Skip to main content


While visiting Portland over the winter holidays, my brother and I made a pilgrimage to the tiny village of St. John’s on the northernmost tip of what is still, surprisingly, Portland proper. I say surprisingly because to get there, you must wend a path through what are, to SW/SE Portland residents, the already far flung expanses of upper industrial NW beyond which surely, I thought, the city simply ends. And keep going. Doing so takes you past the dense catchment of current and repurposed factories and warehouses on and around NW 23rd and up the bipolar stretch of Hwy 30 that runs along the train tracks. The city persists, it turns out, amid the lush, looming hillside of Forest Park and a sparse population of very active industrial buildings and port facilities. It all takes time, covers substantial distance, and I remain incredulous: by the time you get to St. Johns, it feels like you should be anywhere other than Portland.

St. Johns Bridge, courtesy of ZnE's Dad (love the spectral quality of the light)

Adding to the sense of the other-wordly is the anachronistic mystique of the St. Johns Bridge, the staggeringly gorgeous Depression-era suspension bridge that, if you’re approaching from west Portland, drops you rather anticlimactically into the quiet, self-effacing neighborhood. Distinguished by two imposing arcaded Gothic towers wrought in garish green steel, it completes the city’s sequence of ten bridges by simply outclassing the other nine. How the city that constructed the Sellwood Bridge could create something as technologically and aesthetically accomplished as this is gobsmacking.

After the too-long drive and Dantesque bridge crossing, we parked and walked towards Cathedral Park, so named not for its proximity to any cathedral, but rather, due to the concrete and steel arcades that create a nave-like procession leading to the river. We spent several minutes capturing photos with our phones and comparing post production processing apps (because that's what you should be doing when you're out sightseeing...). The challenge with photographing the bridge from underneath is to line up the arcades in a perfect row - I did about as well as I expected I would, see below. We then proceeded down the steps to the circular observation platform under the first concrete arcade.

Busy as we were scrutinizing our phones and the graffiti left on the concrete stanchions, we barely noticed the man slowly descending the stairs behind us. He was in his 20s, tall and underfed, with a mop of black hair ringing a face devoid of affect. His baggy jeans hung ponderously around his skateboarding shoes, soaking up rainwater. He carried a large backpacking backpack and a camera with a folded-up tripod. Every few seconds he uttered something incomprehensible, as though he were speaking in tongues, enthrall to presences unseen, though it's more likely that I simply couldn't hear him. He walked past us to the edge of the platform, where he stopped and stared through the arcades.

I remembered, all of a sudden, that, no matter how far from the chunky glasses and skinny jeans set of NE Mississippi I felt I was, I was still very much in Portland. For eccentricity is a quality that abounds in Portland, that permeates its many neighborhoods and peoples like a particularly successful virus. Portlandia relies upon this characteristic as the fount of its broader proposition, i.e., that Portland's eccentricities are distinct, if not unique, and very much deserving of de facto etymological cataloguing for the edification of other Americans.

Every excursion into the city presents an opportunity to observe one or more of the many different species of Portland eccentric. Cue the woman cat-calling the rail-thin, smartly coiffed barista boys at the original Stumptown on Division from the back of the line; the man who, during the great blizzard of 2008, deputized himself conductor and began ordering people to refrain from boarding the packed Max train at Gateway; the Waterworld-outfitted punks who marauded through the North Park Blocks one winter afternoon, physically accosting each other playfully, like so many Rottweilers; the time-capsule hippy woman at Saturday Market who confronted my better half and me for being "too good-looking" and then proceeded to question our liberal bona fides (to be fair, this was immediately before the last presidential election); the people who raise chickens in a yard between two hyper-specialized boutiques on Mississippi; the actors behind the lip-syncing marriage proposal; and, last but not least, the bag-pipe playing unicyclist. This is, of course, only a small and under-representative sample from what is a very comprehensive menagerie, but it gives you an idea.

What accounts for these people? Where does this lack of inhibition, this freedom to act without regard to the conventions that obtain elsewhere arise? There is the infrastructural aspect, manifested in an assortment of ideologies, organizations, and businesses, such as the 24 Hour Church of Elvis, Voodoo Donuts, Saturday Market, Powell's (low-level eccentricity, granted, but an independent bookstore as the center of a large city?), the World Naked Bike Ride, the ascendance of the artisan movement, the urban homesteading movement, Sock Dreams...and Reed College. Collectively, these serve as a sortof integument girding the city and its people against the normalizing influences of a globalized mono-culture that might otherwise smooth over these flamboyant whorls.

But what forces conspired to create this eccentric infrastructure in the first place? Why didn't Portland just focus on building up a standard municipal infrastructure of businesses in the same industries as most other American cities, even its west coast peers, and then fill these buildings with boring office drones? Wherein arose this parallel need to be distinctive that seems to work at cross-purposes with the need to be competitive and successful?

One explanation is that, compared to its peers on the west coast (Seattle, San Francisco, certainly Los Angeles), Portland didn't experience a substantial economic boom in the 20th century, the kind that drove up rents and created long-term needs for high-income salary earners in buttoned-up office jobs. Because of this, Portland, in contrast, remained relatively cheap, and, as Chuck Palahniuk observed in Fugitives and Refugees, was able to attract a greater proportion of impecunious creatives than buttoned-up types. While these cities share certain common characteristics with Portland (progressive politics, indie music, strong art and theater scenes), they nevertheless remain beholden to the perpetual quest for market competitiveness, something they cannot compromise to whatever countervailing quality (shall we call it "creative abandon") that Portland has so stridently embraced. Meanwhile, in Portland, with these normalizing influences thus attenuated, eccentric behaviors and people have flourished.

This is not, however, to say that Portland's eccentricity is a categorial harm to its economic viability. While it's true that more college-educated people in Portland are underemployed than their peers in most other U.S. cities are, the situation is by no means "all bad," and there are plenty of reasons to be bullish for the city's future. Portlanders are in fact leveraging their eccentricity to make clever in-roads into the economy, including by means of its bustling artisan goods movement as well as slick e-commerce sites like 141 Eyewear. Both of these benefit from the international interest in the city that has resulted from Portlandia and frequent write-ups in the New York Times -- one could almost argue that these two efforts constitute the best, most unwitting media campaign for a city ever.

I'm proud of Portland. I think it's wonderful that it has really stuck to its guns (or whatever Portlanders stick to). Rather than try to emulate other cities, it has played to its strengths, and played to its people...its quirky, variously eccentric people.

Anyway, these are just some thoughts I had while standing under that inexplicably beautiful and overdesigned bridge, the bridge whose design far outshot its purpose but whose presence I wouldn't question for a heartbeat.

That guy never did set up his tripod, by the way.

Popular posts from this blog

The best albums of 2015 by some guy on the Internet (*finally*)

[Horribly delayed, I realize…]

I avoided this exercise last year in favor of...well, nothing in particular. I don’t know: I was focused on my new job, intent on maximizing my free time in a new city, and keen on ingesting the last bit of counterculture cool my then-neighborhood, the rapidly gentrifying Capitol Hill, had to offer, all of which left me unenthused with the prospect of enumerating the musical highlights of the preceding 12 months. Oh, sure, I started a list, which I’m fairly certain topped off at Swans’ To Be Kind, the lethal power cords, dislocating polyrhythms, and foreboding prophet-of-doom lyrics of which distilled the apocalyptic trajectory of 2014’s global political realities better than the news media itself.

But that was 2014. This is was 2015. Now I’m settled in a north Seattle, “we’re not suburbia, we just look like suburbia,” neighborhood, saddled with and luxuriating in all the trappings of the landed bourgeoisie (mortgage, runs to the hardware store and IKEA, a…

Tycho: ambient music for those who are succeeding in our contemporary economy?

There's a moment roughly 30 seconds into "Montana," the second track on Tycho's breakout 2014 album Awake, when you realize that the people who created this music can't possibly have experienced any adversity in their lives. For nearly 6 minutes, its mannerist, echo-ey guitar noodling melds with hazy synths and just noticeable bass over competent live drumming. It sounds great, the type of warm, organic electronic music that makes you feel as though the world is a place of unsullied wonder filled with promise and opportunity and absolutely lacking in the structural hurtles that have come to define our political moment. The euphoria it inspires is the pleasant, genteel kind bi-coastal types get from legal marijuana, a euphoria from which you can quickly sober up before heading back to your six-figure tech job, not the Rimbaudian sensorium-fucking kind which, though you might survive it, you will not come out of it whole.

It's the perfect sonic backdrop for an o…

@Nullprof's Best Music of 2013

2013 was a *great* year for music. There were exceptional releases each month from established acts, left-for-dead acts, and several very exciting rookies. Anybody who keeps up in earnest with popular music should have found themselves juggling a profundity of riches, even outright overwhelmed by them. Usually, by early December, I have a reasonable idea of what my rankings will look like, and while this year my top choices have been static for several months, I really had to scramble to fill out the rest of my list. As late as the second week of December, I was still discovering 2013 releases that warranted inclusion. This is in part due to my decision to expand my reading habits, which led me to publications such as The Quietus, perhaps the closest approximation of an English analogue to Pitchfork. It reviews albums and bands that are not even on Pitchfork and progeny's radar, such as Grumbling Fur's terrific, avant-indie LP Glynnaestra.
After discovering that broaden…