David Byrne recap: Termite cities and Portland’s story

Outside the Bagdad last night.
(Photos © J. Maus)

Last night, author/activist/legendary musician David Byrne brought his “Cities, Bicycles and the Future of Getting Around” book tour to the Bagdad Theater in Southeast Portland.

The event sold out, people were standing in the aisles, and I even heard of a few skirmishes at the box office from people who forget to get tickets in advance. It remains unknown whether folks were so enthusiastic for the event due to David Byrne’s star power or because this town is just so full of bike geeks, but I think it was likely a combination of the two.

Sign of a healthy bike culture.

Or, maybe people just figured it was a cool way to get a copy of Byrne’s new book, Bicycle Diaries (it was included with the $26 tickets).

With books and beers in hand, the crowd was treated to a whirlwind tour of the world by Byrne, who kicked the night off with slides and videos from his travels by bike. He shared a few short anecdotes of his travels, but kept mostly focused on his thoughts about the past, present, and future of cities and how their design impacts urban life.

Byrne shared visions of cities from the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, General Motors, Le Corbusier (who, I remember from college said famously, “Cities should be machines for living in”), and even termites. In Byrne’s mind, columnar termite mound cities could teach some urban theorists a thing or two.

Next up was Mia Birk — a woman who has lived the Portland bike story from her helm as bike coordinator under then Transportation Commissioner Earl Blumenauer — and who now is principal in a bike and pedestrian planning firm with projects going on in nearly every state in the U.S. and all over globe. Her presentation was funny and poignant. Birk — whose forthcoming memoir, Joyride, is in works — gave a sweeping overview of Portland’s bikeway development and peppered it with personal stories.

Bureau of Transportation staffer and Portland bike culture pioneer Timo Forsberg was up after Birk. Timo offered lots of details about the genesis of Portland’s “bike fun” movement (embodied by Shift) and he shared his perspective on what it feels like to experience Portland’s bike culture.

Then it was my turn. It was a bit daunting to share the stage with Mr. Byrne, and my highly respected friends Mia and Timo (both of whom have been sort of mentors to me). The topic I was given was bicycle activism. I shared my personal experiences with it and how it’s been something of an identity crisis to balance with journalism. I also tried to communicate how important citizen activism is — and has been for 40 years — to Portland’s achievements.

I wanted the crowd to know that while Portland has a lot to be excited and proud of we are far from where we need to be and that without strong and constant citizen activism we won’t get their nearly as fast as we should.

I really do much better in Q & A situations, so it came as a big disappointment (which I know was shared by the crowd) that Mr. Byrne felt we’d gone too long and couldn’t take any questions.

It was a great night and I hope everyone there heard things that were thought-provoking and inspiring. I know I did. Oh, and the standing ovation at the end was really cool too.

Where you there? What did you think?

If you missed it, Portland Mercury News Editor Matt Davis, has published a complete (nearly verbatim) recap of all the presentations (including a few of Byrne’s slides) on their blog.

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