never paid a lot of attention to the local maple trees. Growing up in the Northwest, one is sort of conditioned to think of forests as a mix of commercially valuable conifers and "everything else", aka "junk", and maple trees are obviously in the latter category. If you can believe this, I did not even realize there was a distinct species of maple tree endemic to the West Coast, much less that it has (supposedly) the largest leaves of any maple variety.

The really surprising thing is that bigleaf maple trees can be used to make maple syrup. We don't have a commercial maple syrup industry here, even a small artisanal one, and (according to Google) the only Portland business with "sugar shack" in the name is a notorious strip club. Wikipedia says that bigleaf syrup has a somewhat different flavor than the classic East Coast maple syrup everyone's used to. That might explain why you never see it in stores, but it just piques my curiosity./p>

There's an annual Bigleaf Maple Syrup Festival on Vancouver Island, BC; I guess it's logical that the country with a maple leaf on its flag pays a bit closer attention to this sort of thing. The US Forest Service published a detailed article about syrup production back in 1972, and I've come across a couple of personal accounts (both dated 2013) of people trying their hand at making syrup. The latter reports that the finished product was "superb". So I'm going to add this to my list of native Northwest foods that I'd like to try but can't find, along with camas root (which is supposedly fermentable too), wapato root, and lamprey. (Yes, I'd totally eat lamprey. They look like they have it coming.)

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