I love Portland. I like Chicago, as a friend. New York City is enthralling and wonderful – center of the civilized world, but Portland is the country’s heart – not because its representative, but because it’s what a heart is actually like. I say that as not a sentimentalist, but yes as someone in love with the city. I’ve spent about a week in Portland, and here’s what I find:
It’s incredibly easy to make friends here. You could just about develop a relationship with the community accidentally. I’ve spent hours on end with strangers – several times – without exchanging names – discussing everything from art to philosophy to social politics. I’m unconventional and don’t make friends easily – but I do in Portland. Whatever weirdness you bring will either go completely unnoticed here, be lauded and loved, or at worst get shrugged off with “to each his own”. Not once has anyone used the term “weird” except in a delighted way, as in “keep Portland weird” – which you hear a lot. The intense, in your face, far Northern attitude I bring doesn’t play as well in the relaxed environment, but people are reasonably accepting even of that, if noticeably a little more nervous about it jumping out at them.
Before I continue, let me say that my observations are necessarily generalizations (it’s the only way to talk about a people as a people, short of a catalogue), are specifically about Portlanders and Portland proper – not suburbanites who live outside the city, who seem mostly like suburbanites everywhere – disapproving in general (maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my take) and are also not really about the kiddies 21 and under (who seem, as they do in most places in the US, to include a lot of “douche bags” to cite someone whose explanations are very helpful, even if she was originally a San Francisco transplant – there are lots of those here). There are douche bags even among natives, she explains, but they’re just vastly outnumbered. On the train platforms, I saw nasty frat boy types, and nasty, witless girls, the behavior of both groups violent and anti-social, but they’re not representative of Portlanders as a whole. Portlanders place a premium on social.
Portlanders aren’t defensive (unless you mouth off in an inconsiderate way about religion or politics or things they think might be divisive – if you stay inclusive in choice of topics, they’re thoughtful, engaging, and they love you). I’ve several times noticed that one person will gladly engage in a conversation about issues, and another person will say “I’m going to get going, since it’s getting political” (in other words, because it could get divisive). Both parties, in their way, are demonstrating stunning tolerance. Portlanders are open to observations, questions, and even constructive critique about their culture in ways I haven’t seen in most of my travels. As a result, I can ask extremely candid questions readily and get incisive answers pretty quickly. They appreciate courtesy, and they are exceptionally courteous themselves. It’s a little different than NYC – I like New York’s directness and intensity, but in Portland they invest time in you, they hold your eyes, the invest attention – they put a premium on the value of connecting.
Portlanders are ethical shoppers – they are thoughtful about their life choices. They support local businesses, because they are taking care of each other, because that’s what it means to be a community. If there’s a fault, the individualism – which foreigners to Portland might call “intense” (that’s a misnomer – it’s anything but intense – it’s persistent, adamant, non-negotiable perhaps, but it’s also quite laid back and, overall, not very intense), means some people shop corporate stores. But for the most part, there’s a devoted, deeply devoted (again not “intense” – it’s an act of love not fanaticism or fervor) support for local business.
This is the home, for example, of myriad upon myriad local brews – both coffee and beer. I’m having both tonight – an Oakshire Overcast Espresso Stout on tap at the Living Room Theater. Coffee beer may sound strange but it’s malty with a roasted darkness. If you get to Portland, locally roasted Stumptown coffee reigns supreme, and their coffee is truly wonderful. I recommend the daily Stumptown coffee tasting in the Belmont district – after that, I could taste coffee like never before, and Jen (a transplant from NYC with stunning blue eyes) taught me how to talk about coffee. There’s one across from the Living Room, too, if you want. Sit down in the Ace Hotel. It’s full of tourists, and its in the Pearl District, but it’s still good coffee.
My favorite coffee is still Anna Bannanas on NW 21st street. It’s entirely worth camping out there for an afternoon for savory flavour of Alderwood roasted Fabriano coffee (you can get anything made w. that roast or just drink it straight) and the most comfortable seating of any of the coffee shops I tried. If you stay in the most affordable hotels close to the train – near the Convention Center area – try Sharif’s Coffee right on the train platform at the Rose Quarter (just hoof it past the Convention Center station – the Rose Quarter station is half a block farther down). Their coffee is Longbottom (another local roaster) just like the coffee served at the Living Room. I had it every morning except Sunday (closed), and the Living Room cured that.
