TV parody of 'the city where young people go to retire' hits its targets
PORTLAND LETTER:“Do you remember the nineties, when people were talking about getting piercings and getting tribal tattoos and people were singing about saving the planet, and forming bands? There’s a place where that idea still exists as a reality, and I’ve been there!”
So speaks Fred Armisen in a sketch from the show Portlandia. He’s talking, of course, about Portland, Oregon, where, as the show’s co-creator Carrie Brownstein adds: “It’s like Gore won, and the Bush administration never happened!”
The show, filmed entirely in Portland, has been a big ratings success and is now in its third season. It turns out parodying the white liberal culture that has come to define this rainy city in the Pacific northwest has a national – and even international – appeal.
But how far from the truth is the fictional version? “It is an absolute true representation of the city!” jokes former mayor Sam Adams, who appeared in the show himself during his tenure as Portland’s mayor, playing an assistant to Portlandia’s mayor Kyle McLachlan.
This is, after all, a city where you might see a man walk his goat on a leash down the street (North Portland), or be heckled by a herd of unicyclists (Pearl District), or pay through the nose for a pourover coffee from a po-faced barista who will spend far too long carving the foam on your cappuccino (citywide).
You will pass streets that evoke that 1990s touchstone The Simpsons: Flanders, Lovejoy, Quimby. But though it may feel like the cartoon has somehow seeped into the city, in fact it’s Portland that infiltrated Springfield: Simpsons creator Matt Groening grew up here, and named a host of the now-beloved characters after his hometown streets.
You will also find yourself in search of lost time in Powell’s, the world’s largest independent bookshop and a bibliophile’s Shangri-La. And you will no doubt spot on your meanderings across the city’s myriad bridges an above-average number of androgynous haircuts, thick-rimmed glasses, bounteous beards and cyclists.
Portlanders have a relationship with their bicycles that would put Flann O’Brien’s policemen to shame, and the city has the highest percentage of bicycle commuters in the country. Should their dedication be in any doubt, there is the city’s annual Naked Bike Ride. Thousands take part.
The biking culture serves to further burnish Portland’s cherished environmental cred: the city tops lists as the country’s greenest. It certainly feels green – many of the residential streets are tree-lined and park-pocked, and it’s flanked to the west by Forest Park, miles of dense green forest overlooking the Willamette River that’s criss-crossed with hiking trails, and to the east by Mount Tabor, an Olmstead brothers-designed park built on a dormant volcano vent. There are the downtown streetcars, and the curbside composting and the mandatory recycling requirements, all integral to efforts to make Portland a sustainable city.
But Adams, whose term ended on December 31st last, is not quite ready to break out the bunting. “It’s great to be successful on environmental sustainability – we’ve made significant progress – but when it comes to social justice we are not living up to our values. In fact, life for non-white Portlanders has gotten worse.”
Portland may not be entirely populated with carefully coiffed hipsters or folk musicians as its comedy counterpart suggests, but it is more than 70 per cent white. African-American communities have been pushed out from the centre by the city’s rapid gentrification, and now the areas that make of Portland a Portlandia – those lined with bird-print shops, microbreweries, vintage clothes stores and vegan sandwich makers – are predominantly white both in culture and demographic.
From a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender perspective, however, the city does better. It has the seventh-highest LGBT population in the country, according to a 2006 University of California study, and it was the first big city to elect an openly gay mayor when it gave Adams the job in 2008.
It’s a city that conjures up images of urban farming and unchained coffee shops, but it’s also home to the world’s biggest Intel site, while Nike’s international headquarters in nearby Beaverton is one of the city’s biggest employers.
It takes food provenance and recycling very seriously, yet can laugh at that same gravitas. Because nowhere is Portlandia as big a hit as it is in Portland itself. Portlandia is to Portland what The Commitments is to Dublin and while the city’s blemishes are duly exposed, it’s done with the affection of those who know it, love it and are part of it. It’s the city “where young people go to retire”, or, failing that, to write cartoons and comedy shows about it.