Monday, June 21, 2010

Portland, oh Portland

I was born in Portland and have lived here for about two-thirds of my almost forty-three years.  I've lived in other places that captured my imagination and my heart for a time, yet I've always returned here.  For many years it was because my family was here, though that's no longer the case.  Sometimes I came back here because it wasn't working out someplace else.  There were times that I thought I might not ever return and others when return was inevitable.
This city has changed considerably over my lifetime.  There are a lot more people.  New buildings.  New people.  Neighborhoods that used to be undesirable now have reputations as destinations worth checking out or investing in.  I don't know.  A lot of it is hype.  Some of it is cool.  You really have to decide for yourself.  I just moved to a very nice, but very uncool part of town.  I like it a lot more than I thought I would.  But I'm not going to suggest you move here, unless of course your needs are similar to mine (good schools, families, trees, big houses that are not new construction on big lots for under 650K).  The New Seasons just down the hill from my house is just a good grocery store.  In North Portland and Southeast, where we lived over the past few years, the New Seasons offer more than the opportunity to buy locally at a reasonable price without going to a farmer's market.  There seems to be more of an agenda aside from shopping for groceries in those Eastside stores.  I really like to buy food that comes from a farm rather than a factory.  And I suppose that could be a political choice, but it really isn't for me.  I eat at restaurants all the time that buy crap from food factories.  I would rather not, but life is too short to try to sort all that stuff out.  That's part of what I like about living on the Westside.
For many residents of Portland these issues seem to be the type of thing that preoccupies them.  Riding bicycles is a political statement.  Eating is a political statement.  I ride bikes.  Sometimes I even put my bike on my car to drive to a better place to ride it.   I like all the bike lanes in Portland.  I'm guilty of turning right across bike lanes sometimes without giving that extra bike-specific look in spite of logging over three thousand miles on a bike myself last year.  When I forget to look, am I bad person?
Last weekend I took a motorcycle safety and skills course.  One of the questions on the written test was, Why do drivers in cars and trucks have trouble seeing motorcyles?  The answer was because motorcycles are relatively smaller than the other vehicles on the road.  There was no moral quotient.  One of the things that they emphasized is that as motorcyclists we are responsible for being aware of the fact that we are hard to see and that we should ride as if we're not seen at all.  Again, this wasn't suggested as a political compromise, but simply to preserve our physical safety.
So no, I'm not a fan of the smug and the arrogant.  Yet I'm really supportive of getting people out of their cars and onto bicycles or onto mass transit.  And I appreciate laws and traffic devices that encourage and require me to watch out for bicycles.  As I appreciate the growing awareness of the many issues that the residents of Portland trumpet: safe food, safe water, sustainability, all that fantastic stuff that hardly anybody had anything to say about just a few years ago.
A former news editor at The Portland Mercury just left Portland and wrote this farewell on his blog. A friend brought this to my attention just yesterday.  I have mixed feelings about it.  First off, he's young.  Secondly, he's English.  And third, the Mercury just doesn't inspire a lot of admiration on my part for incisive journalistic content.  Still, I think he makes some fair points.  But the problem is that he's speaking to a very narrow section of Portland.  He's now in New Orleans, a perfect destination for someone seeking an authentic experience in their place of residence.  A recent post talks of getting his hair cut by an eccentric local.  I used to get my hair cut by a very unknowingly eccentric barber in a tiny shop across from Civic Stadium.  Carl the barber was there for years in the big green Multnomah apartment building that has been replaced by a high rise with some slick corporate street level anchor tenants.  Maybe if Matt Davis had moved here in the early 90s (when he was still a teen) he might have liked Portland more.
Back to point number two as to why I can't take this guy too seriously - he's English.  I find English people very suspect in general.  They take a lot of pride in never being sincere.  Always giving you the wind up and taking the piss.  It's amusing for awhile, but I'm too old for all that now.  Imperialism is in their genetic makeup.  While they may seek authentic culture, they are all too eager to improve upon it.   Another thing I don't trust about English people is their accents.  No matter how long they live abroad, they still retain their accents, yet when their pop stars sing, they sound American.  Okay, now I'm taking the piss.  But there's some truth to what I'm saying.  And yet another thing about the English, they often live somewhere other than England and go on and on about how rubbish everything is.  I've spent a bit of time in England.  I enjoyed myself and found a lot to like, but it's pretty clear to me why they're bitter in general and why they're in no hurry to get home again.
There was a time that people moved to New York to become New Yorkers, but in the past twenty years or so, those that move to New York want the city to accommodate them.  This is a problem everywhere in the digital age.  And yet, in an age of rampant global cultural homogenization Portland seems to be emerging as a distinctive place.  How could this be?
Portland is not perfect.  It's pretty.  It's easy to live here in many ways. (Maybe too easy.  Davis blogs about putting his emergency kit and his evacuation plan together for the upcoming hurricane season.  He jokes about not having experienced the trauma as some other residents down there have. I just received an email yesterday from a New Orleans native friend that referenced his Katrina PTSD in a somewhat more sober manner.)  Portland is kind of provincial.  It's not very snarky.  The weather often stinks.  You can get out into the countryside very quickly compared to cities in California or the East Coast.  There's a lot of creative stuff going on here that's pretty interesting given how relatively small Portland is compared to other American cities.  There isn't a very fascinating cultural heritage here - logging, fishing, some soggy little native tribes scattered about the region.  It's fairly homogeneous racially.  Though over the years I always seemed to have a variety of friends in Portland of different races and politics in spite of this being the whitest city in America not run by Mormons.  There are a lot of rental houses that can be shared by a lot of young self-proclaimed hipsters so that they can live cheaply and create a weird little quasi-artistic subculture.  They're kind of annoying in their rigid lemming-like limited fashion sense and their disinterest in the contributions of the generations that preceded them, but I suppose they bring something into the equation of what makes Portland earn its identity.  I miss some of the mom and pop businesses and Carl the barber, even though I wouldn't dare let a barber like him touch my hair now that I've been getting $75 haircuts for ten years. 
And when I've gotten sick of Portland, I've left.  So a fond farewell to those of you that don't like it here.  It was probably a good decision to move on.  It probably won't do any good, but I suggest you drop the animosity.  It's just a city.  And you never know, you might end up back here someday.  I did.


David Millstone said...

Oh, I'LL be baaaaaack....

Signore Direttore said...

Of course you will. You've never been one to do anything but sing Portland's praises, David.