This is the reason, cited by Maria and Michael, two roommates, that even though Portland is considered by most of the US to be among the least friendly (in terms of taxes and fees) to small business, it has, statistically, one of the highest per capita ratios of small businesses: Portlanders want to support local business, and they ‘flock’ to them in droves. Except, again, “flock” is a foreign word – Portlanders don’t “flock” – they’re individuals – they just have vast droves of people that individually are into the things that create a community. And it’s less doctrine than practice – it’s in motion – it’s a movement, but not a passing one. In the same way, there’s incredible support for sustainable and ethical business. Just an example, when you visit the iconic Saturday Market off the Skidmore train station, the North side is whatever, and includes lots of imported goods; the South side is bigger and is required to be locally produced goods only. Buy t-shirts on that side, hand-screened in a local’s basement (they make their own slogans too). Some of the incense burners from India on the North side are cool, but they’re also probably made by institutionally vulnerable and impoverished workers in unpleasant settings (I’m not suggesting they don’t need to eat, too, or that it’s wrong to buy them), but the ones on the South side of the tracks are works of art, made by people that live in Portland neighborhoods.
Part of the Portland ethos, too, is not wasting money on status-driven items or even spending too much on the things needed for life. It’s the most economical, least showy, real city I’ve seen. By “real city”, I mean excellent mass transit, international exchange of ideas, local industry and high density of privately owned business. I don’t consider a sprawl of corporate chain stores with houses and highways around it, to be a genuine city – that’s not about human habitation, it’s about consumption, which is still a disease in my book. Anyway, charge too much in Portland, and someone will simply grow or make it themselves in their attic or backyard. This is how Portland became the micro-brew capital – the government imposed exorbitant taxes on corporate beer – so they said “f*ck it” (something you’ll hear a lot – people aren’t inhibited about language in Portland), and they started brewing it for themselves. Beer is $3.25-3.75/bottle or $5/pint for hand-crafted, locally-brewed brilliance (in Oklahoma, we pay $6-7/bottle for bad Modelo). It’s true, the glut means they’re not making enough profit. It’s also true that the city taxes small businesses to death. But it’s also true that people favor the local brew where, in a lot of cities that have it, people just as easily reach for Heineken. But you choose Portland for love, and because it’s a constant dialogue between you and people who want you to contribute, and are willing to get involved with what you make. Forget Sisco – Portland is local – you can eat at places where local hand-made ice-cream, like Fifty Licks, is delivered irregularly to restaurants that don’t try to pass it off as their own, but happily tell you where it comes from.
The clothing exchanges (especially those around Hawthorne) are fantastic, and are microcosms of how Portlanders do clothing. I walked out with extremely high quality shoes, shirts, and other items for prices I was delighted with, and these are rugged items that aren’t likely to wear out soon. In a lot of the country, people tend to balk at such prices for “used” clothing ($14 for a shirt) mainly because it’s thrift stores with unsorted items, and the quality is just not very good (the products aren’t widely local or regional and usually aren’t the built-to-last outdoor wear common in Portland) with rare, overpriced resale shops (Nearly New on Brittan and Western in Oklahoma City is a great exception – great balance of price and quality and a huge selection). In these exchanges, which buy clothes you don’t want, or offer even more in store credit, you get lightly used, well-made clothes that you’re likely to trade again before they wear out. Overall, men dress rugged to funky and cool – you see a lot of men’s hats here; women dress funky to natural and crafted, with light or no makeup (their faces have expressions, they don’t all look alike, and they’re consequently more interesting as persons) – the realness is pretty hot.
Independent film – a special love of mine – is big in Portland. Besides myriad independent theatres screening all kinds of things you don’t have the option to see in the part of the country where I live (except for those functionally covert film festivals some of us are attending, along with five other people – Dead Center aside, which is always a full house – it’s our version of Slam Dance and a wonderful five day annual treat in Oklahoma), you also have taverns that screen indie films (part of their theme). So far, I really like Living Room the best.
