Escape From Portlandia

by on July 17, 2012

Essays Issue 3 Nonfiction

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.


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