Great City Park: Washington Park, Portland (OR)

Portland’s parks as a whole deserve an entry in our Hennacornoeli listing of the Great City Parks.  Like everything out west, Portland’s park system is larger than their eastern counterparts.  A real challenge to us then is picking which park to profile.  Forest Park, per Wikipedia, is the largest “wilderness” urban park, (it may be a little wild, but when I think wilderness I imagine a place miles from people and a road system), Mills Park is the smallest park in the U.S. (at 2 square feet it makes for lousy tag), and Mount Tabor with its very dramatic views would all be good picks.  We, however, chose Washington Park as being most worthy of the Hennacornoeli Great City Park award.  Maybe we will send the park a statue.

Things to do in Washington Park:  visit the Children’s Museum (a truly great playhouse for children of all ages to explore), go to the zoo (we did not but I am sure it is a fun time), smell the roses at the International Rose Test Garden, sit for a concert on the terraced steps immediately below the rose garden, contemplate the destructive nature of war at the Oregon Vietnam’s War Memorial (we found the layout, an extended and windy walking path leading past a time line of the war, powerful and engaging) or take in the trees at the Hoyt Arboretum.  Although the park itself is away from the urban center, there is great public transportation available to whisk you both to and away from the park.  The park even has a large and affordable parking lot making it a great base camp for further city explorations.  And like all great parks, the boundaries are a bit muddled and seem to spill into the bordering neighborhood. 

As for the city itself, many people think of Portland as a smaller San Francisco.  We see the city more like San Francisco’s somewhat scruffier but more endearing younger cousin.  Like San Francisco, Portland has a lot of rain, a green feel, and a sophisticated urban feel.  But both the wealth and poverty in Portland is less pervasive than in the bigger city.  Whereas eating out in San Francisco can be quite pricey, we ate well and relatively cheap at smaller sushi places, coffee shops, and one food truck that served up mighty tasty crepes.  The homeless in Portland also have a quaint, just doing this for a lark feel in contrast to the more professional San Francisco pan handlers.  Corey and I were amused by all the youths with smart phones, a hip dog (usually with a bandana), and an extended hand asking for money (probably to help pay for their data plan). 

Although we really loved being in Portland, I just felt that Portlanders did not always get me.  For example, while picking up a bottle of wine I said something like “Man, you guys have it good here.  I just miss pumping my own gas” which was met with a dirty look and a sarcastic “yeah, that must really suck.”  Other residents told deeply personal stories such as the young man on the MAX who told of his recent struggles with a heroine addiction.  He also told us about his plans to fight forest fires in Montana (good money) and how he dreaded the resulting separation from his young daughter.  Still other residents, with little encouragement needed, talked about the need to further legalize pot, how much they disliked Chicago, and the virtues of Portland.  Hopefully some time soon we will be able to get back to Portland.  I will refrain from talking about the joys of pumping your own gas and will be ready to counsel all who need counseling.

Great City Parks: Golden Gate Park

Of the Great City Parks on our Hennacornoeliday list, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco fits most perfectly to its host city.  Whereas the National Mall is infinitely greater than D.C. and, in our opinion, Boston deserves a greater Common, Golden Gate is a perfect fit for San Francisco.  Although 20% larger than Central Park (in a city many times smaller than New York), Golden Gate Park never appears intrusive to the city as a whole.  Rather it is like many opposites in the Pacific Northwest (water and land, mountain and valley) in that it is often hard to perceive the true border of city and park.  The homeless sleep in semi-permanent tent cities and office buildings have green facades.  The iconic Haight- Ashbury neighborhood is surprisingly kid friendly and upscale while some parts of Golden Gate Park seem to turn its back on families.  It is these contradictions that ground the park into its urban setting (and at the same time green the concrete).