Speaking of which: The place I enjoyed eating and having beer the most is the Living Room Theater. The atmosphere is stellar, the clientelle perfect, the location ideal, the staff incredibly friendly (that’s Portland), the beer and food something from paradise, and the the film selection is unparalleled. I saw Centurion there in the afternoon with lunch (you can be served in the theatre proper with comfortable, oversized chairs and tables, or in the “concession stand” which is a restaurant and pub – with everything from hand-crafted caramel corn to pulled pork sliders with BBQ and balsamic reduction). I’m watching Middle Men as I write this (which was dumped by the studio and is probably showing nowhere else in the world). I like it, and I’m about options – I guess I’m “commie Portland” like that. 🙂
Leaving the food behind is rough. My last dinner was at Paradox Cafe in the Belmont district – “paradox” because they’re a vegan restaurant that serves non-vegan food. That worked for me – I’m vegetarian (vegan when I eat out), except when I travel or sample a new venue. The best thing I had there was the cheapest – chili and cornbread muffin at $3.95. The cornbread is crispy and, crumbled into the bowl, gives the bean-based chili a texture that’s the best I’ve had. Two Brothers cafe, also in Belmont, made my day with their Chevapi (Bosnian food) at around $8. The sauce of red pepper and eggplant looks nuclear and tastes wonderful. On the NW side, Melt wowed me with a daily happy hour from 2pm to close. I had falafel sliders and mushroom crostini at $4/each, and local bottled beer at $3.25. I’ve since heard I can locate happy hour pints in the city for about the price of a bottle, but I was delighted with the fare at Melt – right on NW 21st, up the street from Anna Bannanas. The one place I feel sad to have missed is Pine State Biscuits. They close a 2pm, which is why I missed them both times I was in Belmont. I wonder if they’ll mail-order a box meal. Biscuit bento – that’d be good. I also missed my shot at Fifty Licks ice cream (I was holding out for the elusive Single Malt Scotch and Stumptown Espresso versions – I’ll have to go back to Portland). I didn’t stay away from the street food in Portland, either – had it from carts in three locations – my favorite, though, was the pulled pork sandwich with green and yellow tomatoes on fresh-baked bread at the Portland Farmers Market (Mondays 10am-2pm in Pioneer Square location). I want to order the Korean pulled pork sandwich from Namu’s cart in Hawthorne next time I’m in the PRP.
Personally, I’m a train/subway person – buses aren’t my thing – but the Hawthorne and Belmont districts will cure one of that. The concierge maps stupidly don’t even acknowledge that part of Portland’s existence. Portland, for them, seems to be the Pearl District and Nordstroms. Doesn’t everyone already have a Nordstroms? Who travels for that? Get the Zinesters Guide to Portland for a real (and cheap) travel guide: you’ll save money, have more unique experiences, and not be swamped with tourists. The excellent train system though, is complimented by friendly, competent bus drivers – a vast knowledge of the system and the willingness to help you get where you’re going. They stop every 15min in the day, every 30 at night. The web site (there’s an app for that) will give you directions to anywhere, including walking directions to the stop. Trains and buses are seamless – both audibly announce and visually display the upcoming stops. A monthly pass to all of Portland is $88, or about $30 for a week-long pass. You can ride throughout the city center for free though. I already knew Portland was the bike-friendly capitol, but seeing well-used bicycle racks at the airport (there’s a path leading all the way there from city center) was heart-warming. Also, they’re building another streetcar line on the East side of the river, which is fantastic! Like most historic streetcar cities, they used to be crawling with them, so it’s not only a nice historical restoration, but should make East side travel more integrated with city center.
Back to the culture: minorities in Portland don’t act like minorities in a lot of places. You get some of the diaspora mentality coming from some of the outer parts, where concentration causes the vibe to feed on itself, and people are expected to act a certain way. You see this throughout the US. But in Portland proper, minorities are just part of everyone else, whether ethnic, sexual, gender minorities, or whatever. We’re just people together – no dichotomies. But coming in on the train sometimes, you can catch a different vibe – from the suburbs and bedroom communities. Portland proper, in that way, is a microcosm of peace and friendliness, and the outer parts strike me as microcosms of the problems you find in most other places in the US. In Portland, it’s not actually tolerance – people don’t just put up with others – it’s not just acceptance, in the sense of acquiesing to a reality you might otherwise not like (one might more likely suspect that of NYC – though I think it’d be unfair to think that) – in Portland it’s openness. If you don’t attack and hurt people, you’re welcome. Do no harm, and no one will hate you – no one that matters – be open, and people will be open to you. I’m a white, straight male, and in one week in Portland, I had more meaningful conversations with black men and women, gay and transvestite men and women, and communists (who I found tolerant of my anarchism), and just women – interesting, intelligent, thoughtful women who aren’t gender polarized and will gladly just talk without worrying about whether I am or am not hitting on them, that I can remember having in years. And about that complete lack of uptightness, they’re so not uptight, that they have no problem with me making such a comment. They say, “Really? Where are you from that you have to deal with all these silly barriers?” I really enjoyed the freedom to interact with people as people, instead of across lines of difference.
