Piercing the Shell of Portland's Hype

Still from Portlandia. Interior photos by David Ensminger.

As America’s pop culture boomtown, Portland may be held hostage to its own ever-expanding clichés. Or not.

“Portland is where young people go to retire,” Fred Armisen intoned on the inaugural episode of Portlandia, his sleeper cable TV hit with Carrie Brownstein. The show’s wide-eyed sardonic take on the still gritty northwest city is rich in detail and gusto. Like the city, it exudes an offhand charm and post-punk sensibility as it plumbs the city’s subcultures.

With biting zeal, it depicts everyone from ornery bicycle riders and tight-lipped lesbian bookstore owners to craft shop entrepreneurs (the skit that spun the now ubiquitous phrase “put a bird on it!”) and geek-chic library hide-and-seek enthusiasts. In the fictional setting, the mayor plays in a jam band, and the young, skinny, and mostly white citizens roam in overdrive eccentricity, retrofitting the old port town’s inner enclaves with their funky brand of all mods con.

In reality, Portland is a town of ongoing possibilities and over-night industries, no doubt. Whereas Austin might have a few stretches bustling with niche record stores, multicultural smorgasbord food trucks, and boutiques selling wares meant for hot talk nights at a nearby roots rock bar like the Continental, Portland is a whole other breed. If you throw an organic soda can in the air, it will likely hit an elbow-to-elbow brew pub, cannabis club, countercultural bakery, artisan donut shop, or art gallery where people make assemblages from doll heads and vintage metal spice cans.

This can happen in multiple neighborhoods: the gentrified formerly black neighborhood surrounding stretches of Mississippi Ave.; the Pearl District’s neon nights spots; Hawthorne Boulevard's mile of past trendsetters; the multi-tongued culinary pleasures of 23rd and 21st streets; and Alberta Street’s fully facelifted northern cityscapes, where doldrum streets have given way to ping-pong echoing courtyards, endless eateries, snow-cone vendors, and farm-to-city stalls.

Murals and graffiti swallow the sides of buildings, people line up for chef-inspired ice cream at Salt and Straw, and music stumbles onto the pavement from bars promising long awaited nights of 20something satisfaction. At such junctions, the city feels like it's in hyper-drive right now, like Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1999. As bubbling interzone and vortex for America’s entrepreneurial spirit, it reeks of start-ups and handiwork.

Yet, costs do incur. For instance, one should not ignore the displacement of local minorities in their historic neighborhoods. Some of those voices have been given an outlet by the Restorative Learning Project, which seeks justice and reconciliation in the long term, and home improvement loans and city grants in the short term, for those not sharing the wealth and progress as easily as mostly liberal middle-class whites that flock to the hip streets.

The food revolution keeps prices steady in parts of the city. For $5, you can gulp down a huge box of reinvented mac’n’cheese, laced with garlic and kale, from Retrolicious, a pink food truck down on Everett Street, or walk another ten feet and order a homemade orchata and vegetarian tamale stuffed with green beans, carrots, and hot sauce, served on plate ware, not flimsy paper.

Heading over to Everyday Music, seemingly the biggest music chain in the city, you can bask in nonchalantly blasted tunes, all stemming from the clerks' fave lists, by Metallica and Unsane. Go grab classics from the Pogues and Ramones to the Raveonettes for $1.95 -- gems found in bins of scuffed CDs. For those seeking even cheaper kicks, CDs can be found for 25 cents alongside piles of fanzines and magazines, fiction, biographies, and films in foreign languages at Title Wave, Portland Library’s used bookstore.

For those desiring edgy culture opportunities, local homeboys like Shrunkenhead Skateboards provide the tools, though skateboarding is banned in downtown. This forces kids to gravitate towards the shadow-enveloped skate park underneath Burnside Bridge. Even Tony Hawk has even deemed the curves fit for authentic shreddin’, perhaps soundtracked by the punk band explosity of local lumpen luminaries past (Poison Idea, the Wipers, Dead Moon, Resist) and more recent (The Epoxies, Tragedy, and Vivid Sekt). This is the old warehouse district, frenetic and alive in the tightly squeezed spaces.

