What makes Portland so Portland?
Is there a definitive recipe, an indie cocktail of farm-to-table ingredients that definitively sets it apart from the other subcultural meccas of North America? Sure, San Francisco’s got the Burning Man enthusiasts, L.A. has ample macrobiotic eaters and yoga kooks, and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has its share of bearded hipsters, but it’s not about the quantity of underemployed twentysomethings in bands, nor the volume of food trucks‒it’s something more ineffable.
See, sometimes I hear about a new happening in town‒a vegan version of Iron Chef, for example, or a zombie prom ‒and I think, “only in Portland.” As an earnestly corduroyed individual at the farmer’s market entreats me to join this weekend’s charity mushroom hunting foray, I think, “this is so Portland.” What that means, exactly, is something I’m still trying to define; like modern art and pornography, ya know it when you see it.
And in the Rose City, you see it all the time. Often, in fact, it seems as though Portland is one giant, endlessly regenerating parody of itself. In its perfectly postmodern way, Portland itself is “so Portland.” Like a too-cool-to-be-aired episode of the Real World, it stops being funny. And starts being real. You get to a point where you don’t even flinch anymore when your neighbor’s response to why they’re having a yard sale on a Tuesday instead of the weekend is, “Because I don’t believe in linear time.”
Not to be pejorative, mind you. Though perhaps impossible to completely define, “so Portland” is a perfect storm of many confluent factors, none of which are negative, necessarily: earnestness, zeal, a joyful disregard for mainstream culture (especially its linear time), and a desire for uniqueness, sustainability, and self-reliance. Even the snobiness that Portlandia so lovingly lampoons‒our local baristas’ withering disdain for Starbucksisms, the guy at the pizza shop’s refusal to play anything other than O.G. Scandinavian death metal on the stereo‒comes from a high cultural premium placed on taste and a fierce commitment to building a better world, a better community.
Sometimes Portland is so insular that we forget, kinda, that most of the country thinks a macchiato is something with whipped cream and caramel in it. And, like, that’s delicious, but it’s not a macchiato, you know? In Portland, at the grocery store, a person can feel like a pariah when they forget to bring their shopping bag from home. A person can be lambasted by their friends for admitting a preference for restaurants with walls and bathrooms, as opposed to bicycle drive-through windows and food carts. And don’t even get me started on the shame of being the sole car driver in a posse of transit commuters and cyclists. The shame!
To be honest, it’s as enervating to be on the receiving end of that energy as it is fun to dish it. You either get into it or you don’t. Portlandia’s already-iconic “Dream of the 90s” sketch gets this perfectly: sure, we’re ridiculous, but have you tried jumping right in? Within no time you’re flanneled to the nines and hanging out with crusty-punk clowns.
Then, suddenly, without warning, you’re So Portland. And is that such a bad thing?