A Cape Town District Six Museum tagged image from photographer – Ed Yourdon as published on Flickr.
Turquoise lawn chairs
Image by Ed Yourdon
Brightly colored lawn chairs were quite visible in the front yards of may houses in the neighborhood …
For much of my life, I’ve had the bad habit of visiting a new city for a week of intense activity — and, on occasion, even living in a new city for as long as a year — without ever getting to know it. It’s easier than you might think, if you have a set routine: you get up in the morning, you take the same route to school or work, you come home at the end of the day, and that’s that. I think I may have also been slightly warped by the childhood experience of moving every year (17 schools before college), and concluding (perhaps subconsciously) that there was no point really getting to know anything about (or anyone in) the current town, since we’d be moving within a year …
Anyway, I resolved to try harder during a recent weeklong Thanksgiving trip to visit the west coast contingent of my family, which involved our driving from Portland to a rented house in Bend, Oregon — located roughly in the center of Oregon. I had never been in Bend before, and I probably never will be again … but even so, I wanted to get a sense of what the town was all about.
Bend turns out to be the largest town in central Oregon, but its estimated population in 2013 was only 81,236. If you include the surrounding area of “metropolitan Bend,” that number increases to 165,954 — but that still makes it only the fifth largest metropolitan area in Oregon, and probably about the same as an individual neighborhood in New York City.
Compared to NYC, Bend’s recorded history is also much shorter — though that ignores the fact that Native Americans lived in the area for some 12,000 years before fur trading parties arrived in 1824, and succeeding generations of pioneers, intent on pushing further west to the Pacific Coast, forded the Deschutes River at a shallow point known as the “Farewell Bend” — which ultimately gave the town its name (you can blame the U.S. Postal Service for shortening the original name to “Bend”).
Not much happened until 1901, when the Pilot Butte Development Company built a commercial sawmill in Bend; a city was incorporated there in 1904 by a general vote of the community’s 300 residents. From what I can tell, the town then continued to grow, thrive, and prosper for another 30 or 40 years … after which it seems to have stagnated. Walking along Bond Street and Wall Street — the two busiest downtown streets — I saw a number of plaques on the side of buildings indicating that they had all been built in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s …
As for today, tourism is probably the most significant economic activities — focused around skiing at Mount Bachelor, and recreational activities around the nearby Cascade Lakes. Bend is also home to the Deschutes Brewery, which is the 6th largest craft brewery in the nation. And the town has hosted on of the top indie film festivals in the nation (the BendFilm Festival) each year since 2004. For whatever it’s worth, much of the town’s growth in recent years is due to its attraction as a retirement destination (I guess there must be a rational explanation for the decision to retire here, perhaps including a low crime rate or a low cost-of-living — but I found the concept quite mind-boggling) …
But none of this explains the look and feel of the houses in the “historical district” a few blocks away from the center of town. This is where my family members and I spent Thanksgiving week, and I walked through several quiet, empty blocks during the few days that it wasn’t raining … and while the photos in this Flickr album will give you some idea of what the houses and people look like, I’m at a loss for words to characterize what’s going on around here.
For one thing, it seems that every house is different. They’re all on tiny lots — probably about 1/4 of an acre — but they’re all different sizes, painted different colors, with different designs and architectures. I’m used to towns where all of the houses in an entire neighborhood are identical, because they were all designed and constructed by the same real-estate developer. And my son pointed out that in Portland, just a few hours away by car, the houses in several neighborhoods may look different from the house next door — but they all fall into five or six basic styles. Not so in Bend: it seems that nobody talked to anyone else, and nobody looked at any other house in the neighborhood, before they came up with their own unique design.
And with one or two exceptions, none of the houses are “modern” in any sense of the word. Many of them remind me of the neighborhoods were I lived as a child in the early 1950s; and I have a strong suspicion that many of them are much older than that, perhaps having been built in the 1920s or 1930s. Like the rest of the town, it seems that everything thrived here until the beginning of the 1940s … and then stopped.
Which then raises another interesting question: who actually lives in these houses today, in late 2014? I really couldn’t tell, because the streets were generally empty. and the only thing I saw through a living room window was a football game on a large TV screen. But I noticed that the cars parked on the street were by no means as old as the houses; most of them appeared to be less than five years old, with many large, modern trucks and Jeeps. There were a few bicycles and other indications of childhood life, along with a significant number of brightly-painted lawn chairs, an occasional barbecue grills (including some big, gas-powered grills on the front porch!), and lots of American flags …
If I had had a little more time or energy, I could have gone into the Deschutes County Museum (housed in what had been a stand-alone school house built in 1914), or perhaps the Town Hall, to learn a little more … but I didn’t.
And so Bend will remain a mystery, as we pack up and drive back to Portland tomorrow morning. And while nobody here will care, or even notice, I will go on record with the following prediction: I won’t be retiring here.
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