Portland’s Westside, Part 3 – Chinatown and Old Town

Continued from
Portland’s Westside, Part 2 – Downtown


The Classical Chinese Garden in Portland's Chinatown

Portland‘s 19th-century history is sprinkled all over town, but it’s concentrated (like orange juice in a cardboard tube) in Chinatown and Old Town.

Here, urban reinvention is moving at its slowest, and it’s a gathering place for the homeless and forgotten. But it’s also where Portland comes together in an outdoor commercial free-for-all and celebrates one of its most vital communities, all along the Willamette (will-AM-et) River. Once again, take a look at the Portland city center map to find Old Town and Chinatown in the greater scheme of things.

Now, I’m not gonna lie to you — Old Town’s got some seriously downtrodden people living on its streets and around rehab centers and soup kitchens.

By October it’s already cold at night, and at 6pm you’ll see homeless people crossing from the less populated east side of the Burnside Bridge carrying old mattresses and cardboard boxes, looking to get in line for a shelter’s bed for the night. Some guys are grizzled Vietnam vets with woolen caps and ancient leather jackets, far more are teenagers on the runaway circuit down from Seattle and on their way to California.

In Portland's Chinatown, only the dog couture tells the homeless from the not


City developers, though, have noted the potential elegance in this scruffy area; debates rage over how the city can provide for its homeless while also turning Old Town into a loft-filled yuppie heaven.

Wander two blocks in any direction, and you’ll find a plaque describing a historic building and its famous builder. You’ll even find some serious beauty.


Just another beautiful historic building off Ankeny Plaza


For instance, our favorite thing in Chinatown (besides its embellished red arch on Burnside Avenue) is the Classical Chinese Garden. Tucked behind stone walls, this is a peaceful cluster of small temples around a sprawling pond full of huge koi and lush pink water lilies. We took a seat on a bench and not only had ourselves a lovely rest, but got in some prime snuggling, as well. The large, vibrant Chinese community is no longer centered here — it’s mostly moved to the NW 80s — but this remains, according to the young woman at the ticket counter, its most treasured monument.


Portland's Classical Chinese Garden


For a sense of what brought people to Portland in the first place, stroll along tree-lined Tom McCall Waterfront Park (named for one of Oregon’s most famous governors, who believed in public ownership of land) and see the Willamette for yourself. The whole park stretches along the river, almost the entire length of the city. Pop into the Oregon Maritime Museum to learn the illustrious history of Port Land, which began as a rough commercial hub for the logging industry.

Right off the park and underneath the Burnside Bridge, you can enter the back end of the Portland Saturday Market. (Parking can be plentiful on the side streets, especially along Couch and Davis.)


Portland's Saturday Market in Old Town


A Portland institution, we were surprised to learn that the market’s only been around since the 1970s. A massive craft and food extravaganza, here you can pick up an elephant ear (a crunchy, flat version of a churro that looks like… an elephant ear) and wander through covered stalls of jewelry, pottery, toys, clothing and more.  Adam bought me a burgundy Pendleton wool cloche hat with a ribbon flower, straight out of the late 1920s, made by the tiniest old lady we ever saw. All of 4’9″, she insisted on putting the hat on top of my 5’6″ head herself, styling it just so.

Running through Ankeny Plaza straight into the heart of Old Town, the market is bisected by the Portland Sreetcar and the landmark Skidmore Fountain, a group of straight-backed bronze women who’ve stood here since 1888.


Skidmore Fountain on Ankeny Plaza


If you’d like to learn bit more about this neighborhood — including the significance of the Shanghai Tunnels that run underground, and the famous Voodoo Doughnut (where you can get a bacon doughnut, get married, or both) — check out this Old Town Portland video on You Tube, narrated by a pale, quirky Portland native frolicking in a woolly hat.

Downtown Portland fights to keep itself weird, but since 50% of the people you come across are like the guy in this video…how on Earth could this be so hard?


Continued in

Portland’s Westside, Part 4 – Northwest & Nob Hill

See related posts
Portland’s Westside, Part 1 – The Pearl District
Portland’s Westside, Part 2 – Downtown
Portland’s Westside, Part 5 – Washington Park
Portland’s Southeast Side
Portland’s Northeast Side
Portland On Our Minds
Falling Into the North Willamette Valley
By the Seaside…Oregon
TWT Travel Binder: Oregon


  1. Portland sounds like a piece of heaven on earth. The most appealing fact about it is the rainy weather, which I love. And Powell’s makes it even better – definitely a place I would live in. I hope I get to visit soon…


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