One possible illustration of the attitude. I was in Belmont (district) for Stumptown’s noon coffee tasting. You go down the line with a single spoon, tasting several coffees, usually several times each. Each time, you dip your spoon in a glass of water next to the coffee. When I asked Jen at Stumptown, if they weren’t worried about germs, she said “this is part of our communal ritual”. I get it. My childhood training to squeamishness was standing on edge, but I did it anyway. Better what the one thing represents than the other. I’d go down in a sea of bacteria in exchange for what Portland means for me.
Besides, I’m Orthodox – I’m used to outsiders being shocked that we all receive the gifts from one spoon. You can tell them that the Body of Christ cannot bear sickness, disease, or death, and be the Body of Christ – that there has never been, in 2,000 years, anyone get sick or die from receiving the gifts unless they have received without proper preparation (being received into Holy Orthodoxy, maintaining the required fasting, and having receivedrecent penance) – something the priest mentions before the gifts are given and which charge is repeated in the Scriptures (“for this cause, some have become sick, and a few even fallen asleep”). Receiving properly, though, is necessarily harmless, and we don’t do it any other way – if you can’t do it this way, you can’t be Orthodox – you can’t be part of the community. It’s our communal ritual – I get it. I did the coffee tasting. And if I had died of some flesh eating disease, well there are few better things to die for than what Jen was talking about.
This is what Portlanders mean when they insist it’s a town, not a city. I didn’t agree at first, but I get it now. Portland certainly has the amenities of a city, but when they say it has the attitude of a town, what they mean is not that it’s a closed, protective environment – a connotation the word “town” can have elsewhere – unless by protective, one means protective of Portland’s openness; by “town”, they mean there’s a communal attitude. Portlanders are a community in the best, least homogenous, least restrictive sense of the word. They’re an open community. Overall, they’re perhaps the nicest people I’ve ever met. Not knocking nice people in other places, but in terms of sheer concentration, Portland’s most “in your face”, abrupt, demonstration of its uniqueness is precisely that. I stand on a train platform looking slightly confused and someone says, “can I help you?”.
The rents are affordable. House prices are better than most any city outside the Sun Belt. Life’s generally affordable. There’s significant unemployment and a large homeless population, although the slacker tradition is strong here, so some of that is likely voluntary – statistics don’t tell the whole story. I don’t want to paint the homeless as “the homeless”, like there’s one big brush – what I find here is that the homeless are just as diverse as everyone else – they are all kinds of people without a home for all kinds of reasons. Pandhandlers come off the same in most places, but there’s a difference between homeless and panhandlers. Some of the people that never ask you for a dime are the ones I most want to help. Incidentally, even the panhandlers are generally polite and take refusal in stride. The homeless in general here are part of the community, not outcasts from it. It’s not far off to say that Portland loves its homeless.
You can do just fine without a car here if you live in the city – transportation is excellent, so you can save a real chunk of change that way. If you’re concerned primarily about career and upward mobility, it’s not the place though. Pay is a little lower, and opportunities somewhat fewer, than other metropolitan areas. It shouldn’t scare anyone with the chutzpah to make it anywhere, but people live here for the love – they love the atmosphere, the vibe, the freedom, the openness, the arts and crafts, the eco-friendly politics, or just the focus on living, living and life perhaps above everything. Living, and living with each other, as people.
Speaking of politics, Portland gets called “commie” by some of the more homogenous zones of the country. It’s true, there are a lot of communists, relatively speaking – after all, there’s a lot more diversity of many kinds. Oddly, New York City gets less stigma for that, though you can find anything in NYC, perhaps because it’s the center of establishment Wall Street (and we like to give it a pass), and Ellis Island is closed (so the immigrant haters don’t get to throw stones), but picking on Portland is a little strange, by comparison. I guess you could say Portland is commie like San Francisco is gay and Oklahoma is hick. It’s there, but it’s certainly not everyone, and certainly not the whole story. Yeah, the visible concentration is high, though Tulsa, Oklahoma puts up a good fight to rival San Francisco in diverse sexual orientations, and I’ll wager you’ll find more active trade unionists in Midwestern industrial states, even if they vote Democrat. But actually, more Portlanders are too involved in taking care of each other as a community to be fanatical about any party, organization, or badge of correctness, left, right, or whatever. You’re going to find more narcissistic men holding forth about who is wrong with the world (always it boils down to a who, even if it’s a what) in lines at coffee houses in Oklahoma, than you can find on any street in Portland. As a rational anarchist, I’d do very well here, not because I’d fit in by being anarchist, but because I’d fit in by Portlanders not minding one way or another. It’s only my opinion, looking in from the outside, but I’d call Portland more functionally, rationally anarchistic than communist any day. We just find communists more visible, precisely because there are labels involved, and the other official parties (Neoconservative and Neoliberal) only recognize things which, like them, wear badges. Portlanders, for the most part, aren’t wearing any badges – they don’t like labels as much as a lot of the country, but they’re willing to work with nearly anyone – hence me calling it more rationally anarchistic.