Armed with desire and curiosity, you can buy a Renovo bicycle, which replaces carbon with lightwood hollow wood, linking the sport and leisure with the city’s longtime past as the transit center of the logging industry. On the retro-futurism manual machine, peddle down to see burlesque performers like Betty Bombshell and Lucky Lucy O’Rebel at Plan B, or skim past the ghosts of Melody Ballroom, whiz down one of the rust-flecked steely span bridges, and seek the permanent midnight exotica of Mary’s Club, a vintage strip joint with feminist undertones.

If sweeter carnal pleasures are a bigger lure, then the lines at iconic Voodoo Donuts are worth the wait, especially for their sloppy hybrid treats. Of course, both Chinatown bric-a-brac and the mountainous stacks of Powell’s City of Books are nearby, for a blend of low and high culture wares. Grab a dogged ear volume of French theory, dip into McMenamins’ old school Ringlers Annex bar, located inside a flatiron building dating from 1917, or tip-toe to the buzzing gay district nearby. That’s just a few hours worth of night-tripping. The rest of the city restlessly awaits.

If ever there was a playground for pop culture, Portland seems to be the current apex. But more serious affairs line the heart of the city, as well. The Dill Pickle Club (in honor of a Chicago boheme haunt from the early 20th century), despite having a title resembling a Wes Anderson vibe, abides by the moniker, Know Your City. The organization has produced a social history app and promoted tours across the city, including discussions concerning Native American, and African American, roles in the city’s dense milieu. They journey by foot, bike, and bus, scouring the past and present to better understand and advocate issues, argue and discuss details, and fill in the gaps left in the official narratives of the town. Their website touts the app as, “Part oral history project, part ‘guide book’ and part learning tool,” which puts the city underfoot into sharp, sustainable focus.

Yet, in the city that celebrates outsiders and underdogs, politically-minded businesses suffer some duress, like the Red and Black Café, a worker-owned and operated, vegan-friendly coffee shop and pub that is currently hosting my punk flyer exhibit, Visual Vitriol: The Politics of Punk, co-organized by folklorist Nathan Moore from the University of Oregon. Though the city often supports alterative venues and causes, this unique setting struggles to pay vendors, fix a broken window, and keep the doors open. Portland may be a wellspring of titanic talent, unfettered energy, and social consciousness, but such liminal spaces -- where hegemony can be temporarily suspended -- sometimes do struggle to survive.

Other sections of the city feel out-of-the-loop, disconnected from the frenetic hives that dot the city’s grid. Sure, one can easily rent a smart car from a stall near 82nd Avenue, the East Portland “Mid-Century” enclaves ripe with Wal-Mart, porn stores, and Chinese restaurants, but the streets feel as if they exist in Washington, well outside the beltway of trend-inspired businesses encircling downtown.

Red Black Cafe

If Burnside Street belongs to indie filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, with his queer ear to the heartbeat of skaters and street kids, this neighborhood feels like the psychogeography of people inhabiting the worlds of curt, deadpan writer Chuck Palahniuk, where people live in not-so-quiet desperation in small homes retreating into the subplot streets. Yet, that is equally a fiction. I know people that could only afford this stretch of the city, where they planned a family and drove back into the loop for weekend kicks. Near the river, the rent for a one-bedroom art deco apartment complex from the '40s can hit $900.00 a month and buying a cottage home may exceed $450,000. These outer limits provide cost-friendly mixed-housing and still allow quick excursions into the grab-bag land of pop plenty.

Portlandia may use sarcastic ploys and cheeky playfulness to upend clichés and poke at a city often mired in self-satisfaction, but Portland itself is a city cursed with reinvention that may or may not outgrow the impressions left by such comic media. Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991) likely caught Austin at the very beginning of its growth spurts, at a time ticking towards a yuppiefied version of counterculture that fostered hectic traffic congestion, huge corporate-friendly festivals, and wilted indie rock lullabies. As such, Slacker actually archived what was left of the Texas town’s once “whacky” personality and pedigree, to a degree.

Similarly, Portlandia may not be a look back into the ever-morphing, combustible identity of the town, but a look forward, winking at the changes to come that might threaten to squander the unique promise of a town. Where gentrification gels, local weirdness often abates. Where Riot Grrrl bands once roamed, people now gather for Riot Grrrl karaoke. The simulation has become the territory.






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