Our two days wandering San Francisco were spent mostly on the perimeter of the great park with frequent crossovers and explorations.  Within or close to the Golden Gate Park exists the nations oldest Japanese Gardens, a children’s museum , wonderful playgrounds, the majestic Palace of Fine Arts, the Conservatory of Flowers, museums, stadiums, and walking trails.  Also periodically a menacing fog can be viewed advancing into the park to chill your summer bones and obscure any city or mountain views.  Several residents informed us that the warmer it is in Sacramento, the colder it is by the bay due to the interior heat drawing the fog toward the coastal mountains.  The summer we visited San Francisco we drove over a couple of weeks to the most northwest corner of Washington and saw exactly one sunset due to the blistering heat east of us.

Other things beside the Golden Gate Park that make San Francisco great are book stores, coffee shops, China Town (thus far my favorite China town in the U.S. and Canada), restaurants, and the friendly and sophisticated city folk who seem to appreciate their city as much as the tourists.  Public transportation is wonderful and even thrilling as the light rail system complements the assorted trolley and buses.    Also every corner seems to be a trolley or bus stop which is a great thing when the terrain suddenly becomes too steep to walk any further.  In San Francisco, distances between points are less relevant than the existing grade as it is always easier to walk a flat mile than a mountainous quarter-mile.

Quick travel tip:  Look into Berkley as a base to explore San Francisco.  The train ride in goes under the bay which we thought was pretty cool (and Corey and Henna enjoyed pretending to look for sharks out the train window) and takes only a few minutes.  Hotel prices are of course much cheaper and parking in Berkley is not too difficult.  We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express and had no complaints.

Great City Parks: The National Mall

Next in our series of Great City Parks is the National Mall in D.C.  The National Mall is unique in our series for 1) being a national park and 2) it’s absolute overshadowing of its host city.  D.C. without the National Mall (which includes the White House and Capitol Building) would be nothing more than a swampy suburb of Baltimore.  Instead, D.C., at least the part of the city in and near the mall, is a classically re-imagining of a cultured democracy where great ideas are debated, usually with the backing of multimillion dollars PACs. 

The last time in D.C. we wandered in and out of arboretums and museums (my favorite was the National Air and Space Museum with its emphasis on early airplanes and space travel; Henna preferred the American Indian Museum), walked past the Capital Building and White House, and capped our day off by listening to Garrison Keillor read aloud slightly dirty limericks as part of the National Book Festival (in person he is actually even more engaging and more of a presence than he is on radio).  All of this was of course free.  Being a Sunday, even parking was free and it should be noted that in both our visits to D.C. parking was never an issue.  Previous visits included longer strolls to the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, an extended visit at the National Gallery where we loved the Norman Rockwell exhibit (on loan from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s private collection), as well as contemplative moments at the Reflecting Pool and Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

I think House Speaker Boehner and President Obama would agree that our country is not perfect.  No place is.  But as a first impression for millions of international tourists, the National Mall succeeds in accentuating our best traits; accessibility, civic and scientific achievements, and a confidence in our ability to lead; even if our leaders do not always live up to expectations.   

Great City Parks: Boston Common

What constitutes a Great City Park?  Well, one first needs a great city (Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Vancouver, and Toronto are some examples).  The park itself should have some history, draw in locals as well as tourists, and let all visitors know at once the city they are in.  Some cities have more than one great park; Chicago has Millennium Park for tourists, but the lakefront is for everyone.  San Francisco has more parks than I can begin to list here.  For us, Great City Parks provide an oasis for the locals and a destination for the tourists. 

One often overlooked Great City Park is also our nation’s oldest.  Dating back to 1634, Boston Common has been used for first private and then public cattle grazing, a British war camp (in the 1812 War), a nifty place to hang witches, and ultimately as a Frisbee throwing/ softball playing park with a pretty cool water area.  Boston Common does not have the panache of Central Park or the overwhelming, in your face importance of the D.C. Mall.  The weekend summer day we walked around the park had the usual trappings of an urban tourist location; overpriced hot-dogs, balloon makers, and a carousel.  There also were the predictable hemp sweaters and bracelets for sale (and a shifty guy who might have been willing to sell us other hemp products).  But it lacked the frantic pace of other East Coast destinations.  And it was too big and popular to have the charm of the great public green area in Salem, MA.  We enjoyed cooling off at Frog Pond (a fun and very shallow pool filled with kids running and hopping about) and eating our overpriced hotdogs in shade.  And Henna loved the balloon animal that I held while she took a whirl on the carousel.  But the park itself is not as memorable as the city it resides in.

