Wax, a new hiphop club in North Portland, is one block off the light rail's Yellow Line, which means that Wednesday evening freestyle dancing attracts kids from suburban Aloha, Hillsdale, and Beaverton--all riding in on the Blue Line--to mix with a somewhat smaller crowd from nearby. The best dancers one recent Wednesday were two Vietnamese guys from Gresham, an oft-derided sprawl of strip malls in the eastern part of the city, along the road to Boring. The Blue Line goes to Gresham too and it is peopled with Vietnamese, Lao, Hmong, Russian, and Latino Portlanders riding east and west to the hives of two-story, cookie-cutter row condos that sit back from the strip highways amidst stunted trees and planters and parking lots. Fewer of the recently arrived live near the city's center.

It is a paradox of most North American cities, and nowhere more so than in Portland, that the nominally urban downtown is home to a narrow elite, while the multitude that makes up the life and future of the city has been shunted to the periphery.

At the Beaverton Transit Center, Spanish is the common language and buses leave every few minutes for the polyglot strips of Beaverton, Hillsdale, and the Tualatin Valley Highway (known, sublimely, as the "TV Highway"). Manila imports, Korean bulgoki, Dutch oliebollen, taco trucks, nail salons, phone cards, instant credit, barbecue, and prayer candles in a dozen languages rise like a slow tide to fill these endless, outdated strip malls.

Cars flood the landscape; currents of traffic swirl along wide highways. On foot, the terrain is strangely indifferent, like wilderness, and the slow pace reveals an astonishing ecosystem: Behind drainage ditches, patches of meadow and orchard border closely packed rows of gray and white condos; serpentine dikes of bark chips and shrubs shape the terrain; tiny shops, small as houses, are dwarfed to near invisibility by the gargantuan scale of their neighbors (Home Depot, Best Buy, Bi-Rite), whose signage alone could crush or entirely cover them; there are sudden stands of trees.

The stores are odd, their survival miraculous, like that of small exotic mushrooms. One sells only prayer candles, another incense, spices, and lamb from New Zealand. Another has obsolete computer parts and a pile of comics on a back table. A grocer sells nagelkaas, a special farmers' cheese impregnated with cloves, which he has had flown in from Holland. Along the TV Highway, at the end of a thick stand of condos, there is Ree's Barbecue, like a warm cabin in the middle of a lonely wood.

Equipped only with the categories of the 20th century city, one is barely able to engage this plenitude. Is this the city? Here is the multitude, filling the tightly packed apartments and gray condos of Beaverton, the TV Highway, Gresham, and Troutsdale--and Renton, Burien, or SeaTac--yet most city dwellers deride it as "the suburbs."

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North Portland is polyglot because it is cheap to live there. Houses that would cost $300,000 to $400,000 if they had risen two miles away, in the Northwest district of the city, go for half that or less in North Portland and so landlords can still rent cheap. There continues to be a mix of rich and poor, new and old, and different ethnic groups, which is entirely missing from the city's more deliberately planned neighborhoods, such as downtown's Pearl District.

In "the Pearl" the city has piggybacked its vision of urban livability onto a grid of disused warehouses and empty lots. As in other North American cities, urban living here seems to hinge on a notion of historical preservation that gets tricky when the past begins to run a little thin. What happened in the Pearl? There was a rail yard and then there were warehouses. The garbage dump might be older and richer in history than these ramshackle buildings, but warehouses suggest artists and artists suggest a whole cycle of change that can imbue a city with the emblems of urbanity.

By the mid-'90s this cycle was started: Artists had begun to colonize the warehouses; lofts would be built out; cafes and shops would gather; and slowly the rich, who are the endpoint of all these revitalizations, would arrive to pay high prices for the residue of a brief history of productivity--that of early-20th-century industry and late-20th-century art.

Instead of waiting and enduring this often-predatory process, Portland developers stepped in and built a kind of pre-gentrified arts district, moving so swiftly that many of the artists and galleries had to be imposed retroactively.

