Essays Issue 3 Nonfiction
I distinctly remember the first time I saw Portlandia. Not Portlandia the TV show, or even “Portlandia,” the fantasy land that increasingly passes for my hometown of Portland, Oregon. I’m talking about the statue.
Located atop the entrance to an office building in downtown Portland, Portlandia is a 35-foot, trident-brandishing metal woman, the second-largest copper statue in the United States after the Statue of Liberty. It was vaguely terrifying to me as a seven-year-old, standing there on SW Fifth; it’s still a little terrifying today. I remember looking up into the night—the circumstances are lost to me now, but I remember it was night—at that Amazonian monstrosity, and I remember feeling confused.
How had that thing gotten up there? What was it doing tucked away in a particularly commercial corner of downtown? How come this was the first I’d seen or heard of what was supposed to represent my city? Portlandia is awkwardly huge: it’s too ostentatious, too loud, for the city it symbolizes. Despite the fact that the statue takes its name from the city and purports to be a symbol of its founding values, Portlandia doesn’t clearly speak for Portland; it doesn’t even seem to say anything about it.
I feel similarly about Portlandia, the TV show, which is about to start filming its third season. The series—created by SNL’s Fred Armisen and Portland-based musician Carrie Brownstein—is clever, but for something that bills itself as a “romanticized and dreamy rendering” of Portland, Portlandia only occasionally corresponds to the city I know.
To be fair, Portland—like the “Portlandia” presented by the show—does have a larger-than-usual population of the people who’ve come to be known as hipsters. In picturing Portland, the national imagination has seized on this demographic, turning my birthplace into America’s manic pixie dream town through a torrent of news articles featuring tattooed coffee enthusiasts and through a veritable cultural cottage industry that mockingly reinforces the notion of a “Portlandia” where “young people go to retire.” But those young people are one small piece of a large metropolitan population, and the show reinforces the growing misconception that Portland is solely TweeTown.
Of course, I have a stake in disproving a “Portlandia” that’s simply the quintessence of quirk, the essence of Etsy; my identity is inextricably bound to that of my birthplace, which I love unconditionally. Just as the show—which is, quite literally, a single-camera comedy—has its limited perspective, I have my own singular view of Portland. The Portland I remember from my childhood has undergone similar amounts of editing and postproduction; the burnished, Elysian city I see in my imagination is just as idyllic (and, arguably, fictional) as the one presented in the gorgeous opening credits to Portlandia.
But I’ve spent the majority of my life in the real Portland, and I can conjure additional perspectives to flesh out the city where I grew up, its flaws and its features. In the anthology of Portland narratives that I’ve inherited and investigated, what stands out in boldface isn’t a single history or even a set of characters; rather, it’s the folly of trying to understand a place through a particular generation or culture. It turns out that, after more than two decades of hearing—and telling—stories about Portland, there’s more than one way to read a town.
Portland’s always had trouble talking about itself. Consider its mottos. The official one used when I was growing up—“The City That Works”—was purloined from Chicago. The unofficial one—“Keep Portland Weird,” which appears on bumper stickers and murals throughout the 503—is a reappropriation of Austin’s.
But then, the city’s official branding has always been boilerplate. Portland’s not even the first Portland, after all. In 1845, when the scraggly town located at the juncture of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers started growing into a major settlement, two of the most prominent local landowners flipped a coin for the right to name the new city after their hometown. In a best-of-three series, Asa Lovejoy of Boston lost out to F.W. Pettygrove of Portland, Maine. (I have surprisingly vivid grade-school memories of the fateful coin, which is still on display in the Oregon History Museum.)
You’d think that two centuries of having to clarify that, no, they’re from the one in Oregon, not Maine, would have impressed upon Portlanders the value of good marketing. But, for a long time, the city derived its appeal from that anonymity: Portland became a place where people could wipe their own slates clean.
