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Portlandization: It Can Happen to a Place Near You

When the crazies took over the city I loved, I knew it was time to get out

Nancy Rommelmann
July 12, 2019
Moriah Ratner/Getty Images
An unidentified man faces off with Rose City Antifa members at Pioneer Courthouse Square on June 29, 2019, in Portland, Oregon.Moriah Ratner/Getty Images
Moriah Ratner/Getty Images
An unidentified man faces off with Rose City Antifa members at Pioneer Courthouse Square on June 29, 2019, in Portland, Oregon.Moriah Ratner/Getty Images

I moved to Portland in 2004, after my new husband, Din, sat me on the couch of our rental home in Los Feliz and said, “I need to be the fuck out of here in a year.” He said Portland wasn’t “the horrible, depressing place” it had been when he grew up there in the ’70s and ’80s, when downtown was full of junkies and the orange-clad followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and where no one Din knew was not from Oregon. I told him he might want to work on his sales pitch but, for love, and the opportunity to buy a house we could afford, we made the move.

We were not the only ones. Five hundred people a week were moving to Portland back then, lured by various insinuations. For those coming from big cities, where every inch came at a premium, Portland had breathing room. For those from smaller places, Portland seemed a good starter city. My first impressions of Portland were that most people drove a Subaru and everyone wore fleece in a way that was more cute than dorky. People were friendly. They married young. Portland was, in its way, nonthreatening, accommodating, a place to achieve your achievable dreams: I’ll open a bike shop; I’ll open a coffee shop. My husband did the latter. The rent was $425 a month.

Another draw was Portland’s urban niceties, pocket parks and free trolleys and light rail out to the burbs, though new arrivals mostly poured into the city proper, doubling its population and driving up rents, the normal supply-and-demand curve. Which turned out to not be normal for native Portlanders, who grumbled about yuppies (?) and people from Los Angeles and, after I wrote an article called, “There Goes the Neighborhood: Race, Real Estate and Gentrification on My Block,” suggested one way to solve the housing shortage was to take transplants like me to a local park and hang them. O-kay.

Still, Portland at that time was in many ways authentically interesting. I appreciated the troupe of anarchist clowns who rode around on two bikes welded together so the seats were jacked double high; I kept expecting one of them to face-plant in front of my car but none ever did—I appreciated that, too! Also, the punk houses a dozen kids would cram into. My daughter’s high school boyfriend rented the top half of a closet in one of these houses, live electrical wires dangling six inches from his eyes as he tried to sleep. I liked that kid. I liked that my kid, at 15, could stage a show of her clothing designs in an all but abandoned warehouse on the city’s industrial Eastside, as opposed to if she’d done so when we lived in L.A., where a classmate’s parent would have booked a soundstage over at Warner’s on a Sunday or some such, but anyway, I haven’t seen one of those cyclists in a decade, and real estate has, as real estate will, gone through the wazoo, something I don’t understand complaining about. I mean, I’d like to have the $55 a month railroad flat my newlywed parents rented on the nicest corner of Greenwich Village in 1963, but alas, the world has continued to turn.

By 2007 Portland seemed perfectly pitched between scrappy and cosmopolitan, having more strip clubs than any U.S. city while experiencing what The New York Times called, “A Golden Age of Dining and Drinking.” There was good friction, some of it generated by mostly young, many-from-California transplants ready to get arm deep in the region’s raw materials, to make vodka and bacon and bee balm and axes. I joked back then they’d make their own water if they could, and pretty soon we were all eating and cocktailing and accessorizing extremely well, Portland and “artisanship” becoming synonymous & ubiquitous (and maybe spawning the hipster ampersand name thing—sorry!). The city was blinking awake, so many new things to see and do, and when you walked down the street you sometimes heard Italian or Japanese being spoken. A munificent time.

Also, optimistic! Obama drew a record crowd of 80,000 to a campaign rally along the Willamette River. He said he represented change, which a lot of Portlanders–old and new–claimed they wanted, if by change you meant affordable housing and government health care and a cap on urban growth. And if Portland was 83% white, that was better than the 97% it had been two decades earlier; and if the city passed same-sex marriage only to reverse it in under a month, progress was nonetheless being made, being heralded, I started to hear, when I flew back to New York, “Don’t you just love Portland, isn’t it the best?”

I was, at this time, writing about a woman who had thrown her two young children from a Portland bridge, killing her 4-year-old son, so yeah, no, wait, what was the question? Which image of Portland was being received a continent away?

It must have been rosy. As I would write in the book about the bridge murder, “While places like Las Vegas and San Diego were seeing their local economies run off the rails, Portland [in 2009] appeared to be hitting its stride. Popular Science magazine had named it America’s “top green city.” The restaurant scene was nonpareil. Portland was dubbed “the new Brooklyn” and was attracting, according to TheWall Street Journal, “college-educated, single people between the ages of 25 and 39 at a higher rate than most other cities in the country.”

