Keep Portland Pious

SW Portland looking to the northeast

Portland, Oregon is a charmer. The city’s natural beauty combined with its free-spirited people combine to make Portland a unique American place and one of the most popular places to relocate in the nation. The city’s uniqueness is an attribute that is fiercely guarded, particularly by the region’s newest residents, who can’t tolerate the idea that Portland would in any way resemble the boring, uptight American homes they left behind. Once the formerly enslaved American is freed in Portland, there is no turning back and no room for criticism of her newly found Nirvana. All criticism is saved for the critics.

People in Portland assume you love Portland and that the city is way better than whatever place you left behind. People also want to be validated in their own choices. Oregon is not an easy place to move to — it’s far away from everywhere, except California, Idaho and Washington. Housing is outrageous, there are not many high-paying jobs, and the locals keep a tight grip on things. A mentality of scarcity pervades the place, and it shows in countless ways. So, the last thing you want to do is point any of this out to another emigrant, who may be burdened by these challenges, or worse, disapproving of the fact that you are.

There are always two sides to every story, and Portlander’s obsession with craft is legendary and a welcome change from the mass production that is common from coast to coast. In Portland, it’s okay to think small. Small is beautiful here, and again, this is a good thing when compared to the sprawl and religion of constant growth practiced across the land. There’s a lot to celebrate about Portland. The problem is, Portlanders are obsessed with the need to celebrate Portland’s uniqueness. In Seattle, or San Francisco, it’s a given that the city is amazing, and that you can be amazing in it. The sky’s the limit. In Portland, limits are imposed and enforced. This is where small is beautiful goes off the tracks. For example, when Stumptown’s owner Duane Sorenson sold a part of his company to an investment firm in New York, he was scolded by Portland coffee snobs for being too ambitious and for selling out. There’s a Portland code and the code must be enforced at all times.

“Don’t act big,” is one of the rules you’re supposed to follow when you’re one of the lucky few chosen to work at Wieden+Kennedy, Nike’s ad agency. The intent behind the saying may have been pure back in the day, but today, the idea is absurd. All W+K and the people who work there do is act big all day long, every day of the week. Maybe the mantra should have been, “Remain humble.”

In many ways, perception is not reality in Portland. You don’t need to scratch too hard to reveal the city’s seedy underbelly. Where shall I even begin? How about the human trafficking on 82nd or the fact that Portland is the strip club capital of the U.S.? There’s nothing progressive about the subjugation and exploitation of women. Did you know that women in Oregon face some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the United States? More than 27 percent of women in the state have been raped, and 55.7 percent have been the victim of sexual violence other than rape, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There’s also nothing progressive about poor schools. Oregon’s graduation rate of 74 percent for the class of 2015 was third-worst in the nation, trailing the national average by nearly 10 percentage points and beating only Nevada and New Mexico. Yes, Portland is home to the nation’s largest bookstore, and also home to some top-flight colleges. There are intellectuals and artists on every block. Depending on their economic status, chances are good that they share the block with people who can’t read or write.

Fact versus fiction goes on forever in Portland. The city wants to be a global beacon for sustainability. Meanwhile, The Willamette River is a Superfund Site with no remedy. The city’s residents are proudly liberal, but uniform in their whiteness and nearly universally accepting of the one Fortune 500 company in the state who consistently underpays staff, treats vendors with disrespect, avoids paying local taxes, and refuses to manufacture in Oregon. You would think the liberals of Portland would find such a corporation an outrage. Instead, many wear the Swoosh proudly, like a homegrown merit badge.

Nike is far from alone in the corporate bullshit camp. They simply set the tone for the rest of the field. Conflicts consistently arise in business, but in the grand scheme the conflicts are gifts when compared to an even larger problem in the Portland workplace. People are petrified of direct conflict, so instead of engaging in normal business back-and-forth, people will sit quietly in meetings like snakes in the grass. These vipers are not reserving judgment — they’re waiting to unleash their venom from a distance. In related news, ghosting is rampant. You may be right in the middle of a big project or series of projects, and the person you’re working with simply vanishes. To be clear, you will not receive direct feedback from many Portland “professionals,” and it’s also likely that you will not receive any feedback whatsoever, ever.

The fear of failure is a stench in Portland’s air. I blame Portland’s prevailing scarcity mindset for this. In a city with too few good jobs, people believe there’s no room to criticize or complain. People accept less than they’re worth and rationalize it, because they live in Portland! A neighbor told me she took a pay cut to work here. She’s a C.P.A. at a Big Eight accounting firm who transferred in from St. Louis. She took a pay cut from St. Louis, where a nice home costs $200K. Employers know what they have in Portland — a large and willing pool of skilled workers who are perfectly willing to be taken advantage of financially.

Why are Portlanders so easily pacified? Portland is a city built by pioneers. Where’s the pioneer spirit now? Pioneers are on a quest, and the search for better doesn’t end when you arrive in a place.

You can argue that Portland’s makers are today’s pioneers. I agree, but I don’t see the consistently bold moves and bravery of the founding pioneers, unless I search in the cracks where the city’s best artists and activists manage to hold on.

