London stories: Oxford

Lasker Rose Garden at the Oxford Botanic Gardens was once the site of the city’s Jewish cemetery. This gorgeous view belies the reality that Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and not allowed to return more than 350 years.

Exactly one month ago on a Saturday morning, I boarded a train at London’s Paddington Station and settled in for the 60-mile trip to Oxford.

It would take little more than an hour to reach the city in south central England, home to the world’s oldest English-language university, dating back to the late 11th century.

In a word, the experience was surreal.

Centuries-old structures are breathtakingly beautiful, both imposing and elegant. Along with university buildings. museums and churches, even pubs and a certain coffeehouse have been here for hundreds of years.

Magnificent architecture is everywhere in Oxford.

As in London itself, I was amazed how the old exists alongside the new. In a city with cobblestone streets, you’ll find wireless electronics stores, souvenir shops, high-end retailers, and a covered shopping mall with 125 stores and rooftop restaurants all sharing the public space.

I’ve been thinking about Oxford lately because I’ll soon be in England again to teach a communications course through Portland State University’s Education Abroad program. The two-week class begins in early July, and this time Lori will join me toward the end of the course so we can enjoy a few days as tourists. Our tentative plans include a visit to Oxford.

Coincidentally, The New York Times recently featured “the ultimate British college town” in its Travel section: “36 Hours in Oxford.” And just last week I watched David Letterman interview Malala Yousafzai, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner, on her life as a student at Oxford. (The interview on Netflix is here.) Seeing Malala, now 21, leading a tour of prospective students brought back pleasant memories of my own visit a year ago.


Arriving at mid-morning, I walked through a church graveyard past weathered headstones that had cracked or toppled over. I passed by the Oxford Castle & Prison, a tourist destination, and ventured into the city center, where I ran into groups of teenagers from around the world wearing Oxford University gear. Armed with a simple map and a sense of adventure, I decided against a formal tour and instead wandered the city on my own for hours.

I make no attempt to be comprehensive here in retelling what I did, when or in what order. Suffice to say there was plenty to see and lots to marvel at. A few highlights:

The university. According to the official web site, “There are 38 Oxford colleges, which are financially independent and self-governing, but relate to the central University in a kind of federal system. There are also six permanent private halls, which are similar to colleges except that they tend to be smaller, and were founded by particular Christian denominations. The colleges and halls are close academic communities, which bring together students and researchers from different disciplines, cultures and countries.”

Strolling through the grounds of the colleges was a serene experience. I felt a twinge of envy for the 24,000 Oxford students (divided equally between undergraduates and graduate students) admitted to study in such historic, prestigious surroundings.

The Weston Library. Built in the 1930s and formally opened in 1946 as part of the Bodleian Libraries, the Weston was hosting a special exhibition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous works, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” I was out of luck. Free tickets had been snapped up well in advance, so I made do with a souvenir book and checked out Ethiopian and Eritrean art in the lobby.

A moment of solitude. Stepping off the busy streets, I enjoyed a brief respite inside a small church, where I was alone with my thoughts. Here in the silence, I could appreciate the stained-glass windows and pristine interior of St. Michael at the North Gate Church. Even more so, the reverence with which parishioners had put together memorials for Oxford residents killed in the First and Second World Wars. I had a pleasant conversation with the woman who was cashiering in the gift shop and went on my way.

Food and drink. I ordered lunch from a Lebanese food cart and plopped down on the sidewalk with a hefty lamb gyro. Later, I spotted a place advertising itself as the oldest coffeehouse in Europe, established in 1654. Still later, I came upon The Bear Inn, the city’s oldest pub. Can you imagine a place that’s been serving up pints since 1242? Weirdly, that’s 777 years of continuous operation. Thanks to the low ceiling barely a foot from my head, I felt like a 7-footer who’d wandered in from the future.