Young people, bless them, have a way of circumventing even the best of times and, like the milk from the goat they kept in their front yard, things turned pretty sour pretty quick. Those who’d come to Portland expecting a plug-and-play lifestyle of cheap rent and a part-time barista gig while playing in a band found the model did not work, though whose fault this was remained unclear.

“I sometimes think we’re the scatterbrained generation,” a 26-year-old woman told me, for a 2010 opinion piece headlined “Is Portland the New Neverland?” “You have so many choices,” she said, “and you know what you end up doing? Nothing. You become the DJ-fashion-designing-knitting-coffee-maker.”

This seemed to be around the time you saw “Keep Portland Weird!” bumper stickers everywhere, which was weird because, while the city was attracting newcomers in record numbers, they were, or many were, of similar stripe: educated, progressive, vocally pro-community. People began knitting in groups in public, and a lot of young men started growing beards. This was also the era of two women in their mid-20s telling me they could not get laid, that the guys always said they were too tired to have sex. I offered a theory about how low employment might make for low sex drive, maybe some apathy toward personal grooming, and the girls said yeah, maybe, but also, they kind of didn’t care, they just flew home to have sex now, to Austin and Anchorage, respectively.

Then came the TV show Portlandia, which popularized the phrase “Portland is where young people go to retire.” People loved this show! Which could be very funny, if not increasingly to Portland’s chattering classes, who’d wearied of the outside attention (sample headline: “Sorry, NYT, We’re Just Not That Into You”) and wanted it understood that while parody was all well and good, Portland was in fact very serious in its commitment to tolerance and diversity and doing things in eco-friendly ways, like installing bike lanes, lots and lots of bike lanes, which would help Portland evolve into a uniquely new kind of American city, patterned not after Seattle, serial fellator of big tech, or God forbid anyplace in California, but more in the mold of a European city. I recall hearing Amsterdam mentioned a lot.

“We knew they would create confusion, but we wanted to do something different,” a Portland city planner told my husband and me in 2014, when we complained that the bicycle lanes the city had spent a year installing not on the intuitive right but the left, were creating confusion and traffic and, oh yeah, the vehicular deaths of more than a cyclist or pedestrian a week. The planner, who had a face like a golden ferret, informed us the lanes were what local businesses wanted. We reminded the planner that my husband owned the local coffee shop on whose patio we were at that moment sitting. The planner said he’d meant to say local homeowners wanted the new lanes; that he’d held public meetings. Din explained he’d been among the homeowners who loudly rejected the left-lane plan, whereupon the golden ferret made for a municipal vehicle with “The City That Works” on its side, a slogan Portland appropriated from Chicago, a reminder that it’s important to pick good role models.

Still, Portland was at this time making legit strides. The state led the way in pushing to decriminalize marijuana. Legal cannabis sales in 2015 reached $265 million, and the following year, the state reaped $60 million in cannabis sales taxes. Developers smelled opportunity and submitted more than 70 new commercial building permits in a given week in 2015. Tower cranes started to dominate downtown, and there was talk of erecting the tallest buildings on the West coast. The prospect of verticality made a New York City girl’s heart go boom but brought new grumbles from Portlanders, who wanted change but not that kind of change, not if change meant more tall buildings, meant a futuristic black complex jutting over the Willamette that detractors labeled “the death star.” In its shadow, there soon appeared a building named by its local developer the Fair-Haired Dumbbell. The building’s multicolored paint swirls are meant perhaps to evoke whimsy, though in me activate a primal vomit sensor I heretofore did not know I had.

Were most people in Portland stunned when Trump was elected? Sure, but they did not malinger, they marched, they marched and marched and kept marching, women’s marches, “Not my President!” marches, marches for LBGTQ rights, for minority rights, an Earth Day march, a May Day march, marches against homelessness and ICE, for police accountability and immigrant rights, so many marches an alt-weekly ran a “Resistance & Rallies” listings category. Marching provided the warm spurt that doing something can bring, and if they did not seem to have much effect on the machinations of government, they at least brought people together. Including, it must be said, unwanted people. While marchers might have been moved to bring doughnuts and deodorant to the Occupy Wall Street squatters in 2011, these new kids, these anti-fascists with their dark hoodies, did not seem so much about protest as revolution, the news showed them setting cars on fire and smashing storefronts. Or maybe those were other people in hoodies? It was hard to tell, the marches had become confusing. Anyone was potentially frightening now but especially another new faction, these Nazi-lite looking guys carrying flags, throwing punches, maybe deflecting punches but did it matter? Portland was not going to become the next Charlottesville, not when the city’s historical record included the 1988 beating death of an Ethiopian immigrant by a group of thugs calling itself White Aryan Resistance. But why go back that far? There was the 2017 stabbing deaths aboard the light rail of two good Samaritans as they tried to protect two teenage girls—one a Muslim in a hijab, one who was Black—from a ranting, self-described “white nationalist.” And yes, the killer had a history of mental illness, but still, he’d expressed support for Trump, and anyone who supported Trump was by association a racist and a threat, and there was no room for that kind of hate in Portland, not at public assemblies meant to promote peace, and maybe the authorities needed to do something about these people.