The city’s history is a narrative of escape, of starting over. The river-fording, dysentery-weakened survivors of the Oregon Trail found a fresh start in nascent Portland and the satellite towns that developed in the Willamette Valley. As the city’s shipbuilding industry ramped up for wartime production in the 1940s, more than 20,000 African Americans from the South and Midwest relocated to Portland. And when the fervor of the 1960s died down, large chunks of California’s counterculture broke off, sending all types of nonconformists even further off the grid and into the Pacific Northwest’s fog-capped hills. Today, Oregon is one of only 12 states where a majority of residents were born elsewhere, and many of those emigrants are living in Portland.
I may be an unconventional Portlander in that I was born there; but while I never chose the city, my parents did. In the 1970s, my mom and dad found new lives—and each other—in Eugene after growing up in southern California and Chicago, respectively. Eugene was the first stop for many Boomers escaping to Oregon. As the long-time home of Ken Kesey and birthplace of Oregon Country Fair (a proto-Burning Man), Eugene was—and still is—a mixture of students and hippies who were all playing hooky from mainstream society. Portland was Oregon’s Big City: the place where the Boomers, who’d once been told never to trust anyone over the age of 30, grudgingly acquiesced to adulthood.
At least a little. Portland was the chosen destination for so many Eugenians—and other recovering hippies—because it was a safe place to find one’s bearings. It retained a welcoming, small-town feel because it quite literally couldn’t become a large town: Oregon’s 1973 urban growth boundary law mandated comprehensive land use planning, helping Portland set smart city limits and stave off sprawl in an era when so many other American cities were succumbing to suburbanization. Tom McCall, Oregon’s governor from 1967 to 1975, famously said, “You’re welcome to visit Oregon, but please don’t stay,” and I grew up listening to neighbors talking fearfully and earnestly about Californians moving up and diluting Portland’s quality of life. The city was the West Coast’s best-kept secret: it had cultivated an off-kilter but very real sense of community where people could mature but be strange on the side.
To wit: my dad’s notionally square job doing marketing for the Oregon Zoo also involved booking and managing its world music summer concert series, which was a siren song for progressive parents and their multicultural, tie-dyed broods .My neighbors across the street—a graphic designer and a gem dealer—turned their garage into a shrine to surf and rockabilly music. One of my high school substitute teachers spent his weekends giving guided tours of the “mystery hole” he’d built in his backyard. When I grew older, my parents confided in me that certain Portland businesses, since become institutions and community benefactors, had been launched with laundered Eugene drug money.
These were the adults I looked up to as a kid. There was a common theme to their stories: namely, fleeing somewhere else and landing in permissive Portland. It was a city where runaways and weirdos finally grew into themselves and found a way to reconcile waving their freak flags with acknowledging real-world exigencies. It was a city, in other words, at odds with the “Portlandia” promulgated by the TV show of the same name—a construct that only exists within certain generational and geographical boundaries.
The sea change represented by this putative “Portlandia” can be traced back to the 90s and yet another wave of refugees. But for these asylum-seekers, Portland wasn’t the backdrop for their identities; it became the very fabric of their new selves.
Roughly 20 years ago, the city welcomed an influx of young people who—contrary to Gen X slacker stereotypes—actually wanted jobs. This was back when Portland could provide them. Oregon’s generous tax breaks for businesses had seeded the Silicon Forest, which sprouted a wide array of tech factories and campuses in Portland’s western suburbs. The creative industry also thrived: artists and designers flocked to Portland, where Wieden+Kennedy was quickly becoming one of the most successful independent ad agencies in the world due in large part to local client Nike.
And then, Portland’s prospects fell into a 15-year slide thanks to the dot-com bust—which deleted thousands of jobs—and the 2008 recession, which flattened a housing market that had been supercharged by the 90s population influx. But despite increasingly bleak job prospects, Gen Xers kept washing up on the banks of the Willamette River. Perhaps the city’s new advertising industry had done its job too well: the 90s made Portland into Seattle 2.0, and newcomers kept arriving to wrap themselves in its aura of coolness. Reality couldn’t harsh Portland’s buzz, so surreality set in.
