Orbital View: City of Roses

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here’s a great shot of my hometown, Portland, Oregon:

But I didn’t recognize the neighborhood at first, even though it’s a local icon. This is Ladd’s Addition, Portland’s oldest planned residential development. As the city’s parks department explains, it’s named after William Sargent Ladd, who settled in Portland in 1851 after coming west in the California Gold Rush:

He was elected mayor in 1854 and was prominent in every aspect of Portland business activity. In 1891 he decided to subdivide his 126-acre farm on Portland's east side. Inspired by Pierre L’Enfant's plan for Washington, D.C., Ladd designed the plat based on a diagonal street system surrounding a central park. Also included were four diamond-shaped rose gardens located on the points of a compass.

Those rose gardens are important. Portland has been nicknamed the City of Roses since 1888, and it celebrates its local history with a Rose Festival every year. The oldest public rose garden in Portland—near where I grew up on the city’s northern peninsula—has been around since 1909, and its most famous, the International Rose Test Garden, has been operating for almost a century. In addition to growing roses from all over the world, it’s a site for free public concerts and—as I recall from my preschool days—adjacent to a really, really good playground.

Roses may grow like crazy in the laid-back Pacific Northwest, but there’s a lot of work involved in their cultivation. Rose gardens tend to be organized a bit like Ladd’s Addition—beautifully, carefully planned, with everything well pruned and kept within its borders.

Those gardens have something in common with the city as a whole.

One of Portland’s unique attributes is its urban growth boundary, the law that’s kept the city’s development from spreading out too far. That’s why Portland is such a great city for food and recreation: Both farmland and wilderness have been kept close to the urban center. But that boundary has also driven housing prices up and forced people in some gentrifying neighborhoods to leave their homes. Which means the city is becoming more and more like some rose gardens: beautiful, ordered, and a little exclusive.

But, as my fellow Bridgetowners know, the best things often come from crossing boundaries, so a wild rose garden is beautiful too. Take it from novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett:

One of the things which made the place look strangest and loveliest was that climbing roses had run all over [the trees] and swung down long tendrils which made light swaying curtains, and here and there they had caught at each other or at a far-reaching branch and had crept from one tree to another and made lovely bridges of themselves. … It was this hazy tangle from tree to tree which made it all look so mysterious. Mary had thought it must be different from other gardens which had not been left all by themselves so long; and indeed it was different from any other place she had ever seen in her life.

As a kid who got to run all over Portland’s public rose gardens, I would agree. Stay weird, Portland.