Escape From Portlandia

by on July 17, 2012

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 talkingaboutthestatue.

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.

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