Portlandia does a good job of capturing the fundamental bipolarity of a city that’s essentially in decline but still attracting busloads of young Americans in the prime of their economic productivity. The show’s sketches contain characters such as foodies who spend years interrogating the life stories of the animals they eat; feminist bookstore owners who are precluded from turning a profit by their meddlesome self-righteousness; and a mayor character who spends more time Tweeting and seeking affirmation than governing. The show’s sketches take place in commercial spaces—coffee shops and high-concept boutiques—that are less about earning income and more about peddling certain ideas of cool. Certainly, this “Portlandia” exists in Portland—specifically, in southeast or north Portland, where traditionally working-class and African
American neighborhoods are in varying states of gentrification. But believing it’s the whole story means buying into a certain generation’s sales pitch.
Portlandia co-creator Brownstein, guitarist for Wild Flag and formerly of Sleater-Kinney, is one of the Gen X transplants who found Portland in the 90s. The show is highly influenced by that generation’s perspective: the premiere’s first sketch is a musical number announcing that “the dream of the 90s is alive in Portland.” Most of the people in that sketch are thirty- or early fortysomethings, and it’s mostly this generation’s experiences that are explored in Portlandia.
Brownstein and Armisen get a lot right when it comes to skewering their peer group; Portlandia is nothing if not self-aware, and the show is generally successful as a sendup of a generation that defined itself through its cultural appetites. The satire is sharpest when it reveals how its characters, in championing the unappreciated and fringe as cool, unintentionally dilute the appeal of their chosen objects.
The “Cat Nap” episode, for example, bitingly lays bare the way Gen X culture cannibalizes itself. An indie-rock duo, unable to gain an audience in an overcrowded market, adds a cat to the lineup and makes it big. Soon, the band gets abducted by a psycho fan dead set on keeping them from going mainstream. The group rebrands, taking on their kidnapper and making an additional gimmick out of their captivity; an ecstatic Pitchfork editor decides the band is the apotheosis of music and shuts down the site, declaring its mission accomplished. It’s good parody of popular culture today, of how what’s construed as indie music is actually produced and consumed in an increasingly cynical, cyclical, and deranged way. But it could just as easily have been set in Williamsburg or Silver Lake. In Portland, this kind of culture is part of a much broader and weirder tapestry.
Many of the show’s characters would be more at home in a slightly edgier place. While bicycle activism is a vibrant movement in Portland, there’s a stridency to the “Bike rights!” character riding Portlandia’s streets that cuts against the city’s passive-aggressive disposition. Many of the show’s sketches revolve around psychotic competitions of connoisseurship that find characters battling to establish their credentials, like the two who try to find a periodical or article the other hasn’t read. And while that drive to establish one’s cultural superiority may be a hallmark of the different types of identity explored by the show, it’s an aggressiveness that, in my experience, is generally muted in Portland, where even the most rabid consumers of culture are usually pretty genial and low-key about it. To me, Portland’s interstitially weird—it’s a place where a 24-Hour Church of Elvis is sandwiched by drab office buildings. It doesn’t earnestly trumpet its quirks.
Or at least it didn’t before the Gen Xers arrived. The Portlandia sketches that resonate the most for me usually involve the Peter and Nance characters. Armisen and Brownstein play a middle-aged couple that feels increasingly out of place in “Portlandia.” They occasionally try on younger identities and stage brief forays into the hipster happenings around them, joining an urban farming commune in one episode and buying motorcycles in another. Once hip, now square, these fading flaneurs expose a poignant truth about Portland: it’s a palimpsest of different generations that were all, in their day, a little non-conformist, a little edgy. Peter and Nance have been effaced by Armisen and Brownstein’s generation; their pathos echoes that of the real aging Portlanders who’ve been relegated to the margins of “Portlandia” in favor of a younger generation that has exploited the city’s culture for their own cachet.
