If one were to vaguely describe a cosmopolitan city on a river that is filled with art, coffee shops, artisanal craftsmen, thousands of independent brewers and culinary experts, along with an expanding public transportation network, most people’s minds would conjure up the image of a European capital like Paris, Prague, or Budapest. But in today’s case, one could also be talking about Portland, Oregon.
With its humble beginnings in the 1800’s as a watering hole for lumberjacks, Portland, a city that received its name from a coin flip, isn’t exactly a place one would’ve predicted to ever have much cultural relevance at all, let alone inspire an entire TV series dedicated to satirizing high-end snobbery.
But as anyone who has lived in Portland knows, “Portlandia” is not only a TV show, but also a somewhat regionalist lifestyle. Somehow, nestled in between the forests and mountains of the otherwise Seattle-centric Pacific Northwest, Portland’s population of just under 600,000 (metro area: 2.1 million) has a heavily disproportionate amount of influence over nearly every 21st century fad in the United Sates in everything from craft beer, to organic food, to green architecture. The Portland metro area is the childhood home of Simpsons Creator Matt Groening, the birthplace of the cutting-edge advertising firm Wieden + Kennedy, and houses the world headquarters of Nike and the North American Headquarters of Adidas. Portland also has more eating establishments and independent brewers per capita, and even strip clubs, than the likes of Las Vegas and New York.
The original Stumptown Coffee
So how did Portland, a mid-sized city that ironically has a fairly small port, end up with such a reputation for creating international brands, lifestyle trends, and highbrow tastes? At what point did the DNA of the pioneers leave the covered wagon and enter the app market? Who would have guessed ten years ago that huge numbers of middle-class college grads would grow mustaches, purchase Woody Allen glasses, revive vinyl, and express a fanatical interest in manufacturing their own alcohol?
If one can get past the hipster stereotypes and yuppie jokes, it all actually begins to look very impressive. Portland owes much of its rise to decades of politically left-leaning politics and an unusually strong sense of regionalism that can at times reach almost ethnocentric levels of pride. Such an environment inspires as much snobbery as it does social egalitarianism and environmental stewardship.
Portland was originally founded by two New-Englanders who were very eager to create political institutions that make a working-class income something not only of pride, but of financial feasibility. Author Colin Woodard’s book American Nations, a book that examines migratory patterns and cultural attitudes of different corners of the United States, places Portland in a region known that he calls “the left coast,” a section of America’s west coast that is politically liberal but also highly individualistic.
Other big cities on “the left coast” include Seattle, Vancouver, and San Francisco. Each of them went on to be very left-wing supposedly due to their founding by land-owners from the Northeast, a region of the US that has largely favored big government and egalitarianism since the puritans hit Plymouth. Unlike New England, however, most of Portland’s early settlers were non-puritan pioneers who did not associate bureaucracy with something that came at the cost of individuality, as many on the east coast did (and still do), but rather aided it.
Show at the Crystal Ballroom on Burnside
Portland’s openness and individuality, however, did not always create tolerance. It, along with the rest of Oregon, used to have sundown laws, which permitted the harassment and murder of people of color after sunset. It even briefly served as a major meeting place for high officials of the klu klux klan. Stranger still, many bars in early downtown Portland were connected to a series of trapped-doors and tunnel networks designed to kidnap unsuspecting mountain men and sell them into slavery aboard Asia-bound cargo ships.
But even after much of the racism and social chaos settled, Portland’s regionalism did not. In the postwar era of the 50’s 60’s and 70’s, when most US cities were in a building boom of skyscrapers and sprawl, Portland and its adjacent suburbs established an urban growth boundary, so as not to harm small farms and forest, and to concentrate urban space. Downtown Portland also established building height restrictions, largely so that people living in the west hills would not have their view of Mt. Hood obstructed by office towers.
If you combine that with the hippie movement gaining much ground in Portland and nearby Eugene in the sixties, the city’s commitments towards higher living standards for citizens did much to push trends such as organic food and recycling into mainstream American culture. Such priorities are also why Portland’s Public Schools (PPS) is still one of the best-funded inner-city school districts in the United States. (although this may have more to do with high property taxes compensating for Oregon lacking a sales tax.)
That brings us into today. Portland’s open attitude and ultra-individualistic culture has not only inspired people to come and try new things, from mircro-brewing to surreal Old-Spice commercials, but its regionalism has also inspired those who have found haven here to feel an obligatory need to contribute to it. The show Porlandia mocks Portland’s unconventionality by calling it the city where “twenty-somethings go to retire,” but in actuality it’s where twenty-somethings go to stay. Countless people acquire academic degrees and job experience in the likes of New York, Los Angeles, or Washington D.C. But many eventually leave those places. America’s present-day commercial centers are often perceived as too crowded, too expensive, or even too superficial to remain in long-term. Many see Portland as the solution.
Modern day City-State?
Today’s Portland, a true Paris on the Willamette, is more than a little bit precious, and has rightfully earned more than a few stereotypes about its attitude. For now, however, that attitude has been embraced at least as much as it has been mocked. Regardless of one’s aesthetic choices or political opinions, it must be recognized that Portland has done something that many U.S. cities are failing to do. Portland has made itself attractive to educated classes of young people who have a desire to improve their world. It is a city as famous for its unconventionality as it is infamous its rabid defense of local culture. As long as that remains true, Portland will continue to be the quirky, cosmopolitan innovator that it is today. It’s fair to say that there is far more brewing in the Rose City these days than just coffee.