Soapbox Science. Resuming my wanderings after a surprise thunderstorm, I came upon a small crowd gathered on a sidewalk in front of a young woman in a white lab coat standing on a small platform. Turns out it was a local professor who was participating in “Soapbox Science,” a national initiative to bring science to the masses through a grassroots outreach program. The professor was one of several, all women, who were giving presentations in the public square just outside Westgate Centre, the modern shopping mall I’d just come from. Read more here: London Stories: Soapbox Science.

Such a cool thing to do: Take science education to the streets.

With so much to see, I’m looking forward to coming back to this marvelous city with my wife. Perhaps we’ll take a Harry Potter walking tour. Maybe we’ll float on a canal or visit the 400-year-old Covered Market. Whatever we do, I think a return visit to The Bear is a must.

View of Oxford from the rooftop deck of Westgate Centre shopping mall.

Woody Guthrie Place: a home for dignity

Named for the famous folksinger, Woody Guthrie Place will soon be home to 64 families in the Lents neighborhood of Southeast Portland.

Most weekday evenings you’ll find Lori and me at “yappy hour” — a time when our little Charlotte can run around with her fellow terriers and any other dogs that show up at our neighborhood school.

On Thursday, I deviated from the routine for a good cause. I attended a grand opening celebration of an affordable housing project in Southeast Portland and a fundraising dinner to benefit the nonprofit agency that led the way in developing it.

The development is called Woody Guthrie Place, named for the famous Depression-era folksinger who once lived two blocks away from the site in the Lents neighborhood. The agency that made it happen is ROSE Community Development.

A ROSE staff member I’ve come to know through my work invited me to attend as a way of becoming more familiar with the organization, which has provided valuable work experience to several Communications students I’ve had in an internship class at Portland State University.

Jami LeBaron, communications manager at ROSE, organized Thursday’s grand opening celebration. She also mentors Portland State student interns.

To say I was impressed would be an understatement. I came away with a handful of positive takeaways about the great work being done by the public, private and nonprofit sectors to provide affordable housing — and dignity — to people who live in a part of the city that really needs it. My takeaways:


No. 1. Rose CDC rocks. For nearly 30 years, this nonprofit agency has been a beacon of hope to residents of outer-Southeast Portland through development of good homes, youth and family programs, and community support. With a 9-member staff, a volunteer board, and a dozen partnerships with public agencies and community organizations, ROSE CDC typifies the vital work that small nonprofits do, often flying below the radar.

The agency is perennially honored as of the Best 100 Nonprofits to Work For in Oregon Award as named by Oregon Business magazine, and its work has earned recognition from the governor’s and mayor’s offices, as well as other state and local awards.

No. 2. Meeting a basic need. With the completion of 64 mixed-income units at Woody Guthrie Place and 48 fully affordable units at Orchards of 82nd, another ROSE development recently opened in the nearby Jade District, ROSE is providing more then 100 families with a safe, affordable place to live. Most are seniors, single moms and people of color, all of whom are on limited incomes. The two new projects will bring to 465 the number of rental units, including single-family homes and and apartments, managed by ROSE.

For all these tenants, affordable housing means more than just a roof over their head. It means a safe place to call your own and raise a family.

I joined a tour of Woody Guthrie Place near the intersection of SE 91st Avenue and Foster Road and was impressed with what I saw: a four-story building offering 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom units with brand-new appliances, fresh carpeting, ceiling fans in every room, and a laundry room on each floor. Amenities include a community room, rooftop patio, an outdoors play space, car and bike parking, and ADA accessible units. The building is LEED Gold certified, has a solar rooftop and electric car charging stations.

No. 3. The right kind of housing in the right kind of place. As the third affordable housing development to open in the past year in this area, Woody Guthrie Place is the latest manifestation of the city’s plans for the urban renewal area known as Lents Town Center. Long disparaged as a mishmash of sketchy and outdated businesses just off Interstate 205, the district is taking on new life as a hub for affordable housing, brewpubs, restaurants and retail businesses. (Never imagined I’d see a Planet Fitness in this long-struggling area.)

