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The Cultural Atlas of Portland
The Cultural Atlas of Portland


Portland has its Cultural District, a stitch of land binding a few of the city’s SW Park Blocks—home of the Portland Art Museum, Oregon Historical Society, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and an 18-foot-tall bronze equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt donated to the city by a long-passed resident with a penchant for bronzes of American presidents. And Portland has its cultured districts: the Pearl, where high-rises and high-tech startups intermingle with homeless shelters and subsidized housing; and Hawthorne, where street kids hawk wares on blankets in front of thrift stores, and hipsters flip through vinyl at Jackpot Records or slurp from craft-brewed pints at pubs like the Bridgeport Brewery. These places and people do say something about the culture of Portland, but according to Dr. Hunter Shobe and David Banis, both of the Department of Geography, they’re only a few pages in an atlas of a city with as many maps as there are ways to challenge ourselves to see Portland differently.

For many Portlanders, residents of the Metro Region, and those who know the city’s geography, The Cultural Atlas of Portland will be a series of unique looks at familiar places. For others not intimately familiar with Portland, the atlas might dispel some of the hyperbole pop-culture has heaped upon the Rose City in recent years. 

Banis and Shobe hope the atlas will challenge peoples’ ideas of what cartography is, what a map can be, and what it means to interact with a map.

When published, the atlas will contain roughly 120 maps. The maps, created under the guidance of Shobe and Banis by undergraduate and graduate students, as well as by students at Portland Community College, examine Portland through myriad lenses, few of which resemble what might be labeled a ‘typical map.’

“There are a lot of atlases that focus on mapping statistical data, like average rainfall or income, that kind of thing,” Dr. Shobe said. “We’re focusing on the things you don’t usually see on maps. There’s a vein of geography called Psychogeography which involves peoples’ perceptions of the world and mapping those perceptions. Maps like these give people a new way to view the city. They show them things differently.” 

According to Banis the project has been a great opportunity for students to use what they’ve learned to push the boundaries of cartography into unexplored territory. 

"A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected." 
                      —Reif Larsen, 
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet 

“We teach students the rules of cartography,” Banis said. “And there’s some art in that. But then they have this opportunity, and I tell them to take all those rules and break them, but be smart about breaking them. It’s far more challenging than it looks on the surface: just make a map that covers a topic on an 11”x17” page. It’s difficult to conceptualize a topic in such a concise space. Most of what you see on a Google map is structures, locations: they’re not parts of culture. Our challenge to students is to get them to start thinking what kind of map actually represents an element of the city’s culture.”

If the maps Shobe and Banis have in their collection are any indication, they certainly seem to be changing the way their student cartographers conceptualize cultural data on a map. A map of Portland’s Division Street maps not the cross-streets, parks, and businesses, but rather the colors of the discrete buildings in a continuum of uniform squares. The map asks, in a fascinating way, if the color of a house or building can tell us anything about the neighborhoods along a street and the people living in them. Other maps in the collection include: a study of the walkability of the Pearl District (the Pearl claims to be the city’s most walkable neighborhood); a map of language diversity in the David Douglas School District; a map of visible security cameras in the streets and on buildings in downtown Portland; a map of the Columbia Slough highlighting public perception of this Portland waterway; and a map correlating locations where people owned chickens with coyote sightings near Alameda Ridge. Maps such as these tell us about the diversity of our city: the diversity of people, the diversity of land, where and how it all blends together to shape the city’s unique cultures.

“As a concept, culture is so broad,” Shobe replied when asked what culture meant in the context of a cultural atlas of Portland.

To me culture is what people do. It’s the way they live their lives. And yet it’s easy to talk about culture as if there is one culture in a place. That’s one of the ideas the atlas is meant to challenge. 

—Dr. Hunter Shobe

“We’re getting at the cultural differences within Portland,” Banis added, “but we’re also asking how Portland differs culturally from other places: Seattle or San Francisco: as a city are we as different as we might think?”

“David and I often talk the concept of interactive maps,” Dr. Shobe went on. “With the interactive maps out there now, you click on a location and get a tiny bit of information. The maps we’re making are interactive in that they’ll challenge the way people think about Portland. They’re maps you have to look at and touch and get close to. They aren’t just historical fact, they’re dynamic texts and just like any other text sometimes you have to read between the lines to see what’s really there.

“This is an opportunity to remind people that there’s a lot of stuff in this city to be inspired by. We each have our own Portland, but even if you’ve lived here your whole life, you’d still benefit from the opportunity to see Portland the way other people see it.”

When complete, The Cultural Atlas of Portland will provide readers the opportunity to see beyond the city’s prosaic grids of asphalt and concrete. It will challenge their assumptions of the city’s people and places. It will open eyes and illuminate. Working with a Faculty Enhancement Grant, Shobe and Banis hope to have a final collection of maps ready to show possible publishers near Fall’s end. Keep an eye out for it at your local bookstore. In the meantime, keep an eye out for the city you live in, the city you’ve never seen. 

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted September 11, 2013