A beach in the middle of Portland? Will Levenson wants three of them. Until a couple of years ago, it would have been a ridiculous thought: Regular sewage overflows had Portlanders viewing the Willamette River as a giant septic tank. But after the massive sewage upgrade engendered by the 2011 completion of the $1.4 billion Big Pipe project, Levenson wants you to know that it’s safe to go back in the water.
Since 2010, the Popina Swimwear co-owner has organized an annual Willamette River flotilla of kitschy inflatables called the Big Float; this year, he helped organize a world-record 620 people holding hands on inner tubes. And now he’s building three public-access beaches in the center of Portland. WW sat down with Levenson to ask how he wants to change the way Portland thinks about its river.
WW: I grew up here. We didn’t swim in the Willamette.
Will Levenson: When I came to Portland, I got indoctrinated not to touch the Willamette because it was polluted. First I was disappointed, and then I got pissed off. I’ve been here 15 years and I’ve tried to figure out how to impact this discussion; the biggest impetus for me was the Big Pipe. It’s the largest public works project in Portland history. It took 20 years to complete. After a tenth of an inch of rain, raw sewage used to flow into the Willamette; it’s disgusting. It happened all the time.
But it’s safe now?
The Environmental Protection Agency, the Oregon Health Authority, the city of Portland all agree: It’s safe to swim. What’s stopping people? First, it was unsafe to swim in the Willamette five or seven years ago. And that’s hard to overcome.
But the other thing is access. When you look at other major cities—Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle—they all have water access. When you’re up top looking down at the Willamette, it’s like looking at an elephant or a tiger in the zoo from far away. “Hey! Look down there, it’s a tiger!”
Where are the beaches you have planned?
Tom McCall Bowl—a stretch of rocky beach access by Waterfront Park—is the lowest hanging fruit. We had a public event called Unrock the Bowl. [Mayor] Charlie Hales took part in that. At Marquam Beach—under the Marquam Bridge on the west side—there’s a perfectly good sandy beach made by people about 10 years ago. The only way to get to it is to climb over riprap rock at the breakers; it doesn’t invite you down there. We got approval from the city and the Army Corps of Engineers to make a path down to it. Also, we removed 140 tons of concrete from the east side of the Hawthorne Bridge. We’re calling it Audrey McCall Beach until we’re told otherwise.
So why not just go to the Clackamas or Sandy rivers?
The Clackamas is an awesome river experience; it’s my favorite river experience. The Sandy isn’t bad. But wouldn’t it be great if you could just ride your bike down to the river in Portland and go for a swim? Take the bus downtown? Get off at lunchtime and take a dip? What I want is for people to drive over the Willamette and say, “That’s Portland’s giant swimming pool.”
What will get people swimming downtown?
You have to create a human habitat. People have said to me they’d never swim in downtown Portland. I said, “So where do you swim?” “Oh, at Sauvie Island.” Well, you understand that Sauvie Island is downstream from a Superfund site at the confluence of the Willamette and the Columbia. But at Sauvie Island there’s sand, there’s trees. There’s packaging.
There are three things I like to see: One, a sign that says, “You’re welcome here, this is the swimming area, go this way.” Two, a path leading down to the swimming area that’s welcoming. Then, when you get to the end of the path, it should be a nice place to hang out.
As the owner of a swimwear company, do you have a certain incentive to get people swimming more?
The only incentive is just to do it. When you get into the water, it’s so liberating. It’s like having this crazy aunt you never got to know so well. But one day you maybe had a drink [with her], and she’s actually pretty cool. All the sudden there’s this great new friend of yours.
And the river’s the crazy aunt?
The river’s kind of like the crazy aunt. Maybe she went through a bad year of her life, but she pulled through it. We all understand that humans have the ability to screw up nature. Do we have the ability to unscrew it up? Right now you can make a difference by just getting in the water. It’s the world’s laziest revolution.