The great success of the Pearl lies in the seamlessness with which designers wove these newly minted tokens of urbanity into the area's scant residue of history. The problem they faced was essentially a sales problem: How to signal the right things, the grit and brawn of industry plus the grossly enlarged abstract geometries of modern art, while making comfortable digs for an upscale clientele? The answer was largely decorative. History, just like the future, can be built.

Amidst the Pearl's remaining stock of two- and three-story brick warehouses, a loose survey of industrial building types has risen. The nine-story Gregory (home to film director Gus Van Sant) replicates the step-backed art deco brick of New York's Terminal Sales Building; exposed steel beams wrap the Streetcar Lofts, beneath a great three-story retro neon sign reading "Go by Streetcar." The Brewery Blocks organize new curtain-glassed condos around the dead brick kiln of the brewery. Everywhere, brick, concrete, and raw stone are garlanded with bands of steel, burnished by the welder's flame. I-beams are the new belt-course.

The swiftness and coherence with which this alchemy was completed here distinguishes Portland from almost every other American city, thanks in large part to an unusual developer named Homer Williams. Williams (whose enthusiasm for the personal transport system, the Segway, has led to that company opening its first North American dealership here) is now spearheading an attempt to build a forest of Vancouver style, super-thin glass-and-steel condo towers at the south edge of downtown, on the banks of the Willamette River. A landmark funicular, the biggest and swiftest in North America, will carry residents up the steep hill to work at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).

The Pearl carries its fictions lightly, never straining to convince. The whole is coherent, without seeming false. The tram that connects it to downtown and Northwest perfectly evokes an earlier time, simply by being a tram. At the same time, it evokes Europe; the cars are made there, as are the city's light rail trains. Watching them slip across the long black expanse of the Steel Bridge one can't help but think of Rotterdam or Bonn.

The dream that has come true here is that of sleepwalkers lost in nostalgia for an image of the city that is as seductive as it is unreal. The city explodes outward even as planners legislate boundaries and concentrate its cultural institutions in the city center. It is the same in Paris as in Portland: Historic facades are preserved by law; customs become codified as tourist spectacles; bohemian life is conjured in every corner cafe and theater; and all the while the actual poor get pushed further and further into the overbuilt periphery.

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On a recent Friday Elizabeth Leach opened her new art gallery in the Pearl. The rooms resemble a fabulous kind of archeological dig in which the bones of an actual warehouse have been brushed clean and tall white walls interposed, like great stiff drapery. The walls shape a series of 12-foot-high cubicle spaces, large linked tanks that, on this evening, were filled half-high with a sea of excited, drunk friends and colleagues. The space was designed by Randy Higgins of Edo.

Bob Frasca was there, the unassuming principal of Zimmer, Gunsel, and Frasca, an architectural firm that has shaped much of Portland's cityscape, from the imposing span of OHSU's V.A. Bridge to the twin glass spires of the city's convention center--a pair of absurd, luminous beacons that, for better or worse, now function as a trademark of the city's skyline. Frasca got his start fresh out of college, designing for the city planning office in the 1970s.

Also present, Camela Raymond, the young founder of the Organ, who has recently closed that lively, occasional journal of art in order to take on the real job she's been offered at Portland Monthly. This glossy lifestyle magazine, which has rushed to profitability in one short year, is now edited by Russ Rymer, a recent arrival who hopes to fill it with excellent prose.

Raymond hasn't had an office job in years and said she was too tired of sitting to leave Elizabeth Leach's standing-room-only party for the debut of filmmaker Matt McCormack's new collaboration with James Mercer, of the Shins, scheduled that same night at the Portland Art Museum. Shins fans filled the hall, a crowd that averaged about half the age of the well-to-do drunks at Leach's opening. A popular melodic four-piece, the Shins moved from New Mexico to Portland last summer, apparently drawn by whatever it is that moves youth culture--cheap rents, relocated friends, a buzz of rumors circling the Internet like the rings around Saturn.