Thursday’s fundraising event was held at the Asian Health and Service Center, a gleaming three-story building that is also a new addition to Lents Town Center. From the covered third-floor deck, you can look across the street to Woody Guthrie Place or further south toward Oliver Place, a two-building development comprised of apartments and ground-floor commercial space.

All of this development is the result of public investment led by Prosper Portland, the city’s urban renewal agency, and supported by the Metro regional government, Multnomah County and Home Forward, the city’s housing authority. Private sector involvement has come from a variety of construction companies, architectural and engineering firms, banks and utilities, notably Portland General Electric.

Bob Stacey, the elected official representing Metro’s District 6, which includes Lents, was among a half-dozen speakers Thursday night. He called Woody Guthrie Place “an amazing asset” for the region and the community. He said because it is close to public transit, it will serve the new residents well and make it “the right kind of housing in the right kind of place.”

No. 4. Why Woody Guthrie? The new development is named in honor of the prolific songwriter who lived briefly in the area while writing songs for the Bonneville Power Administration about the benefits of hydroelectric power being developed on the Columbia River. Originally from Oklahoma, Guthrie moved from Los Angeles to Portland with his young family in the spring of 1941 and wound up writing 26 songs in 30 days, including “Roll On, Columbia.” During that month, he lived with wife and three children in an apartment on SE 92nd Avenue.

Woody Guthrie and his family in 1941 (courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Museum)

Guthrie wrote more than 1,400 songs during his lifetime, including the famous ballad “This Land Is Your Land.”

This land is your land, this land is my land
From the California to the New York island
From the Redwood Forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

And all around me, a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me

According to a 2018 magazine article, it was during his time in Portland that Guthrie wrote a song that many view as his masterpiece: “Pastures of Plenty,” about poor migrant farm workers leaving Oklahoma to look for work picking fruit in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s clearly drawn from Grapes of Wrath, a book Guthrie read for the first time in Portland, but the fact that he wrote it while tromping around Oregon in the springtime reveals the masterpiece in a new light,” said the writer, Isaac Peterson.

No. 5. The music and message of Simon Tam. More than one speaker at Thursday’s event invoked the spirit of Guthrie’s work as a voice for justice, equality and civil rights. Among them was keynote speaker Simon Tam, an author and musician best known as bassist and founder of the Asian American dance-rock band, The Slants. In his remarks, he skillfully touched on music as a connector of people and places, and on dignity.

Keynote speaker Simon Tam with Travis Dang of SERA Architects, project designer of the Orchards on 82nd apartments.

Tam recently moved to Nashville but lived in Portland “just two blocks from here” for 15 years. In 2006, he founded an all-Asian American band and later applied to register a trademark for the band’s name, a move that triggered an eight-year legal battle with the federal government that ended in June 2017 when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in his favor. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had rejected the band’s name as “disparaging” but Tam said he and his bandmates “were re-appropriating this term and injecting it with our own power.”

If that fight over a racial slur was about self-identity, it was also about justice and dignity.

Tam said he loves ROSE precisely because of the sense of dignity that permeates its work, whether it comes from staff, board members, volunteers or donors.

“Music is both a ceremony and a time capsule,” tied to specific events and memories, Tam said. When you support ROSE, he declared, “you’re helping write that song of justice, community and dignity.”


Want to know more?

Here is the ROSE CDC web site:

Here’s a Washington Post story about Simon Tam and his memoir “Slanted: How an Asian-American Troublemaker Wound Up Before The Supreme Court.”

Here’s a piece from 1859 Oregon’s Magazine about Woody Guthrie and his time in Oregon:

3 down, 1 to go

In early July, I’ll be back in London with a new group of students to explore the British capital inside and outside the classroom.

Final grades have been turned in and I’m officially done for the spring quarter at Portland State University. That means I’ve racked up three full years of part-time college teaching, and I can now set my sights on one more year.

Next fall, I’m moving into a full-time position at Portland State, an opportunity that fell into my lap when it became apparent the Department of Communication was in need of some short-term help.

