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Satire speaks the truth

So now I’ve been in Portland for about one-and-a-half weeks, and it’s time to ask myself whether I’d want to stay.

Is it pleasant? Yes.

Funky? Ditto.

Something I want to embrace? …Not so sure yet. (Not to mention vice versa: would Portland want me? Where do I fit in??)

Portland reminds me of Victoria BC – which is pretty funny, because everyone I told in Victoria that I would go to Portland for a spell squealed about how wonderful Portland is.

Both cities seem mellow, generally speaking. But they also strike me as low in energy: the general vibe is set to yin. Pleasant enough, but what I learned in Victoria is that all yin all the time is a velvet rut.

Just to put a counterpoint to that: Vancouver is brashly all yang, its tall and pointy and sharply glassy highrises a fitting built form mirroring the mountains that reach to the heavens.

Not so Victoria. And not so much Portland, either. Like I said: yin. That’s my impression, anyway. Sue me if I change my mind next week or discover that I’m totally mistaken because the sun might come out, forcing the city to get its yang on.

My impressions so far are based on Portland’s east sides – its Northeast and Southeast neighborhoods, not the downtown business district. I get a “yin” feel from the streets, in the way people dress. I used to joke that in Victoria everyone ends up looking like a schlump because there exists a peculiar kind of fashion entropy: no matter where you moved from, you eventually drift into a variant of the Birkenstock-and-socks mode. In the PNW (Pacific Northwest), which in winter is wet and dank, schlumpy-ness often looks a bit …well, mossy. Think temperate rain forest, spring fiddleheads, and endless vegetative growth with near-zero die-back in winter. It fits with the environment.

Looking sharp just doesn’t rank that high.

In contrast, consider Joni Mitchell’s The Boho Dance, where she sings about the cleaner’s press that was always in her jeans – you see, LA-based Joni was born a Prairie girl. The Prairies have real seasons, and naturally hard winters with blinding sunshine. The kind of weather that makes you keep your nose clean… or take out your ironing board. But when it’s overcast and drizzling, sharp creases disappear.

What is it about places like Victoria and Portland, I wonder?

Well, imagine my delight when I came across this article in Atlantic Cities, Why I Love My City: Carrie Brownstein on Portland. Who hasn’t seen Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in Portlandia, and laughed along? Her observations about Portland resonated with what I’ve often thought about Victoria.

On the landscape / creativity interchange, Brownstein notes, “It’s really about what the Pacific Northwest is. There’s a relationship between the internal and external landscape that inform the creativity.” Check.

On city rivalry (and here the interviewer is asking about Portland’s relationship to Seattle, but if you know about the Victoria-Vancouver rivalry, this will really register): “One trait people in Portland [insert Victoria] have is that we feel very special. I think both cities [Portland + Seattle / Victoria + Vancouver] have a strong sense of entitlement and uniqueness. Portland [Victoria] has perhaps more sensitivity.” …Oh, …yeah. Big yeah.

On newcomers and NIMBYs (well, that’s not what Brownstein calls them, but, you know: people who come to a place, changing it the way anthropological observers change their objects of study, but then insisting that the place has to stay as it was in perpetuity now that they’ve arrived and that it cannot bear additional change): “People discover Portland in a certain way and resent what it becomes later. Everyone has this insecurity about Portland like, ‘when does it arrive?’ and that comes with growing pains …”

On Portland’s work ethic: “There are a lot of people who are here to do less work. [laughs] You can stall out quickly in Portland if you’re using a coffee shop as an office. If you’re trying to get something done, you have to be careful not to hold a meeting at a bar or making a point of seeing three movies a day. The city really enjoys its downtime.”

Yin. Very very yin.

Downtown Portland with Mt. Hood in the background (image from Wikipedia)


  1. All true. But I think people in Portland work smart, which gives them time for leisure. You’ll run into those when you venture into the SW downtown and NW. 😉

    The key to Portland: small businesses. Loads of them. Good ones. Control, independence, flexibility are the upside, while the downsides include fragility and poor job growth.

    Comment by kmazz — December 8, 2011 #

  2. Yep, re. key to Portland – and that’s Victoria, too, in a nutshell, except not as many small businesses because Victoria is smaller of course. Same up- and downsides, though, that’s for sure.
    Working smart is always good!

    Comment by Yule — December 8, 2011 #

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