Urbanista Photo by Linda Baker
Last week, I made one of my harrowing, bi-monthly trips to the Roman Russian Food Store on SE 110th and Division.
I say harrowing because I consider driving the autostrada that is outer SE Division to be an utterly nerve racking experience, after which you have to turn sharply into RRF’s postage stamp of a parking lot, where you crash into various trash and newspaper receptacles that are just as close as they appear in your side view mirror.
Inside, the atmosphere is more inviting. Platters of smoked fish, piroshki and containers of tvorog remind me of the three years I spent in Moscow as a child. I usually leave with a couple of bags of pelmeni and smetana–family favorites.
But back to the harrowing part.
RRF is an example of an entrenched urban design principle: the quality of a given noodle or taco shop–or piroshki vendor–will vary in direct proportion to its dreary place-less surroundings. The uglier and more auto centric the landscape, the more authentic and delicious the food will be.
In Portland, the relationship between high quality ethnic food and low quality public space was cemented a few years ago, when the center of gravity for Chinatown moved from Old Town, a compact if gritty neighborhood, to the highway-like setting of 82nd avenue.
Now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist–or rather, an urban demographer– to explain why this kind of “out migration” occurs, or why most Vietnamese noodle shops are located in strip malls.
Many ethnic restaurants/groceries are owned by first generation immigrants, who don’t have the money to locate in neighborhoods where Portland’s much vaunted urban design sensibilities are manifest–i.e. the inner city.
Instead, undercapitalized immigrant business owners set up shop in outer east Portland where the rents are cheaper and high quality walkable spaces–and good transit connections–are virtually non existent.
Those are the economic realities.
The social context is something else.
Compared to Americans, many Asian, Hispanic and Slavic cultures place a higher value on family and place-based community–and good food as an indicator of both. Generally speaking, people who immigrate from, well, almost anywhere, are also more accustomed than we are to walking and riding the bus as primary forms of transportation.
Maybe that’s what is so unnerving about driving to RRF or Pho Vinh or any one of a hundred ethnic eateries where the food is superior and the home-from-nowhere surroundings not so much. It’s a dynamic that seems utterly out of whack.