That said, my favorite T-shirts I’ve seen in Portland are a blazing red one with hammer and sickle reading “Communism: Sticking it to the man since 1017” (I can’t wear it, as much as I’d like to as a provocateur in some rather intolerant places I’ve been – Communist regimes have killed my people in such numbers that it makes Hitler look like a member of Amnesty International – it’s not like Hiroshima or Nagasaki or Viet Nam, Serbia, and Iraq, of course – but it’s still 50million people under Stalin alone, not even thinking of Mao and others) and one that reads, “People’s Republic of Portland” (it was called The Little Beirut by the Bush Family, because they couldn’t penetrate the market at all) – another is Moscow on the Willamette. I’m not a communist, but I think that “sticking it to the man” bit is more the point for a lot of the communists here. It’s sticking up for the little guy – I can dig that.
One nice thing about politics in Portland – there are some dozen parties to register for. The state in which I live has two, bans write in candidates, requires 40,000 signatures to get an independent on the ballot – compared to about 4,000 for an original colony like Pennsylvania (and disqualifies half those, so you really need 80,000), and requires twice that number for a 3rd party candidate (3rd parties are more of a threat than an independent). A vast number of districts are gerrymandered, so that candidates of a single party run uncontested – meaning no choice at all, not even two statist ones. In other words, voting seldom has a point where I live – it almost always means business as usual – it’s like showing up yet again to re-elect Sadaam Hussein – it’s really just a formality. In Portland, people stand on train platforms offering voter registration, for the party of your choice, encouraging an active, robust political life. I’m sure there’s slacking in that regard too but, for those that care, at least they have freedom to elect who they please. Call that freedom “commie” if you like – that’d be an irony – but I certainly long for it. Ralph Nader recently came to speak in Oklahoma City on electoral reform (we’re 50th out of 50 in the nation on restrictions on electoral freedom, according to an inside source in Oklahoma government). While I can’t write in a candidate, and don’t have a 3rd party or independent option in my district, there’s at least a Green Party candidate running in one of them – I can talk about him, anyway. You can’t register for his party in Oklahoma, but if you live in his district you can vote for him as an independent at least. And we certainly need the proof of concept there.
Another way to look at Portland, for that matter, is through the eyes of its detractors. I did meet visitors from more restrictive communities – where they like it that way. One such guy says, “I hate Portland. There’s a bunch of f*cking liberals here. Guys like that wouldn’t last 10 seconds in my neighborhood. They’d get their asses kicked – f*cking commies and gays.” I think he hit the nail on the head: if you’re the kind of person that only likes to be around people that are more or less like you, or at least in the same general ballpark with maybe an arm wrestle over the two state(ist) parties, Portland is not for you. If you like to rant a lot about how others should live – if you like to condemn and preach – if you yell out of car windows at people with long hair (“go home hippy”) or guys with nice clothes and messenger bags (“faggot!”) then definitely stay where you are – you’d hate Portland. Here, in fact, it’s only that kind of people they don’t really like – and you’d hate it worse because they’d welcome you here too – you wouldn’t get the satisfaction of being stoned or burned at the stake here – they’d make peace with you, as much as possible, whether you like it or not. Bigotry falls into an endless chasm of good will in Portland, and you never really hear it hit solid ground again.
Incidentally, if you do visit, Michael, at the Living Room, relates how he was told to keep two things in mind when he first moved here. 1. It’s wil-LAM-ette, not WILL-a-mette. 2. Couch (street) is pronounced “Cooch” (it’s OK to laugh about it, too, if you end up down there on your way to Johnson). Getting a Zinesters Guide will pretty much get you started on the rest. Anyway, I’ll miss Portland. I’d love to live here permanently. That’s looking unlikely, but one can always hope. Next stop: San Francisco.