In this sense, Portlandia is—possibly unintentionally—an amazing simulacrum of Portland. But it’s not read that way very broadly, and the show’s name endorses a certain way of thinking about the city. “Portlandia” is a metonym for a breeding ground for Kombucha-swilling, fedora-wearing narcissists. And now, that metonym has become so embedded in our national culture that even some normally intelligent publications have started treating living in Portland—a city that’s weird around the edges but essentially rational—as the DSM definition for “hipster.”
Brownstein jokes in one episode that “most people from Portland are just from Brooklyn.” IRS data backs that up—several hundred people move from New York to Portland every year—but the exchange goes the other way as well. Midtown Manhattan’s Ace Hotel is an outpost of a growing Portland empire. Ditto for Stumptown Coffee, the Portland-based chain with a name that harks back to the city’s origins as a logging mecca.
And if you read the New York Times’s lifestyle-oriented content with any regularity, it’s possible to mistake Portland for the sixth borough. The “36 Hours in Portland” online content is feverishly refreshed, and Portland restaurants and bars pop up with uncanny frequency in the pages of the Times—uncanny because you don’t need to leave New York to find organic gastropubs or artisanal cocktails.
The missing ingredient Portland possesses—at least for the Times—seems to be a smug lack of self-awareness. There’s an undercurrent of awe in a lot of these Times stories, which seem shocked that such a whimsical place—shrouded by rain clouds, chock-full of aesthetes and gourmands indulging their Rabelaisian appetites—could exist.
In an article on Portland coffee roasters, the lede has a patron asking a roaster about a particular batch’s tasting notes. “It started a brief but knowledgeable conversation on coffee, one that would have stuck out as self-important in a more jaded city,” writes the reporter. “But in Portland, a city with fewer than 600,000 residents and more than 30 coffee roasters…the exchange was routine.” Except: that question would be equally commonplace in Brooklyn. Except: wee little Portland’s metropolitan area actually includes well over two million people, and many of them find Starbucks posh. Except: that conversation would reek of self-importance in 99% of the Portland coffee shops I’ve visited. There’s a persistently patronizing tone to these articles and an assumption that Portlanders are naïve and oblivious.
That tone extends to a recent post on a Times style blog, which delved into the wacky world of Portland barbershops. The businesses the author chooses to highlight further expose the infantile origins of the national fixation with Portland. One of the barbershops in question attracts adults who bring their fathers for “a nostalgic barbershop experience.” Another is situated in a converted garage, and still another has a lounge with TVs, darts, and a pool table. The article quotes a Portlander who says the city’s men grow beards because they’re “all about simplifying [their] lifestyles.” There’s a condescension, here: a superior fascination with the childlike innocents of Portland who refuse to adopt the rituals of adult life.
For many, Portland has become an embellished Neverland full of smug Peter Pans. It’s a singular place filled with layabouts who collectively pursue a regressive fantasy of perpetual youth. The Awl recently linked out to an article about “chicken retirement homes” under the title “Most Portlandey Thing Ever Happens in Portland.” And while this is (apparently) a thing that is happening in Portland, it’s both reductive and self-fulfilling. In Portland, the abnormal has become newsworthy in and of itself—it’s an easy pitch for stringers who magnify its extent. In its cosmopolitan parochialism, the Times and outlets like it are far more self-satisfied than the Portlanders they cover, telling stories that you won’t even find in the local papers.
I returned to Portland after graduating college to intern at The Oregonian. I was fairly incredulous at my luck. Not only would I be working for the newspaper I’d read every morning growing up and earning a (tiny) stipend in a state where the unemployment rate was hitting its recession peak of 11.6 percent; I would also be employed as a reporter.
This was 2009, a year in which the reeling U.S. newspaper industry had shed 5,200 jobs. Despite The Oregonian’s once-sterling reputation, it was plagued by the same problem that faced every other print newspaper in the nation: it couldn’t monetize its product in an increasingly online world. This was no fault of the newsroom’s, but reporters were paying the price. Shortly after I arrived, The Oregonian’s parent company rescinded its no-layoffs pledge. Not long after that, a few dozen reporters were fired.