What Boston Common did have was a lot of historical interests ringing the park itself.  A short walk from the Common can take you to Paul Revere and Samuel Adams grave as well as other stops on the Freedom Trail.  The Beacon Hill neighborhood rests on the park’s southern border and makes for a wonderful stroll.  One of my wife’s favorite things to do in Boston is to find JFK’s boyhood home.  I always like to stop at the Cheer’s bar.  And the T can take you to Harvard Square in a matter of minutes (and to be honest we think it is more fun to wander around Harvard than it is the Common).  But we are grateful for Boston and it’s Common.

Great City Parks: Prospect Park, Brooklyn

It is not like no one has ever heard of Prospect Park.  Designed by the same team that brought you Central Park (Olmsted and Vaux), Prospect Park is the more wild, less visited cousin of that more famous park.  Quick, think of one movie or play that references Prospect Park.  Do you remember the guy a couple of years ago who found some film, developed it, and then tracked down the photographer to her home in Paris?  Almost all those photographs were taken in Prospect Park.  Also, a quick Wikipedia search came up with several “notable murders” within the park.  So there you have it, quirky internet stories and murder.  And now this blog article too.

Our experience with Prospect Park flowed from our laid back approach to the Big Apple in the summer of 2010.  After a maddening trip from New Jersey that left us nostalgic for our own Chicago traffic jams, we checked in to a converted basement apartment with a row house above.  The owner of this house was away and the house sitter was a writer from South Africa who let us roam the house at will. We made good use of the washer and dryer on account of her generosity.  She also hinted several times that we were welcome to walk the dog, which we passed on.  For $150/night, at the height of the summer tourist season, we were able to chill in a cool part of Brooklyn.  It was like crashing at a relative’s house with that same relative out of town.  Below grade windows, a blow up bed for Henna, a makeshift kitchen with the smallest fridge I have ever seen, and neighbors out of a Spike Lee film made us feel at home.  It seemed that those neighbors spent our entire visit parked in front of their house commenting on the people passing by.  Each time we said hello they had a new story for us and often referenced their neighbors as if we had a shared history with them.  They were never happier than when giving us directions somewhere (her with a strong Puerto Rican accent, him with animated gestures highlighting the hospital wrist band on his wrist).  It is with pride that I tell you he told me, after watching us cross a busy street with a defiant wave, “I can tell you’re from a city.”

That is the thing about New York and New Yorkers.   I find New Yorkers away from home to be obnoxious.  Not you of course, but other New Yorkers.  You know “them.”  But in New York, New Yorkers are funny, cool, and, always and without any exception, direct.  Several times while Corey, Henna, and I were planning our day on the subway, a stranger would interrupt with something like “You don’t want to go Times Square.  This is what you do….”  I quickly adopted this custom by looking any random stranger in the eye and, without bothering with an “excuse me” or “I’m sorry to interrupt, but” instead simply asking “Where can I get lunch?”  They seemed to respect that kind of thing and always had plenty suggestions to contribute to our day.

