When I was a kid (see above), Portland held no cultural currency. The “Northwest,” to most people, basically just meant Seattle. I distinctly remember the phrase my family tossed out to explain where we lived to people we met when we traveled: “Oregon? It’s between California and Seattle.”
These days, everyone I meet on the road has a story about Portland, even—often especially—if they’ve never been there. I got a tattoo in Los Angeles last week and the artist practically teared up recounting to me a lost weekend he recently spent in Portland. “I found some really great gutter punks,” he recalled softly. Hundreds of the flight seat buddies, hairdressers, chatty tellers, and otherwise conversational humans I’ve crossed paths with over the years have shared with me some variant. Or, simply, with the vague confidence of secondhand knowledge, have asserted to me that it “seems so nice” out in Portland.
(Meanwhile, everyone in the country called it “Ory-GON” until, like, five years ago.)
I don’t say this because I’m trying to garner cred as a local (there’s nothing less credible, to a lifelong Portlander, than bragging about one’s origins, anyway) but because it’s genuinely incredible how rapidly this city’s cachet has skyrocketed. Sometimes, as an intellectual exercise, I try to remember when it happened. Was it Stumptown coffee? Was it the Dandy Warohls? Which fawning New York Times profile of a Portland farm-to-table organic restaurant catalyzed us into the mainstream?
‘Cause we’re definitely mainstream: a show like Portlandia could only exist in a nation that has an awareness of, or obsession with, Portland. Of course, part of the genius of Portlandia is that the show doesn’t just trade in Portland-specific stereotype sketches; rather, it’s made the (very smart) decision to build a fictionalized universe of characters, with a social physics that is both a riff on the real Portland and its own invention. Still, it couldn’t have made it past the boardroom if Portland, and what it represents, wasn’t already surfing the crest of American cultural consciousness.
Portlandia‘s Portland is sweeter, dreamier, and infinitely more hospitable than the actual city (for one, it never rains in the show). In a sense, it’s what people imagine it to be, rather than what it actually is. Which is the crux of its success, and totally indicative of the national idea of Portland, I believe. A major reason for Portland’s success, why out-of-towners navigate the city limits in gaping awe, perpetually commenting on its residents’ ease of life, why Portlandia charms so many, is because of this:
People like the idea of a place that is still OK!
The Portland of Portlandia—and, to an only slightly diminished extent, the real Portland—is young America’s Shangri-La. Regardless of whether or not they have, or ever plan to, visit Portland, the city has come to represent a life unencumbered by harsh political reality, economic duress, or career hustling. For Angelenos who dream of torching their cars, New Yorkers who are tired of city living’s various indignities, Portland is an escape. Portland reassures.
Portland is more than just “where young people go to retire;” it seems to be an entire generation’s backup plan. One could move to Portland, start making jewelry or manning a farm stand, and life would be easier. Of course, most people don’t relocate, but still: the thought of a clean, pleasant, eco-conscious enclave in this increasingly demoralizing world keeps people sane.
In fact, I might argue a mathematical relationship between Portland’s moment as a media darling-cum-cultural symbol and the darkening of a general socio-political, environmental mood in the country. Encountering overzealous vegetable picklers, buying the wrong artisanal knot, or forgetting your grocery bag seem like the most gentle of ordeals compared to economic upheaval and riot cops.
Of course, that’s a little insane, too. And Portlandia makes us laugh, because it both debunks this myth and lovingly perpetuates it.