Is Portland overrated? I’ve tried pitching the following words to the New York Times and the LA Times as an op-ed column, over the last few weeks. Needless to say, neither of them wanted it—they’re too busy running “Ra Ra Portland” pieces. And why not, when it sells advertising?
Portland Media Cheerleaders: Ubiquitous and over-compensated…
So, here are my unpublishable thoughts on our fair city. Incidentally, I asked mayoral candidate Sam Adams for a comment when I thought the LA Times might take it. But I never heard back from him. Which, I guess, says more about this city than if he’d returned my inquiry. Still, judge for yourself:
Portland: Overrated?More after the jump.
Unless you live here already there’s a strong chance, like most contemporary Americans, you are considering moving to Portland. Well, stop right there.
I, personally, would love to have you—let’s just be sure you have all the facts, first.
It’s hard to pick up a travel section from Berlin to Beijing these days without reading Portland celebrated for its showcase organic cuisine, Bohemian street life, cutting-edge cafes and wacky public art. Not to mention its so-called indy music, ubiquitous left-leaning bumper stickers, streetcars and neolithic house prices.
What’s the problem? I’ll tell you: People here are rude. Perhaps it’s an extension of the city’s media-induced smugness, but I’ve never been anywhere so prone to passive aggression. Occasionally a Portlander can be drawn into open xenophobia, especially when it comes to talking about newcomers who have moved here from elsewhere, but for the most part, they keep their rudeness to themselves.
That’s a problem, because native Portlanders and newcomers alike have an awful lot to be angry about, and you can’t help wishing they’d talk with you about it, instead of just, you know, acting it out.
There’s the weather, for a start. Coming from London in 2006 I thought I knew rain, but an Oregon winter is something you don’t so much live through as survive. Remind me: What does the sun look like? And there are no jobs here, either.
Economically, growing up is proving harder for Portland than puff pieces on the city’s burgeoning creative class might have you believe. Young people, especially, are moving here in droves, lured by cheap rent and a misguided perception that perhaps Modest Mouse or The Shins might need a new drummer on the exact day they happen to arrive.
Portland’s creative class is a myth, of course. I worked without pay for six months at a hipster paper before landing a full-time position there, and freely admit to being one of this city’s lucky ones. Most aspiring creatives fall quickly into waiting tables at hipster cafes while they fail to get on with their novel, and slowly turn into the rudest Portlanders of all.
For example, this is the only place on Earth I have ever been asked by a straight-faced waiter who had failed to bring my entrée: “Do I look like I care, buddy?”
It takes restraint here not to rip the odd handlebar moustache off. Then, when it comes to needing a real job, Portland has very few opportunities for newly shorn hipsters because there are hardly any mortgage-paying companies to work for.
Too proud to woo major corporations with hefty tax breaks like they do in real cities, Portland needs to do more to nurture medium-sized employers who can pay home-buying wages. Otherwise the city can scream "sustainability!!!" from its green rooftops without changing the fact that its population influx is unsustainable.
Eventually, all but a fraction of Portland's creative class will have to leave and live again with its retired parents in California or New York. That’s assuming, of course, that the creative class’s retired parents didn’t already move to Portland—itself a phenomenon somewhat irking to those older Portlanders in the wrong place at the wrong time (i.e here) during the tech boom.
Rapid change over recent years has not gone easy on the city’s political self-assuredness, either. Portland’s mayor, Tom Potter, is now a popular laughing stock for spending $1.5m on a consultancy-based community outreach project called Visioning, asking Portlanders how they want the city to look in the next 25 years.
The irony, of course, is that most Portlanders envision a future without a mayor who’d prefer to ask abstract questions than get a grip on the very real issues of a town in transition. Potter will step down next year, leaving his project short-sighted, to say the least.
Just like every other city in America, Portland is dogged by its failure to adequately address homelessness and the needs of the mentally ill. It's not yet ditching people on Skid Row fresh from ambulances like Los Angeles, although downtown Portland at night is full of people who should be getting treatment and shelter or housing, and for whom none is available.
One of the regular homeless guys at my local grocery store has no nose. A regular at Whole Foods, where I can't afford to shop, is an 85-year old homeless woman who begs for money on the street outside and guilts people, daily, into parting with $20 bills. She loads up a cart with the best organic chicken and red wine before flouncing off the sidewalk into a taxi. We've no idea how she cooks it or where she goes but if you came here, trust me: She'd guilt you, too.
It’s all very well touting Portland’s livability, but it’s livability increasingly dependent on one’s financial and psychological means. Portland also has 200 fewer police officers than it did in the early nineties. Still, all the better to beat you with...
In September 2006, a 42-year-old schizophrenic named James Chasse was severely beaten in the street by Portland police officers. His alleged crime, never proven, was to have urinated in the street near an upscale restaurant, for which he mysteriously died an hour later, in custody. 16 months later, Portland’s police are yet to complete an internal affairs investigation into Chasse’s death, although in August 2007 the City did find the time and money to outlaw sitting or lying on its sidewalks in a move targeted at homeless people.
Does Portland really deserve its liberal reputation? Is it tolerant of such questions being asked of it? No.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t move to Portland. I confess I wouldn’t still be here if I hadn’t fallen in love with the place, or at least, fallen in love with poking a stick at it. And by God, don't Portlanders hate that. But I would encourage you to consider the impact you may make, and how you will be received here, should you decide to make the jump.
Incidentally, I would think especially hard about that question if you’re African American. Only 6% of Portlanders are, and in two years I have only gotten to know one of them. He describes Oregon as “the deep North” and has stories to make your toes curl, to confirm it.
Portland is not a big city, but a small town with a rapidly expanding ego. It may bask in its good press, but it’s oversensitive to criticism and because of that, it’s going to have a very tough time growing up. Like a pubescent Goth guitarist still flirting with the idea of going mainstream in adulthood, it can annoy the hell out of you. My advice is to wait a decade, and see how little Slash turns out.
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