Upon first arriving in Brooklyn, after unloading everything of value into our new, small basement apartment, we walked through the neighborhood and stumbled into Prospect Park.  In the twilight Henna found a friend and they chased each other around the monkey bars.  We talked to his mom whose dark complexion and thick French accent intrigued us.  Like many urban park discussions, the topic of conversation was schools.  Remarkably, over the next three days we bumped into this mom and her son several times.  Each time she gave us great tips on neighborhood restaurants.  I think that maybe the reason New Yorkers away from New York are hard to suffer is that they miss the amazing amount and variety of good restaurants that are always a block or two from wherever you are.  The three nights we stayed in Prospect Park we sampled food trucks, devoured sushi and very authentic Mexican food.  The three of us sat outside and watched our waiter jump from the curb back into the outdoor café area each time he sensed a customer in need.  It was like being served by a bystander.  We dined after dark and Henna was by no means the only child awake as small children no more than ten skated, cycled, and walked by.  Past eleven, with Henna just asleep, Corey and I were amazed to hear an ice cream truck drive by. 

The next day we explored the park and delightfully got lost at every opportunity.  Besides the park itself, which features a wooded area, a medium sized lake with a classically designed boat house (Boathouse on the Lullwater), and plenty of open spaces, the park spills into the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.  For a small fee, one can wander aimlessly among the cultivated gardens and engage in several understated child friendly activities.  The Brooklyn Museum, with its impressive art collection that includes many works by Andy Warhol is also adjacent to the park (we especially enjoyed Andy’s creative use of urine).  Like Prospect Park, the museum has an unhurried and laid back feel that is quiet in contrast to the over visited island of Manhattan.  We also spent quality time reading and people watching at the Brooklyn Library.

Lest you think we are Central Park haters, we love that park too.  On a very hot day we enjoyed cooling off in the water fountains and it warmed my heart to see people from all over the world fighting for bench space.  My favorite moment there was throwing a water balloon at Corey.  When she furiously looked at me I pointed at the Russian tourist to my right who immediately denied this with a panicked   “nyet!”

Great City Parks: Stanley Park, Vancouver

Our ride into Vancouver contrasted well with the majesty of Stanley Park.  After waking up in Surrey, B.C. we asked the teenagers at the Holiday Inn Express the best route into the city.  They suggested going west on Hastings Street.  This path into the city was gritty and bad ass and felt more Miami Vice than Northern Exposure.  After weeks of being in gentle and kind Canada, the shirtless man being hauled away by the police and the menacing youths looked all so … American.   As we got closer to the park the scenery changed into high end cafes, local coffee shops, and hipsters out for a stroll.  We stopped several times to ask directions (we hardly ever ask directions once due to Corey and I being incapable of processing more than a few sentences of any direction related paragraph spoken to us).

Stanley Park is beautiful and even more so when you realize that it is set in a world class city full of bustle and industry.  Within the sanctified air of dense evergreens it easy to forget the millions living nearby but out of sight.  But the park still has its quirks.  For one, the famed miniature train is set in an “Aboriginal Village” that charges you admission to enter.  That would be OK if the village offered genuine insight into aboriginal life, but apart from some dancing and story telling that felt more like preaching, the village mostly consisted of shops and overpriced coffee.  The train ride was cool, but this was another fee paid on top of what it cost to enter the village.  However, the ride featured an inspired Aboriginal story that incorporated costumed dancers acting out scenes as the train passed by and made me forget the $30+ (village fee and train) the short trip cost.

The park is hard to get a handle on the first time out and we did what most people do; drive from parking lot to parking lot.  Locals and smarter tourists than us whizzed by on bikes as we parked next to over packed tour busses.  We did do some light hiking in the Cathedral Forest (with me realizing that our family was both completely alone and within a few blocks of seedy Hastings Street).  We also admired cargo and cruise ships docked near a beach within the park. 

Reminiscing about Stanley Park is putting me in a comparing type of mood; Central Park vs. Stanley Park (I think Henna and I would choose Stanley, Corey always goes with NY), Stanley Park vs. Prospect Park (I call that one a tie), Central Park vs. Prospect Park (Prospect Park going away) and that great big rose garden park in Portland vs. Stanley Park (I go with Stanley Park because of the beach and totem poles).  There are so many great city parks out there with each one a reflection of its host city.  Please, tell us about your favorite city parks.  Hennacornoeli minds want to know.