August 2nd, 2010 | Published in Urbanist
|Coffee shops where patrons spill outside onto the sidewalk are Portland’s best approximation of the atmosphere of the Euro café. Photo: Dustin Eppers/EnzymePDX|
Note: Urbanist recently returned from a trip to Portugal and Spain.
Nothing symbolizes the singular nature of European public life more than the ubiquitous neighborhood bar – a place where people of all ages gather for a variety of food and libations, including coffee, alcohol, ice cream and maybe a local delicacy or two such as anchovies or squid.
Such establishments, also known as snack bars or café-bars depending on the country, are more than community hangouts. Featuring ample outdoor seating, the Euro style bar is also an anchor for the lively street culture that is the envy of many an American urban planner.
Enter Portland, a metropolis that considers itself “the best European city in America,” a phrase coined by former city commissioner Charlie Hales.
“We’re slowly evolving our own style of European café life,” said Lloyd Lindley, an urban designer and former chair of the Portland Design Commission. He pointed to the bustling restaurant scenes on inner Burnside and NE 28th Avenue and the city’s thriving coffee and brewpub businesses and burgeoning food cart market.
But the obstacles to developing a genuine – and alluring – café/bar culture in Portland are legion. For example, a critical feature of the Euro bar is its mixed-age character, yet American drinking laws discourage adults and children from congregating in the same venue.
Another challenge is our car-oriented society, which limits the amount of pedestrian space available for café seating and discourages patrons from moving directly into the street – to sit or play. “We’re not there yet, and there’s a lot of work ahead,” Lindley said of Portland’s street café status.
As a pioneer of mixed-use development, Portland has another stake in recreating the Euro bar, where multiple urban stories are often played out in the confines of a single small business.
Consider, for example, a bar scene Urbanist witnessed in Lisbon last month. An elderly couple sat at a table, digging into a plate of snails. Two businessmen stood at the bar, one sipping an espresso, the other a glass of port.
Outside, several children licked ice cream cones while kicking a soccer ball against a makeshift court – one framed by the café wall, an adjacent apartment building and a small pedestrian plaza. A street sweeper taking a break sat at an outdoor table and pulled out his own sandwich.
It’s the kind of scenario that seems to unfold organically in European cities. Not so in the United States, where people tend to frown on the mixing of public and private space and activity, said Philip Myrick, vice president of the Project for Public Spaces, a New York City nonprofit.
“In this country, there is also a strange banishment of food from street life,” Myrick said. Exiling food concessions from the public realm violates a fundamental rule of urban design, he added, “Because if your aim is to attract people, food and drink are the main attractions.”
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