So I was fortunate to be employed in a profession that I loved; but that profession was dying, and the gig was terribly depressing. Newsroom morale was low and editors were desperately toying with the journalistic formula in a frenzy to find content that would create web traffic. My first assignment was to drive out to a north Portland park at 4 a.m. because Al Roker was shooting a satellite segment there for The Today Show. There was a sizable donation tied to Roker’s appearance, but Roker’s national stature was the main driver for this bit of reporting: his name was Google-able. He was Internet fodder for a publication that was desperately trying to beef up its web presence and find revenue beyond its limited local audience. The logic behind that coverage was the same reason I covered a Huffington Post slideshow that mentioned a Portland farmer’s market and covered a half-hearted PETA protest of horse-drawn carriages.
These were the easiest, most digestible pieces I wrote at The Oregonian, and they were also the least enjoyable. The good assignments took me to places in Portland that I’d never seen and let me tell the stories of the people who’d pass for extras in the nationally constructed “Portlandia.”
For example: Portland’s new Major League Soccer team, the Timbers, has been covered at length in both Sports Illustrated and Grantland. (The latter’s piece on the burgeoning rivalry between the Timbers and the Seattle Sounders leads off with a forced anecdote about the hometown’s “hippie/hipster” atmosphere, but at least the author acknowledges that said atmosphere also permeates his own neighborhood in Los Angeles.) But those articles don’t talk about the city’s triple-A baseball team, the Beavers, which was evicted from its longtime stadium by the arrival of the Timbers. Those articles also don’t talk about the thousands of Beavers fans—several of whom I interviewed for a story—who were lamenting the last gasps of baseball in Portland.
Not many Portlanders realize that their city is where the Red Sox discovered Ted Williams, or that a 56-year-old Satchel Paige once pitched for the Beavers. I certainly didn’t until I interviewed those Beavers fans. But I was less surprised to learn that bit of trivia than I was to discover that no one else was covering the story. Portland’s a perfect microcosm for another sports reporting trend: the decline—real or imagined—of America’s national pastime. But the city’s sophisticated branding—which also obscures just how bad its economic outlook has been—makes it a much easier pitch to deploy the city’s faux-European trendiness in a narrative about how soccer’s taking off across the Pacific Northwest. There are legions of Portlanders who are Beavers fans and would sacrifice limbs to have an MLB team replace this sissified MLS squad, but their existence is dissonant to the national stereotype of effete Portland.
Sadly, the economics of journalism mean that even local news outlets are having a tough time telling the stories of these types of Portlanders—no matter how passionate the fans of triple-A baseball, they’re just not a big web presence. That’s a frightening reality, especially in a place where parts of the population are ignored and in bad need of coverage.
Portlandia has used non-white characters in only a few sketches. (And I’m counting the cringe-worthy one that awkwardly places LaMarcus Aldridge, a Portland Trail Blazer, on the show’s feminist bookstore set.) That omission stems less from racism than it does accuracy: Portland is extremely white. This is something that’s factually true—according to an article The Oregonian published shortly before I left, Portland is 74% Caucasian and “the whitest big city in the nation”—as well as anecdotally self-evident. Walk along a downtown Portland street on a busy day and you’ll maybe see four or five minority Portlanders. Perhaps because of that imbalance, race is the least discussed topic in nominally progressive Portland. (Not counting the twin specters of poverty and class—but where in America are those issues ever discussed?)
I was assigned several race-related stories during my time at The Oregonian. For one, I interviewed people who were absolutely incensed that the city had recently rechristened Portland Blvd. as Rosa Parks Blvd. and 39th Street as Cesar Chavez Blvd. For another, I talked to prominent local businesspeople intent on stopping a new center designed to protect Latino day laborers from exploitation and to help them earn a working wage. In the days after the paper published that second piece, I arrived at work every morning to an answering machine full of racist messages from people who preferred calling in the early morning hours in order to avoid a dialogue about race. I wasn’t exactly surprised to learn racism existed, but I was dismayed that you couldn’t even hope to have a rational conversation around these types of stories—that important and seldom-discussed facets of Portland were being ignored by locals, too.
