Those of us gathered at the table were the usual sort one would find in a hostel. It was a traditional Sunday brunch at the hostel, put on by local volunteers. The lead on this was a tall fellow with dreadlocks who originally came from Chicago but had been living in Portland for the past several years. Sort of the person one may think of when one thinks of communal kitchens and composting. Ear gauges, tribal tattoos, a tall young man with a soft voice came into the hostel and started cooking. Two older guys were helping him, it seems that this weekly brunch attracts may locals from the Hawthorne area, I am told, but today only two fellows were helping out. Also, there were few others in the hostel that morning, some had left for the day, others had left for wherever they are headed. In no time, the tattooed man had taken up all the leftovers from the “free shelf,” small bags of grain, an avocado and all these materials were pressed into a very tasty brunch. Donations of $2 -$4 were requested, but there was no pressure to give, it was made clear that this was more about joining in. At the table the small gathering started, everyone got a healthy serving (the potatoes were especially good) and we sat making small talk and the usual “Whereareyoufromwhereareyougoing” question.
Then, the host and guest chief started talking a little about Portland. “This used to be the most racist city outside of the South. The mayor used to have his picture taken with the KKK. They didn’t want to have blacks in this city, so they built a special city for the blacks who were moving up here and they built it on a floodplain, and then one day the entire city washed away.” At this point the hostel clerk chimed in, “actually it wasn’t a city for the blacks,” he interjected in order to correct the historical record, “it was a temporary worker’s housing that was intended only to be used for a while, during the war when they were building ships here. There were all sorts of people living there, but yes, mostly black. So this temporary housing was used longer than intended and that’s when the flood happened.” OK, so temporary housing used longer than intended washed away, and the housing was open to all poor migrant workers, like… blacks, but also African-Americans, Negros, and whites, so here Portland I guess had diversity from the early days of just about the time of the Great War. Then the conversation turned from race relations and real estate to sex and the number of strip clubs being high, per capita, of course.
“We have a higher amount of sexual activity here than New York City,” claimed one of the older men who were part of the volunteer cooking crew. “We have adult book stores, movies, steam rooms, the Portland Steam room that welcomes gay, bisexual, transgendered, or whatever you want.” I suggested that perhaps we go on a field trip to a strip club, just because I’m that sort of asshole who knows that people love to talk about open-minded sexcapades, but to actually and openly attempt to make sexcapades happen is quite a different thing, but it did make everyone at the table laugh. Even if it was uncomfortably. The remainder of the brunch continued small talk about travel and comparing Portland to Seattle, which the other older gentleman assistant brunch cook claimed that Portland was more polite but Seattle more friendly, to which some discussion was given, but ultimately, this thesis was debunked, or at least dismissed as a true traveler’s tale. The brunch discussion and eating came to an end, and all gathered returned to whence they came or the activities they are given on a late Sunday afternoon, whether that be travel, or a visit to the steam rooms of Portland for a little tug-a-tug.
Portland appears to be a very organized city. It reminds me of Germany, or at list the little of Germany I saw a decade or so back. Clean streets, neat houses and smart looking buildings, the modern buildings giving some attempt as design and even if these are minimalist details such as bricks set in an alternative direction or a railing or two here and there. The people are dressed very smartly for the most part, and there is a great many people of European decent, Asian, or Eurasians, the African-Americans primarily found around the Gray Hound depot or here and there throughout the desegregated and today fully-integrated city. The bike lanes allowed for simple travel in the city proper as well as the environs. A waterside trail let to a much longer pathway that went way beyond the city limits and connected to another corridor that ran alongside the highway, where there was also a lite rail system, further increasing the similarity I found between Portland and Germany, or Austria. The Crust Punks too resembled those I remember who gathered around in parks or littered the entrance to the underground stations, except that these punks all seemed to have gender assigned pets – men, pit-bulls, women, cats. Pit-bulls had heavy oversized ropes or chains attached to them, had on a scarf or other scraps, while the cats of this species of sub-culture traveled on top of backpacks and were given to being tied in place by string. Also, like Germany, a number of addicts but I assumed by the open sores and distance from the fields of Asia that these were the North Western Meth-heads rather than being the wild hibiscus Frankfurt Herioneese. Then there were the crazies, the muttering masses who litter every city now that we have given up on institutionalized care, not that those institutions really worked, but that is again, territory for social scholars.
All over Portland the new tech industry is represented. The knowledge class has come in droves and for good reason. Intel, the chip-making manufacturer, is building a large installation on the edge of Portland while it seems that many new start-ups continue to flock to the city and area to escape the rising costs of Silicon Valley, but still need a location hospitable to the new creative class. And Portland seems to have those amenities as well as what seems to be a more relaxed atmosphere, at least from the casual visitor. Stopping on the street, people asked if I needed directions, on my bike, even more so. Cars actually stop to let you cross, even on a bike and without a sign post reminding all of the law. Riding about the city I smelled roasting or brewing coffee, brewing beer, small batch whiskey, and of course pot clouds so that it was coffee-beer-pot-coffee-beer-pot as I rode from area to area, I assume passing the local cafe, brewer, pothead.
The skyline was the same as other American cities. Large boxes, restored older buildings turned into museum-quality relics, new construction with above mentioned design flair, and a few towers for cement or left-over from the city’s industrial age. Small houses crept in all directions, many on the ridges, and in the distance Mount Hood and Mount St. Helen’s connected between by a chain of lower mountains. Street cars went up and down, electric buses hummed by and the highways were landscaped in some attempt to mitigate their uglytude and the skyways flew across the river and over the city allowing suburban dwellers to avoid the historic downtown or the traffic lights designed to slow down traffic rather than allowing for speed. This should not all work. However, this is not Hartford, CT, Birmingham, AL, or Newerk, NJ…. strangely, this recipe seemed to work, and was the first American city I have come to in my journey that made me thing… “Wow, there’s hope for us yet.” The green wasn’t just paint. The hostel I was staying in flushed the toilets with rainwater. The cafes all had composting bins. People talked about owning cars but only using them when the weather was bad. I am not sure where the KenTacoHut was, although I am sure there has to be one somewhere.
A city is always a precarious enterprise. Maybe Portland is the result of good design, maybe luck of the draw. Maybe this Portland is just a short-term phase, something that could happen to any city, were they so lucky. Maybe it is the size, perhaps as more people come the quality of life will go down, maybe there is a greater middle class in the city who hold it together and any drop in this vital sign will diminish all those green save-the-planet activities, community volunteerism, Sunday brunch at the hostelism, and friendly biking where I didn’t have to say “fuck you,” or give the finger once in three days of riding about (in dear Gotham you tell other people on bikes to “fucking watch it man!” several times a ride since bikers ride about with such aggression and spite and cars usually have their music up and won’t hear you go under the tires). Whatever makes it work, there is something to the city and Portlandia is a glad place where we can either look to as an example of the New American City, or laugh at and point and say, “wow, it really is the nineteen nineties there and will be, forever.”