Portland, Imagined from Afar

Editor’s Note: For those keeping score at home, I am still recovering from injuries involving a broken collarbone and arm due to a bike mishap which will be detailed in an upcoming blog post, of course! I’m recovering from surgery and the healing process requires intensive rest. Will Simmons who writes the Pittsburgh Orbit blog offered to contribute and I can’t thank him enough. I like that this piece offers a glimpse into how Portland is perceived from the outside world. It’s nice to be able to provide content until I can make my return, hopefully in August.


line of food trucks, Portland, OR

Everyone eats here all the time…maybe? Food trucks on a sunny day, somewhere in Portland. (photo: trazeetravel.com)

This is a work of fiction–or, at least, of the imagination and speculation. Your writer has only ever been to Portland once, as but one of many stops on a five-week (nearly) coast-to-coast (and back) road trip more than twenty years ago. The details of that visit are extremely vague–a rainy night in an old movie theater, seeing Japanese spaz-rock band The Boredoms at a big nightclub, The Museum of Advertising, squabbling with our local hosts, a big breakfast at a lumberjack diner on an island–or maybe we just had to cross a bridge. Who knows?

I loved it. But I loved it in the way you get excited about any brand new place you just get to have fun exploring for a few days before moving on or heading back to the real world. What do I know?

Three men holding full beers in toast around a copper brewing kettle

Everyone in Portland is a beer geek, right? (photo: Willamette Week)

So what gives this no-nothing any right to author a post for the prestigious Portland Orbit? Well, I’m going to tell you something. I took an oath–yes, a blogger’s oath. Orbit C.O. David went down with a broken arm incurred in that most Portland of circumstances–a bicycle wreck. David’s convalescence will greatly impede his ability to report, photograph, and write, so I stepped-up with an offer to do what bloggers do best: figure out how to make it all about me.

six-story office building with floral outer layer

Where even office buildings look like the wallpaper in an opium den and are named like microbrews and/or circus acts. The Fair-Haired Dumbbell (proposed). (photo: Norris, Beggs, & Simpson)

[Cue: fantasy music and shimmering soft-focus.]

That single visit way back in 1993 may be short on specifics, but it made a deep impression. Clean, crisp air, an enviable climate[1], gentle, easy lifestyles, a fierce old hippie/new indie–dare we say pioneer–spirit, ample natural beauty in all directions, trees and flowers everywhere. Some of these things aren’t going to change, but we wonder about the others.

What of the city itself–what does it look and feel like? The Internet offers us ways to travel vicariously like never before. Maps show pretty much everything east of the Willamette River as a giant grid, with a few bisecting angles and some gentle curves–Jeffersonian in its sensibility with enough interesting variances to not seem completely metric.

“Virtually” touring the city via Google Streetview (without knowing where to go) a bunch of the stereotypes jump right out: plentiful trees, bicycle infrastructure, uh…youth/yuppie-oriented businesses, hippie colors, and yes, expensive-looking brand new condos. I was surprised by how pancake flat so much of the east-of-the-river/majority of the city appears to be–aren’t you guys in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains? The wide streets and long stretches of low-slung buildings seem very western (or, at least, mid-western) to these eyes.

The intersection of Burnside & 28th, Portland, OR with new condos, novelty bicycle rack, old-school cocktail lounge, and a store called "Smut"

Is this what Portland looks like? Burnside & 28th: new condos, novelty bicycle rack, old-school cocktail lounge, a store called “Smut”. (photo: Google Maps)

The intersection of Stark & 82nd, Portland, OR showing wide streets, low-slung buildings, lots of parking, some hills in the distance

…or is it more like this? Stark & 82nd: wide streets, low-slung buildings, lots of parking, (almost) no trees, very flat, but with some hills (or is that a park?) in the distance. (photo: Google Maps)

Friend and co-worker “Rizzo” moved to Portland with her husband three years ago and though still a relative newcomer she’s already adopted the native complaints of rising rents and “damn Californians moving here!” The couple were ousted from their cute, rented bungalow in Mt. Tabor by a landlord looking to sell the place for the better half of a million bucks. From afar, it sure seems like the real estate market is off-the-charts nutso and its attendant crush of people sounds like a headache and a traffic jam all rolled-up in enough stress to harsh the mellow of even the kindest (now legal) bud.

Are Portlanders already moaning about the golden days of…what were the golden days? The pre-hip eighties? The punk rock nineties? The microbrew/locavore aughts? The last day before Portlandia[2] first aired?

costumed people riding bicycles, Portland, OR

Take the high road. White people retro bicycling (photo: dollface.net)

We imagine the palest of “whitopias,”[3] a place where over-educated liberals congratulate themselves on their acceptance and diversity of opinion–at least when it comes to transgender rights, body piercing, and euthanasia–but may go days without seeing a black person. Media would have us believe the inmates have taken over the asylum–that every denizen of this quickly-growing middle-to-large-sized city is a hopped-up doobie-smoking punk rock vegan costumed bicycle-riding gluten-free transvestite. It can’t really be like that…can it? I would assume there are, you know, “real people” who work everyday jobs, drink Budweiser, shop at Wal-Mart, and watch network TV at night[4]–but you wouldn’t know that from the press.

The future’s here right now, the song says, if we’re willing to pay the price. It’s a strange, wonderful, and horrible time to be alive, I suppose–the whole world at one’s fingertips, every thought, image, and deed but a click away. But what do we really know? Ah, heck, I need to get out and visit David, Rizzo, and the gang and see what the hell is really going on.

[1] This cool weather-lover considers 45 degrees and drizzling to be ideal. On the other hand, I imagine it would be a bummer if you don’t ever get real snow.
[2] It is impossible to write a Portland imagined piece without name-dropping this ultimate national media satire of its citizens. I’ve only watched a couple of episodes and stopped because I just didn’t think it was that funny. People tell me the same thing about Dilbert: “You don’t get it.” I think I probably do.
[3] Pittsburgh also ranks as one of (perhaps the) “whitest cities,” depending on who’s counting and what measure they’re using–but that’s mainly when you consider the entire region, which includes six very rural counties surrounding Allegheny, and the city’s overwhelmingly white suburbs.
[4] SteelersBars.com lists two establishments (A & L Sports Pub and Skybox Sports Bar & Grill) that suggest at least some of Pittsburgh’s ex-pats haven’t traded in their Terrible Towels for hemp dashikis…yet. Whether the natives ever show up for “an imp ‘n Iron” is unknown.

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