The mayor's office, under outgoing Mayor Vera Katz, has groomed those rumors and is assiduously courting what has come to be called "the young creative class," a potential economic engine that has its own needs and tastes. Focus groups were convened by the mayor's office, inviting Raymond and McCormick and their creative brethren to list their wants and needs so the city can satisfy them and keep the kids coming to town.

The whole operation was part politics, part anthropology, and part idealism. The mayor's office wants to create a habitat conducive to the lives and work of young creatives, both to win the city a new engine of prosperity and because it is the right thing to do. The kids were quizzed and sampled and observed and reports were produced. Developers are now at work strategizing ways the city can invigorate new housing without catalyzing the same cycle that got rushed to its logical endpoint in the Pearl.

Typical of Portland--which endeavors to give every partner some of what they want, rather than picking one winner who takes all--local developers have begun exploring new building types that could organize space in ways commodious to young artists, yet repulsive to the rich. That way they can develop profitable buildings while nevertheless protecting residents from displacement. As an example, housing in the burgeoning East Burnside and Central Eastside Industrial districts might be built with big common areas, including shared bathrooms and communal kitchens--permanent features that would effectively repel the dreaded rich whose arrival is usually cast by the "creative class" as that of the devil in Eden.

Other solutions have included small grants from the mayor to help artists get something practical done--launch a website, hire an accountant, or advertise their wares. The grants average about $750 and have been useful boosts for dozens of art/business projects in town. What the mayor hasn't done, and perhaps cannot do, is get the rich to buy more art and to buy more adventurously. There is a glut on the market and much of it is good.

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The glut was evident at a recent celebration, dedicated to the outgoing mayor, housed in the cavernous box called Memorial Coliseum. This is the former home of Portland's major league sports team, the NBA Trailblazers (another "creative class" the city has always courted) who were given their own new stadium, a lavish monstrosity subsidized by the city and provided rent-free to their owner, the Seattle billionaire Paul Allen. Allen's company, the Oregon Arena Corporation, has recently declared bankruptcy rather than pay the city some accumulated millions of taxes that were due as Allen's end of the bargain. Now Portland is left with a great carapace of a sports arena that must be filled whenever the Blazers are out of town.

At the Coliseum (one of the most beautiful international style buildings in town) curator Stephanie Snyder and artist Sam Gould presented videotaped testimonials about Portland: 40 or so artists said why they came here and what makes them stay or go. One, the enormously talented illustrator Zac Margolis, a Portland native, allowed that what could drive him away would be change. "Change makes me want to hide," he admitted. In another, transplanted Seattle writer Charles D'Ambrosio (who confessed in the course of his testimonial to being "an incredibly selfish shit") complained that the rain in Portland is inferior to the rain in Seattle. This is an exacting hair to split but D'Ambrosio, whose mind is sharp enough to split atoms, did it convincingly, while also praising his adopted home for being full of people generous enough to make up for his own selfishness.

Matt McCormick has been here 10 years. He moved from Albuquerque after college, and now lives in a decommissioned fire station on the east bank of the Willamette. He has--besides an astonishing eye--the gift of tremendous patience. His camera is never searching, always waiting, usually focused on something just outside the door of his home: the surface of the river, bicyclists, the shadows of birds, boats, concrete grain towers, the neighborhood's peculiar light. McCormack uses this largely industrial neighborhood as his own private Cine Citta, Fellini's remarkable film set in Rome. Like Fellini, he is able to make entire worlds out of the remarkable plenitude floating past the still point he occupies. Seattle architect Jerry Garcia, who had driven to Portland for the screening, likens McCormack to a bird watcher.

The night ended with Garcia, Liz Leach, sculptor Amanda Wojick, architect Randy Higgins, and bon vivants Stephanie and Jonathan Snyder (she, the curator of Reed College's Cooley Gallery) dancing drunk to a Led Zeppelin cover band at the Candlelight Lounge, a smoky bar at the southern edge of downtown that contradicts every facile conclusion about race and vitality and urban mixing that the casual chronicler of Portland could have come to in the course of a few short years spent trying to understand this puzzling, and promising, city.