Things I hate about Portland

by Steve, February 4th, 2009

First off, I friggin’ love Portland, so don’t give me that hater bullshit.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, let’s cut to the chase: Portland is over-the-top passive aggressive.

It manifests in traffic, politics and inter-personal relationships. At the grocery store. At work. In lines. At concerts, sporting events, and the library.

Passive-aggressiveness rules so much, there is a taboo on directness. One cannot say “It creeps me out that the mayor was sucking face with a 17-year-old in a City Hall men’s room” without being labeled a prude. (In the words of Bob Dylan, “They smile to your face, but behind your back they hiss….”)

The People’s Republic of Portland (that’s not a put-down; that part I like) is a one-party state, as Willamette Week‘s Nigel Jaquiss said in his close-up on Newsweek’s Web site this week. “[P]ortland is a … go-along, get-along town where people don’t question the orthodoxy. They’re very comfortable having a real absence of critical debate of most issues.”

Nigel was talking (politely) about the reporters and editors at The Oregonian, which has thrice been scooped (twice by the Willamette Week) on stories about Oregon politicians with (ahem) self-control issues surrounding where they put their penises. (Oh, I’m sorry honey, am I being a prude again?)

That lack of critical coverage of our politics and government means that those with land and money can pretty much do what they want with our city, as long as they call it green.

Commercial real estate developers, the power behind the throne in Portland, have successfully co-opted environmentally-minded liberals in Portland and operate with impunity under the cover of many layers of indignity generated by their unwitting minions.

Example: you cannot be opposed to a streetcar project without being a tool of big oil (yeah, that’s me!), even if a primary goal of said streetcar project is to move not people but real estate.

If somebody says it’s “sustainable,” you damn well better not speak out against it, even if that sustainable condo block is driving gentrification and pushing black and brown folks further to the margins of our city and society.

We’ve got a real race problem in Portland, but you better not talk about it. It makes white liberals very uncomfortable to be confronted with their racism. Our neighborhoods are pretty segregated, but our schools are worse, like the Jim Crow south: separate and way unequal.

Are you a white person with some kind of “bikability” issue? The city’s got you covered! You got a problem with finding a place you can afford to live off your service-sector wages? Sorry, pal, Portland can’t help you unless you work “sustainable” into your pitch. Mental health problems? Hit the road, Jack.

Perhaps my biggest gripe is the disconnect between Portland!! and Portland; that is, between the hip and trendy little Pacific Northwest city as seen in the New York Times (Powell’s! Foodies! Coffee! Sustainable! Green! Did I mention Sustainable?) and the sometimes rough-around-the edges part of Portland I live in.

Next installment: Portland’s extended adolescence.

10 Responses to “Things I hate about Portland”

  1. Comment from rose:

    The interesting thing to me is that Portland was once a very tolerant, truly “wierd” city in that it was so damn affordable that any artist, punk rock band, anthropologist, writer, and sculptor could live here.

    Only a few decades ago you could buy a house for 20-40 thousand dollars. It was a working class, family friendly city with a huge tolerance. The natural side effect of this easy tolerance was a truly creative class. This is why we had bands like the Wipers, and artists like Henk Pander settle here.

    The irony is the whole concept of a creative class here comes at a time when it is no longer affordable to be creative here at all. The crowd who is most loudly singing the We Are the Greatest theme song must have trust funds or a well-paying job, because this city has become inhospital to families and the striving poor. And how do you have a truly good, creative city when families can no longer afford it, or artists?

    All this Green and Sustainable crap is more delusions on the part of the Oregonian, which thinks it can save its sinking skin by tying its carcass to the nearest floatation device labelled “hip and saleable to the easy-spending twenty-something crowd.”

    There is no longevity in that approach, no deep thought or questioning. Like start with this one: why is it New Seasons gets a pass as so Grand and Wonderful when no one can afford to shop there? What is their profit margin anyway? Someone is totally rolling in money from that store.

  2. Comment from Dave:

    You kids get off my eco-friendly, native species lawn alternative!


  3. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    I have often wondered what a sweetheart like me is doing in a dump like this.

  4. Comment from dieselboi:

    Yes, we are sooooo passive aggressive. I need to talk to a shrink about that. But let’s move along.

    Working class: It would be great to have a thriving working class, but by my estimation, we don’t have the big companies to create that sector. We have thousands of service jobs, yet those usually don’t pay the same as traditional skilled labor. How do we fix that?

  5. Comment from dieselboi:

    doh’ hit enter and it posted. I guess what I’m thinking is on a grander scale. Our entire country has moved away from a producing nation to a consuming nation. Millions of jobs have been lost so companies could offshore working class jobs. Now we’re paying the price. I actually think Obama should have left the Buy American clause in the stimulus package. As the economy corrects itself, housing will become more affordable. If instead of importing those socks from Vietnam, there was incentive to have a sock factory in America to supply the Targets and Walmarts. That would do more to revive the economy than giving banks cash to dole out as bonuses.

