Talk about your identity crisis. Washington's fourth-largest city is often designated as the Vancouver "near Portland. " Proud locals call it "America's Vancouver"...

Talk about your identity crisis. Washington’s fourth-largest city is often designated as the Vancouver “near Portland.” Proud locals call this “America’s Vancouver” to distinguish from the city north of the border.

And two years ago, its mayor smashed two Portland mugs sold at a Vancouver Starbucks to underscore that his Vancouver doesn’t play second city to anyone.

Touchy. But this proud Southwest Washington city believes it has much to brag about.

The city named after British explorer George Vancouver celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. It’s one of Washington’s oldest cities, with a rich military history and now a posh Hilton Hotel and a new Convention Center to help make it a major player in tourism.

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Vancouver — no qualifier, please — has worked hard to stake out its own identity.

In the past two decades, the city has refurbished Officers Row — where military brass including Ulysses S. Grant, George McClellan, O.O. Howard and George C. Marshall once slept — into a tourist attraction and rental units.

Its renovated downtown park has become a town square. And this fall, this city will get a new one-mile trail including a pedestrian overpass, part of “The Confluence Project” by Vietnam Veterans Memorial sculptor Maya Lin.

Civic leaders expect the “Land Bridge,” designed by Seattle architect Johnpaul Jones and connected to seven artworks along the Columbia River in honor of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-06, will generate much buzz.

Vancouver “is a lot like Bellevue in its relations to Seattle 20 years ago,” said Gerald Baugh, the city’s business development manager. “We’re trying to carve out a niche. That’s something that we’ve had to work on. … I’m not saying we are there yet, but we have changed greatly.”

Ten years ago, Vancouver annexed its neighboring eastside communities, bringing in 58,000 more residents, the largest annexation in state history. Baugh likened it to “a teenager who grew 5 inches over the summer.”

The city has matured much since.

Vancouver has a weekend Farmers Market that’s among the most popular in the state, a movie theater (Cinetopia) more extravagant than Seattle’s Cinerama and a hip jazz and wine festival.

This city of 158,855 is larger than Bellevue, and the pulse of its community revolves around the downtown area, divided into four districts:

The Historic Reserve

The Vancouver National Historic Reserve encompasses 366 acres and remains the city’s biggest tourist attraction, drawing 800,000 visitors annually. The reserve includes Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, with a replica of the fort that was a key outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a fur-trapping empire of the early 1800s. The fort comes alive daily with re-enactments, including blacksmiths in period costume and soldiers blasting cannons.

Nearby, Vancouver Barracks was home to the Northwest’s first American military post, and the restored Officers Row honors many generals and generals-to-be who were stationed here, including Marshall, leader of the Allied victory in WWII, whose Queen Anne Victorian home is open for tours. The desk Marshall worked behind in 1936-38 is on display in the front entrance with the guest book.

Pearson Air Museum features several WWI-era planes and memorabilia of the Russians’ historic landing here after the first transpolar flight in 1937. But some visitors seem more impressed that aviator Charles Lindbergh often landed here to visit his sister in nearby Ridgefield, where he hid from the crowds.

The Waterfront

Come mid-November, this city will have a one-mile trail and “Land Bridge” that will connect the Historic Reserve to the popular Columbia River waterfront, a link long ago severed by construction of busy Highway 14 and a major railroad route.

The trail will start around Fort Vancouver then lead to “The Village,” a new tourist site that will house Native American memorabilia and reproductions of Native American and Hudson’s Bay Company artifacts, with re-enactments of life during the early 1800s. The trail then goes to the pedestrian bridge over Highway 14, to a pocket park containing what’s reputed to be the Northwest’s oldest apple tree (planted in 1826) before ending at the waterfront.

This once-run-down industrial shoreline now features a waterfront trail, where hundreds of runners, bikers and dog walkers get their exercise along the Columbia River every day. The younger crowd sips drinks in the waterfront bars and restaurants, enjoying the view of Mount Hood and watching sailboats pass modern condominiums and offices.

Uptown Village

The boutiques and antique shops are the main draw in this north-end district along a seven-block stretch of Main Street. You won’t find big, full-service shops, not with downtown Portland a 15-minute drive away and with no sales tax in Oregon.

The small shops survive partly by offering quirky themes and novelty items. Moxie’s on Main sells 315 different carbonated sodas. The eclectic offerings range from a celery soda (Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray) and a soda with jalapeño oil (Brainwash Blue), to the gimmicky Japanese peach soda Ramune, where a marble drops into the soda after you push the top down.

The Heart

This remains the center of the city’s revitalization effort. The Hilton Hotel and Convention Center opened June 2005.

But Esther Short Park, the oldest public park in the West, named for a local pioneer and dating to 1853, is the city’s crown jewel. The Farmers Market draws 14,000 to the area around the park on Saturdays. Nearby, dozens of screaming kids in swimsuits play in the fountain and teen musicians fiddle for dollars.

It’s a vibrant scene every weekend, remarkable considering that 20 years ago the then-overgrown and largely overlooked park was more populated by drug dealers than happy families.

The park is symbolic of this city’s renaissance and spirit, said “the mayor of America’s Vancouver,” Royce Pollard. It’s a more welcoming place — just don’t bring any Portland Starbucks mugs.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com