The city’s widely accepted identity as a accepting, progressive place—as a “Portlandia”—makes it easy to ignore race. Surprisingly, Portland’s most prominent TV role over the past year wasn’t Portlandia but rather an endlessly repeated (at least during sports telecasts) Chrysler commercial featuring African American NFL player Ndamukong Suh. One of the sport’s two or three most recognizable defensive players, Suh graduated from the same high school class as me. (Our middle school soccer teams were rivals; if he remembers me, it’s surely as one of the terrified defenders he shoved aside while lumbering toward goal.) The commercial shows Suh driving a Chrysler through a drizzly, sooty, down-on-its-luck city. The average viewer could be forgiven for thinking the ad’s set in Detroit: Chrysler’s based there, Suh plays for the Lions, and—biggest giveaway—the campaign is titled “Imported from Detroit.”
But the ad was shot in north Portland, the historical core of the city’s black community, and the lone giveaways of this setting are brief views of my high school and the city’s skyline. The commercial, produced by Portland-based Wieden+Kennedy, was filmed not far from Vanport City, a massive, cheaply constructed public housing project that, in 1948, was flooded when a shoddy dike broke nearby. The flood killed 15 and displaced thousands of African American transplants; it is perhaps Portland’s deepest shame. But it’s not a story that’s widely told about—or in—fixie-riding, home-brewing Portland. And for all its natural beauty, the City of Roses also has bits that could pass for Detroit—another misunderstood and widely stereotyped American city.
To the extent that in-depth conversations about the identities of modern American cities happen, they’re happening in local newspapers. Reporters at The Oregonian are too busy keeping up with city council meetings and homicides and street name changes to worry about hipsters (though the vagaries of SEO are quickly changing the paper’s priorities). Local print journalism isn’t always pretty—in bleak economic times, proofers are often the first to go, and the grammatically sensitive would do well to avoid the latter-day Oregonian—but it still captures the most complete representation of how cities live. Instead of generalizing—lumping masses of humans into the same category, missing the city for the skyscrapers—newspapers quote individuals. They tell stories, one by one.
The problem with talking about a “Portlandia” is that it mistakes the place for its people, creating a monolithic city that subsumes the individual identities of its residents. In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, William Deresiewicz talks about how Portland—the “hotbed of all things hipster”—is a microcosm for Millennials (whom he also reductively equates with hipsters). “Here’s what I see around me,” he writes, “in the city and the culture: food carts, 20-somethings selling wallets made from recycled plastic bags, boutique pickle companies, techie start-ups, Kickstarter, urban-farming supply stores and bottled water that wants to save the planet.”
Deresiewicz sees these things and concludes that young people living in the 2000s belong to Generation Sell. But does he see the economic conditions that necessitate these DIY business ventures in Portland? Does he see there are actually a startling number of subcultures making up this movement he’s supposedly seeing? In his rush to sum up entire generations, does he see that hippies—whose heyday, he writes, “lasted for all of about two years”—are still going strong in Portland? Probably not. I take Deresiewicz at his word: he seems to literally be standing in one place and describing what he sees passing by his random Portland street corner.
No city is simplistic enough to be described from a single vantage point, through a single story. Since leaving Portland three years ago, I’ve lived in San Francisco, Hong Kong, and now Melbourne. I don’t claim to understand any of these cities, but I’ve done my best to get a read on them. I’ve pored over their newspapers, commuted on their subways and trams, adjusted to their living, breathing tempos. I looked beyond their broadest narratives—Full House, Hard-Boiled, True History of the Kelly Gang—and talked to locals. I learned how their neighborhoods prospered and crumpled, how their families grew and scattered.
These stories, taken singly, don’t say much; they’re Portlandia statues, largely inscrutable and contextually adrift. But it’s the accretion of narrative that creates the cities in which we live, the cities we love, and it’s the cloaking of this accumulated complexity that leads us to point and laugh at the towns we’ve only seen on TV.