Portland is not perfect and its residents don’t expect perfection. Sadly, there are expectations that you will work for less than you are worth, never complain or question, and keep your voice down. If more Portlanders were also playful, it would work to offset many of the above negatives. But playful isn’t part of the Portland deal. You need a sense of humor for that, and the room to laugh out loud. I promise you if you do laugh out loud in a Portland public place, it will offend precious ears and the passive-aggressive stares will begin at once. Do you think I am making this up? Do you think I am wrong? Go to a coffee shop and belly laugh. Seriously, just do it.

Hypocritical displays of virtue abound in the Rose City. This is all the weird anyone needs. Granted, there is also a lot of potential in Portland, but no one can be great in a place that routinely slaps your hand and questions your ambition and quest for positive change. Portlanders wish the city were a village. It’s not. Portland is roughhewn, adolescent in its ways, and underfunded. Too many people refuse to offer a hand, or even the courtesy of a verbal greeting in passing. On your way to the coffee shop to laugh out loud, say hello to everyone you encounter and note their responses. The cold shoulder comes with the rain.

Portland pious is bad enough. “Save Portland from itself” is a bumper sticker I’ve never seen, but would like to see. When you’re pious, pretentious, and provincial, pathetic isn’t far behind. I’d like to see something better for Portland and its residents. To get there, the falsehoods and myths need to be stripped like paint from an old house. We may find that the frame of the house is fine. What isn’t good for anyone is hiding the real Portland under layers of deceit. The fact is people in this region tend to be passive in their face-to-face dealings. This is bad form, but the real danger comes on the back end. When people repress their voices, their true feelings, and so on, the ugliness comes out in ill ways.

Why pretend that Portland doesn’t have serious problems? Homelessness is epidemic. The roads are in bad condition. Bus and train schedules have been reduced via budget cuts. The majority of the city’s buildings are not yet retrofitted for seismic activity (in a region known for massive earthquakes). People of color are fast being robbed of their neighborhoods by real estate developers and their long line of new customers. These are the same issues that haunt most American cities. Thankfully, in vibrant cities like Pittsburgh, which Portland resembles in some ways, the population isn’t committed to pretense. In Pittsburgh and many other American cities, you can say what you mean and mean what you say, and everyone understands. I long for that kind of exchange here and I sometimes I lose my cool when time and again it is denied. Several years ago, when I was new here, a friend suggested that I had too many opinions and that I might want to modify my approach in order to get along in Portland. He was correct in his assessment of what it takes to get along here. Newcomers are expected to genuflect to the power of Portland. Forgive me Father Portland, for I have sinned.

Can I tell you another pretentious Portland story? There are so many. I ordered an iced quad espresso from a place downtown once, and the barista refused to make the drink for me. He said the ice would ruin the flavor profile of the coffee. I said I was okay with that. He said he wasn’t okay with it. I’m not making this up. This is real reporting from the front lines of the culture war. How about the time we shared a community table at a fine dining restaurant in NE Portland and the family right next to us refused to acknowledge our presence or say hello? That was unpleasant. We didn’t want to talk to them or interrupt their meal, but we also didn’t want to be rude, so we said hello. Saying hello to someone near you is something Midwesterners do, naturally, without thinking about it. Unless, you’re on the subway and Portland doesn’t have a subway.

I remember when I first visited Portland during the summer of 1992. I lived in Salt Lake City at the time, and Portland seemed like a freedom zone to me, a city of big open skies where people live and let live. Portlanders do, in fact, live and let live. They don’t do so without judgment. “When did you move here?” is a question the Portland judge, or code enforcer, asks? It’s a way of assessing your dues paid. If you’ve lived here less than 10 years, you have dues to pay. Some would suggest a much longer timeline, but the number of years isn’t important. What’s important is to fall in line and/or get in line. Native Oregonians, in my opinion, are mostly above this childish game. Move-ins on the other hand keep busy seeking acceptance, and once it is earned, they want badly to grant or deny acceptance to others from that point on. To these citizens, Portland is a private preserve, a place where citizenship is earned over time by following the local customs and codes.

The need to join the Portland club is one of the factors in the way of achieving a desired state of flow in the city. In a progressive, modern, healthy city, people move through the city like cells in the body. Flow welcomes people and helps them on their way. Flow moves capital around so more people can enjoy the bounty of the commons. Flow leads to easygoing, breezy conversations with genuine people who meet you eye-to-eye. Flow isn’t scared of what’s around the bend, because flow is a continual state, continually adapting to what’s ahead.

Do you know what the Oregon state animal is? The beaver. The beaver works against flow. The beaver insists on clogging things up and making still water ponds in the perfect river. The beaver may then look upon its own reflection and maybe even like what it sees there. Many residents of Oregon, and Portland in particular, love what they see in their mirror ponds. The problems start when someone dares to cause a ripple in the placid pond. The gazers don’t like their faces distorted by forward motion.

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Fired up to write it down.

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David Burn

David Burn

Fired up to write it down.

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