10 22 2014
  10:59 pm  
     •     
bridge over the Willamette

By R.S. Catalani

There’s a new bridge near completion, spanning our generous River Willamette. Its engineering is new, and what it will be carrying is new to us too. That elegant sweep of engineering will soon be bridging swaying MAX riders and pumping bikers, healthy walkers and sweaty joggers. And that’s all. No cars, no trucks can go there. Portland’s next (not yet-named) downtown bridge is a bold urban planning commitment in favor of commuting options that are very different from those of our city’s past.

New ideas and new practices are risky. New ideas about new directions are like that, everywhere. The risks of societal disapproval usually chill departures from old ways we do things. The risks of political error often paralyze our policy leaders – indeed, all of us. We’re like that, prudent presidents and peon farmers, smart professors and salty fishers, all the same. TriMet, our region’s urban transportation agency, the bold builder of both the bridge and the public’s support for this rather radical urban shift, took on all of that.

This is why a thoughtful mix of smart and salty local leaders, each from a different stream of civil society, business, and our several faith communities, is proposing that TriMet name this new east-west bridge, carrying that new commitment toward a more carefully planned city, after Portlanders Nohad Toulan and Dirce Angelina Moroni Toulan. Recently deceased husband and wife of 50 years.

Professor Toulan was a founder, former dean, and distiguished professor emeritus of PSU’s School of Urban Studies and Planning. Mdme. Toulan was an architect and Egyptologist. She came to the US as a Fulbright Scholar from Argentina; he came to us from Egypt. Last month, during several ethnic stream and mainstream memorial services, people joked about her excellent Arabic and about his awful Spanish. Mourners smiled away tears talking about their children’s mélange of Islamic and Catholic traditions. And about these parents’ love as the elegant bridge between those fertile shores. Three generations of all kinds of Portlanders recalled this devoted couple as civic leaders and community elders. All that, in quiet reverence.

Bridging here to there

Professor Toulan earned his Masters in City Planning from the University of California, Berkeley. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. All that Western learning he took back to his hometown Cairo, where in 1965 he became Greater Cairo’s first Planning Director. He authored many of the policies and practices that carried that cosmopolitan city into the new millennium.

The Toulan family moved their lives back to the US, to the Columbia University School of Architecture in New York City, then to Portland in 1972. Mdme. Toulan became an irresistable presence in their Portland neighborhood association and in their kids’ public schools from day one. Professor Toulan took on the task of building Portland State University’s new Urban Studies Department, and from that decade forward became identified with our region’s long and careful development of sustainable urban growth policies.

During a 20-month leave from PSU 1984 to 1985, at request of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Professor Toulan directed the Holy City of Mecca’s first comprehensive regional plan. Islam’s most sacred city’s population of about 1.5 million swells to almost double that number once a year, every year, with devout pilgrims from all over the world. Professor Toulan accepted this enormous responsibility, which required blending grand-scale logistical complexity and minute spiritual sensitivity. Nohad Toulan was one tough and tender man. His ideas were startlingly new, implementing them on the ground were at great risk. As all great change is.

The confidence of the Holy City’s urban planners and spiritual leaders in Professor Toulan’s bridge-building -- across both the built- and the human environments, across centuries of sacred architecture and social institutions -- was well-returned. The same was true for Portland State University president’s faith when Nohad and Dirce Toulan unpacked their young family’s boxes in River City, 40 years ago. Over those four decades, the nascent Urban Studies Department grew boldly into today’s College of Urban and Public Affairs, Nohad A. Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning. Mdme. Toulan took charge of endowing and building the college’s library. Between then and now, PSU and our metro area have become global models of sustainable urban growth.

Bridging you and me

A few days after Nohad and Dirce Toulan’s sudden passing, PSU President Wim Wiewel said: "Few represent the ideal of Portland State University more than Dean Toulan. He was a visionary whose work has shaped metro Portland and cities around the world."

Portland civic elder, local and international business leader Sho Dozono, stood next to Nohad and Dirce Toulan to break ground and cut ribbon for Oregon’s Muslim Educational Trust’s (MET) community center earlier this year. Shovels in hand and bridge-builders’ ideals in mind. Nearly 40 local ethnic communities gather at MET’s monthly events and study at its kindergarten-through-grade 12 college-prep school, the Oregon Islamic Academy.

“Dirce and Nohad Toulan in their respective ways taught us to bridge religious, cultural and ethnic divides,” wrote Mr. Dozono in his November 30 Guest Opinion for The Oregonian – “Yes, Dr. Toulan has been credited with transforming our city and the state through urban design and planning, but Dirce and Nohad also showed us how to live with each other in harmony and peace.”

Wajdi Said, beloved local interfaith conciliator and MET’s executive director, brought Portlanders the news of Professor and Mdme. Toulan’s sudden deaths while they vacationed in Uraguay.  “Dr. Nohad Toulan was one of the world’s most influential Muslim personalities,” said Mr. Said. “Dr. Nohad was a man of tremendous stature – a respected scholar, a bridge builder, a consistent and powerful voice of reason and hope, especially in recent, turbulent times after the tragedy of 9/11.”

But then, in that tearful smile endemic to all those ever in the joy of this Portland family’s presence, Mr. Said went on to say: “Some people’s memory never dies -- because their moral and political imagination are organically rooted in the living memory each leaves behind them.”

There’s a new east-west bridge near completion, spanning our generous River Willamette. Its engineering is new, what it will be carrying is new, maybe what we name it might root these New American giants’ moral and political imaginations too.

To support this Nohad and Dirce Toulan Bridge initiative, please visit: http://toulanbridge.com

 

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