With one professor leaving for a job at another university, a second one going on sabbatical, and a third one recently retired, yours truly happened to be in the right place to take on an expanded role during the 2019-20 academic year. It’s for one year only, and that suits me just fine.

Starting in September, I will move to a 3-3-3 course load from my previous 2-1-2. That means I’ll teach three classes each during the fall, winter and spring quarters. As an adjunct instructor during the just-completed school year, I taught two classes in the fall and spring, and one during the winter.

The new teaching load isn’t as onerous as it seems. One of the three courses is the online internship class I oversee during each quarter, typically with anywhere from 12 to 15 students per term. The other two courses will be of the traditional butts-in-the-seats variety, totaling about 90 students per term.

I will teach Media Literacy (all three terms), Media Ethics (two terms) and Mass Communication and Society (one term). When June 2020 arrives, I will be done.

Though I’m excited by what lies ahead, accepting this full-time gig means having to cut the cord with Washington State University Vancouver, where I had also taught during the past three years.

So long, WSUV. Hello, PSU.

With summer arriving this week and the books officially closed on this school year, you might think I was kicking up my feet and getting some R&R. That’ll happen, but not right away.

In less than three weeks, I’ll be in the United Kingdom again to teach a study-abroad course to a group of 10 students from PSU and WSUV. It’ll be my second time teaching Media Literacy in London, and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in British media, culture and politics for two weeks.

The course runs from July 8 to July 22 and we’ve got a daily schedule packed with visits to the BBC and other media organizations; several guest speakers; guided tours of the city — on the bus, on foot and on a boat; and a handful of group meals, including a traditional British afternoon tea to welcome the students.

We also plan to sit in on a session of the Houses of Parliament at a momentous time in the UK’s history, with politicians still struggling to find an answer to the leave-or-remain Brexit question that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May.

This year, Lori will join me toward the tail end of the program so we can tack on a few extra days and enjoy as much as we can of the British capital. I know she will love the city as much as I do, and having her there is one small way of repaying her for all the support and encouragement she offered me last summer — and, frankly, all that she has tolerated during my three years of adjunct teaching.

Lest I get caught up in what lies ahead, I also need to look back and say thanks.

Andrew Swanson was my teaching assistant during the just-completed spring quarter at PSU.

First, to Andrew Swanson, who served as my teaching assistant in Media Literacy during the spring term. Andrew is a super-smart dude with an interesting past and an even brighter future. He was a professional motorcycle and race car for many years in Europe and the U.S. and later worked in the music industry.

In addition to his pursuit of a bachelor’s in social science, Andrew is program manager at Oregon Recovers, a Portland-based nonprofit that lobbies for improved treatment and support for Oregonians suffering from addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Hannah Fischer, of Portland State, and Darin Smith-Gaddis, of CAPA, have been staunch allies in my endeavors to teach abroad.

Another tip of the hat is due to Hannah Fischer and Darin Smith-Gaddis. Both have been instrumental in paving the way for me to teach in London.

Hannah works in Portland State’s Education Abroad office, where she coordinates faculty-led programs like mine. She helped me fine-tune my syllabus, developed the program budget, publicized my course and helped recruit students, and served as a liaison between us and CAPA, a Boston-based organization that offers global education programs in London and other leading cities.

Darin works for CAPA as a regional institutional relations manager. Based in Los Angeles, he works with colleges and universities in eight Western states, including Oregon, to develop study abroad programming. Darin provided expertise and enthusiasm as a program partner that I greatly appreciated when we launched the inaugural UK program.

Last week, he flew up to Portland to join me in a pre-departure orientation session for my London-bound students, offering tips on culture shock, British vocabulary and packing light, among other things. Afterwards, he and I and Hannah grabbed lunch and we kicked around some possible destinations and course topics should the stars align and I do this again in the summer of 2020.

It’s fun to fantasize about taking this summer gig beyond London, but my lips are sealed for the time being. In the meantime, enjoy this short video: