Thursday, January 31, 2013

PDX-centricity

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 then...you 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.