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Portland Diary III

With a “greater” area of nearly 500 square miles and blocks that can feel 500 yards long, Los Angeles has instilled in me a certain sense of distances. Rarely in that city do I need to ride my bike anywhere farther than twelve miles away, but on its roads that can take an hour. Portland, by contrast, had me believing I could reach any point from any other within fifteen minutes — and often I could! Luxuriating in this ease, I began turning up late to things by day four or five. Portland’s much-discussed Urban Growth Boundary no doubt plays a part in this, as does the fact that I didn’t have any business to do out in the sticks. Some, like Dorothy Parker famously pronouncing on “72 suburbs in search of a city,” consider any business in Los Angeles sticks business, but I think of it like this: how many other cities offer neat stuff in places that would anywhere else come to no more than bedroom communities? I saw little evidence of Portland offering equivalents of oysters in San Pedro, barbecue in Compton, or soup dumplings in Alhambra, but I’d be fascinated to find out if it secretly does.

One should begin the day in Portland, my instincts told me, with a lavish vegan breakfast. I ate one at the Vita Café on northeast Alberta Street, a neighborhood several Portlanders described to me as the current locus of much of both the city’s interestingness and its gentrification. (I then proceeded to satisfy my sense of incongruity by interviewing the founder of the Portland Meat Collective.) Not long before, I found myself pedaling down southeast Division Street, kombucha in hand, texting. Clearly, it didn’t take me long to get about this Portland life. Spend so much as a weekend in the city and you’ll feel how easily you can relax into the Stumptown sensibility, a filter that for me both enhances and reduces everything passing through. Biking from coffee shop to coffee shop, buying artisanal bacon chocolates, and browsing stacks of used books, I felt personally enhanced — and, somehow, personally reduced.

In Los Angeles, at least Los Angeles east of La Cienega, things just sort of present themselves raw, barely affected for either good or ill by their surroundings. It tells you how much I have internalized this atomization that, in Portland, I kept thinking with mild surprise that may have ultimately edged into mild irritation, Hey, they speak English at every business here. Despite all I recommend about it, I could never, ever call the town stateless. Portland exists in the state of Portland, the world of Portland, indeed the reality of Portland. As much as I wish other cities would take pages from its playbook — specifically the ones about cycling infrastructure, street trees, cool bridges, and the soil that allows charming cafés to grow like mushrooms — I fear that the instructions wouldn’t translate, that the innovations which thrive in Portland and in turn help Portland thrive would crumble immediately to dust in the harsh outside air. As David Sedaris wrote in Japan about such fragile, civilized conveniences as outdoor vending machines:

“Can you believe it?” he asked. “In the subway station, on the street, they just stand there, completely unmolested.”

“I know it,” I said.

Our Indonesian classmate came up, and after listening to us go on, he asked what the big deal was.

“In New York or Paris, these machines would be trashed,” I told him.

The Indonesian raised his eyebrows.

“He means destroyed,” Christophe said. “Persons would break the glass and cover everything with graffiti.”

The Indonesia student asked why, and we were hard put to explain.

“It’s something to do?” I offered.

“But you can read a newspaper,” The Indonesian said.

“Yes,” I explained, ” but that wouldn’t satisfy your basic need to tear something apart.”

Sports even felt different in Portland. Adam, to my delight, took me to a Timbers game, and there I gazed upon what looked to me like the nuclear core of Portland pride. That core would be located on the end of the window-and-door-manufacturer-sponsored stadium dominated by something called the Timbers Army. My interviewee Mike Russell, in his comic on the subject, describes them as the team’s “very large, very loud fan brigade.” The Timbers struggle — I get the sense that they bear an underdog reputation similar to that of Japanese baseball’s Hanshin Tigers, a team with an equally culturally revealing fanbase that I would pay dearly to watch play were I visiting Osaka in baseball season — but their Army’s enthusiasm never wanes. Up they show, clad in sometimes handmade Timbers gear and waving often handmade Timbers flags. The match ended in a 1-1 tie, but the home goal released, among other bursts of celebration, twin clouds of green smoke. This drew out many a camera phone, not slowest mine.

“KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD,” read occasional patches of inexplicably official-looking graffiti. But what, in Portland, counts as weird? I get the sense that visitors would readily stick that label on, say, a unicyclist rolling down the street in a Utilikilt and a Darth Vader helmet. You no doubt have a nontrivial chance of seeing such a sight on Portland avenues — I myself noticed more Utilikilts than I’ve seen in southern California, uh, ever — but Portland weird strikes me more as a variety of goofiness than deep strangeness. Los Angeles weird, as I soon remembered upon returning home, unsettles you. Go from the City of Roses to the City of Angels, and Utilikilt Vader becomes a middle-aged man who looks normal from a distance but upon closer inspection has a long-dry drool stain running down his shirt, no shoes, several missing toes, and a Bluetooth earpiece into which he yammers neither sanely nor quite insanely. (Take this one step further, and you get Mexico City weird.)

Portland more than anywhere else makes me consider the question of whether a city’s strengths and weaknesses, its points of livability and unlivability, don’t just balance each other but emerge from each other. What you love about a city, in this framework, dictates what you hate about it, and vice versa. If Los Angeles fails at integrating its constituent parts into a coherent common culture, it therefore succeeds at avoiding letting those parts dissolve into homogeneity. (Hence, superior taquerías.) If Portland has succeeded in developing a distinctive yet user-friendly sensibility and avoiding the classic varieties of harsh urban strife, it may have also failed to cultivate an aesthetic and intellectual churn sufficiently exciting to flow over its UGB-defined borders. Not that it makes much sense to speak in this context of “success” and “failure”; were I feeling more Californian, I’d bust out the yin and the yang. I certainly didn’t come to Portland to proclaim that it’s got nothin’ on Los Angeles, although in many senses, it’s got nothin’ on Los Angeles. In equally many senses, though, Portland has everything on Los Angeles. I’ve already got my next visit booked three months from now, which speaks for itself. This time, I’m bringing my lady; someone‘s got to split these Black Tiger milkshakes with me.


[Previous diariesSan Francisco 2012Mexico City 2011]

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