Escape From Portlandia

by on July 17, 2012

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Essays Issue 3 Nonfiction
Escape-From-Portlandia

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.

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