A summer festival should, in theory, serve as a microcosm of everything we love about summer: warm weather, refreshing beers, smiling sunburned faces, the sound of kids screaming on a carnival ride in the distance, and a general sense of ease that, though fleeting, lets you believe for a moment you’re still that kid screaming on a carnival ride—at least on the inside.
Portland’s summer festivals—be it the Waterfront Blues Fest, the Oregon Brewers Festival, Pride, the Rose Festival, or whatever other event a reader will undoubtedly send me a pissed-off email about because I forgot to mention it—have all those things in spades. But they also share one damning trait: They’re all held at Tom McCall Waterfront Park, where carefree summer bliss goes to die.
Actually, that’s too harsh. On a normal, non-festival day, downtown Portland’s waterfront park is a lovely place to be. Sweeping views of the Willamette, springtime cherry blossoms, plenty of room for walking and biking, the joy that comes from occupying a public space that has not yet been monetized—if you’re producing a romantic comedy set in Portland, you’ll want to use Tom McCall for your establishing shots.
But as a summer festival venue, it’s severely lacking.
For one thing, the oblong shape of the park gives festivals an oddly disjointed feel—like they’re something to be linearly walked through, rather than leisurely explored. As climate change tightens its grip on Portland, the shady trees at the waterfront don’t offer nearly enough relief from the devastating summer heat. And while Tom McCall is probably the most centrally located venue that’s feasible for most of these festivals, the swarms of people only exacerbate downtown’s traffic, parking, and rideshare clusterfucks. (And yes, we should absolutely all be biking or taking the MAX and walking a few blocks over, but not enough people actually do that.)
Tom McCall is also on the small side for the attendance levels at some of the staple summer festivals—or at least, it certainly feels that way when you’re trying to navigate your way through groups of drunk, tank-topped bros at the Oregon Brewers Festival.
And, perhaps worst of all, these temporary festivals can cause long-lasting damage to the park. If you’ve ever walked through Tom McCall the week after the Rose Festival ends, you’ve seen how easily thousands of footsteps can turn lush, healthy grass into gross, dusty dirt.
I’m not going to pretend to have the perfect solution to this conundrum. While there are plenty of large, beautiful parks in this city, I’m sure many of these same problems would present themselves if the festivals switched locations. But splitting these events up, with each park hosting just one per summer, might help ease the stress put on any one location and give more Portlanders the chance to live within walking or biking distance of an iconic summer festival.
Or we could all just stay inside, where there’s AC and refrigeration and a comfortable buffer between ourselves and the thronging masses. Yeah, that sounds like a nice plan.