  6. Comment from Pounder:

    The truth- people can set prices all they want. It’s whether those prices are paid that matters.

    The Portland I LEFT in 1989 could try, but couldn’t sell. That Portland wasn’t a one-party city, though I’d just warded off the stench of Reagan Democrat Frank Ivancie by that time.

    The Portland I just moved back to was attracted by the transit, the upsurge in downtown (crime then vs crime now is a world of improvement)… people were attracted to Portland BY the choices the city made. I don’t think that extends completely to the suburbs… but there was a time when the 1st Congressional was mostly Republican.

    Moreover, when a place gets popular, the prices go up… then the reasons it got popular tend to deteriorate. That’s the cycle of life, folks. This will very likely all come full circle.

    Go to other cities- the truth is really mirrored. When I left, we were talking about the abandonment of downtowns all over the country, sprawl was only beginning to be discussed, and people weren’t sure how a Democrat could be elected President. Now it’s reversed… EVERYWHERE. The discussion is turning to people living in or moving to politic-friendly enclaves instead of finding more mixed communities. To consider this simply a Portland problem misses some key points in the American demographic.

  7. Comment from PG:

    Too true. The tendency here is for liberal-buzzword-studded equivocation that invariably (if sometimes unwittingly) supports the haves and dismisses the have-nots.

    Steve has it pretty much dead-on, I’d say; he’s promoted this thesis before and at its core, this statement…

    “Commercial real estate developers, the power behind the throne in Portland, have successfully co-opted environmentally-minded liberals in Portland and operate with impunity under the cover of many layers of indignity generated by their unwitting minions.”

    …speaks volumes on Portland’s very real “absence of critical debate.” Like homelessness, underemployment, inequality, etc, it’s right in front of our eyes and Portland generally opts not to look. It’s truly sad that in general we’d rather sit around lecturing each other about how desirable cities are expensive, how we need to attract “talent,” and other pointless tangents.

  8. Comment from Morty:

    Couldn’t agree more, Steve.

  9. Comment from Rita Moore:

    Amen, brother. I noticed this the first week I got here, lo these many years ago, and if anything I think it’s gotten worse.

    Where I disagree slightly with Steve is his assumption that the social inequities are not noticed by the armchair liberal types. I think they are noticed and cause some sense of discomfort. Liberals do have some conscience after all.

    So what do we do? Hey, gang, let’s launch a collaborative process to develop a vision to redress the problems!! Only we’re pretty much going to restrict participation to the other bleeding heart liberals. And, oh by the way, nobody is really allowed to disagree with the consensus. (You know, the consensus that has already emerged before we started the process. Yeah, that one.)

    I see this in policy processes everywhere: social services, education, housing, homelessness, city + county planning. Everywhere. The only growth industry I can see here is group facilitation of public engagement processes. Except it’s all fake. In my experience, many of the facilitators for these processes have scant professional training in facilitation and are themselves more often than not conflict-averse.

    So, we can collaborate, but only if we all agree. Excuse me? That means the only thing we can do is agree to agree. Ah, yes, that will produce change we can believe in.

    I am frequently — and I mean like always — accused of being from the East Coast (yes, it’s always in an accusatory tone of voice) when I suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, the way things are done now may not be optimal and that maybe we could think about diagnosing the problem and developing a different solution. After the audible gasp from the assembled crowd, I am routinely talked over and assured that we all want what’s best for the children. “Trust us.” Oh, yeah, I’ll do that ’cause it’s worked so well thus far.

    This kind of window-dressing community engagement gives collaboration a bad name. It merely serves to confirm the perception of the have-nots that the game truly is fixed and their worst enemies may, in fact, be the armchair liberals who see themselves as the saviors of the little people. At least the Republicans are honest about not caring.

    Me, I like to know what people actually think. Give me frankness over polite window-dressing any day. Even if you disagree with me. Hell, ESPECIALLY if you disagree with me. Then we can have an actual conversation. But if you’re not really interested in doing something to fix the mess we’re in, then please don’t bother with the fake democracy. But you won’t because, sad to say, it usually works.

    Let me leave you with my current favorite quote, I think from Thomas Edison: “Vision without action is hallucination.” Take note, Mr. Obama.

  10. Comment from jacqueline church:

    Nice blog. Greenwashing is so rampant these days my bullshit meter is burying the needle pretty much all the time. You may enjoy this short blurb I posted on my blog in the Diversions section:

    btw: one friend still calls me “Che” and and I wrote a girl’s guide to hockey on the SIxteenth Minute. Glad I found you.