This last was not a proposition I could agree with, and not because I had any affection for Donald Trump. Growing up in New York, I knew him as a lout and a huckster, the sort who stiffs a waiter if no one is looking and overtips if someone is. Still, believing that anyone who voted for Trump axiomatically was a white supremacist displayed contempt for one’s fellow citizens. It struck me as petty and following in Trump’s lead. Mistrusting nearly half the population because you thought they were against you? Where had we heard this before? Were we not seeing how mistrust could usher in bad things, could make ambiguous events seem like possible dangers, could make you make up stories meant to hurt others before they could hypothetically hurt you? Mistrust also made a mockery of the posters now hanging in nearly every storefront window in Portland, “WE WELCOME ALL … WE WELCOME YOU, YOU ARE SAFE HERE.”

I have a friend, let’s call her Karen. Karen bootstrapped several Portland businesses, including a coffee shop. She walks in one day and the barista, who is trans, says she had a man come in earlier wearing a MAGA cap and is she obliged to serve people like him? Karen asks, did he say something to you? No, says the barista, but he’s a white supremacist. Karen tells her, first, you don’t know that, and second, you cannot discriminate based on the way someone is dressed. And that, Karen thinks, is that, but no, the barista relays the story to another barista we will call Jen, who goes onto Facebook and posts, “My boss Karen is a Nazi.” Karen learns of this while she is on vacation. She calls her manager and tells her to get Jen into the office. Jen may intuit as much, as when the manager says she needs to speak with her, Jen gets on the floor behind the espresso bar and curls into a fetal position. And you might think, if anyone should maybe not be in customer service, it’s Jen, but no, people prove sympathetic to her and the other barista’s fears and start an online inquisition and can Karen prove she is not a Nazi? And should she not be more concerned with the safety of her employees than some random Republican wanting a cup of coffee?

By 2017, some defenders of diversity and safety were learning how variously those concepts could be construed, could bring the future they wanted a little closer; could be fashioned into tools that got the job done. Sharp tools would be used to cut out those deemed a threat to inclusivity, including two girls who during a road trip in Mexico fell in love with the tortillas made by local cooks. The girls were young, and snoopy, and hung around the cooks until they learned the techniques. Once back in Portland, the girls told the paper Willamette Week, they scraped together enough money to open Kooks Burritos, a food cart they shut for good later that week after receiving multiple death threats due to their not being Mexican and thus, according to the alt-weekly blog post that incited a campaign against them, having no right to make Mexican food.

Week after week people of color in Portland bear witness to the hijacking of their cultures, and an identifiable pattern of appropriation has been created … After the fury continued online, a different resource emerged and quickly went viral: a Google doc showing exactly how prevalent this epidemic is. The list titled “White-Owned Appropriative Restaurants in Portland” provides a who’s who of culinary white supremacy.

I’d cite more of that post, clipped here from a Willamette Week follow-up, but when you go to the Portland Mercury website, you get the following message:

Dear readers: Due to new information that has recently come to light, we have taken down our blog post, “This Week in Appropriation: Kook’s [sic] Burritos and Willamette Week.” It was not factually supported, and we regret the original publication of this story.—eds.

Too late to help the Kooks’ girls, but, oh well. As for that restaurant list, that’s been deleted, too, which shows me people are not willing to stand by their weapons of destruction, and also, that Portland is pulling off the pretty slick trick of beaming to the world an image of tolerance and inclusion, while concurrently denying certain of its citizens a place at the table. That’s some scary-strong juju, and maybe one best kept in check lest exclusionary tactics be taken for progress, be enshrined by some centralized authority.

But before we get to Portland city council, let’s zip back a decade, to when Portland was pliable, when you could make big mistakes, in public, and most people were like, whatevs! For instance, when Mayor Sam Adams was forced to fly home from Obama’s first inauguration to face the music over a sexual liaison with a legislative intern named Beau Breedlove. (After initially denying reports of the liaison, Adams later admitted to having a sexual relationship with Breedlove but insisted that the intern was 18 when they had sex, not 17 as some accounts alleged.) Did Portlanders lose their minds? Nope! They staged a candlelight rally at which the singer Storm Large, a 2006 finalist on the TV show Rock Star: Supernova, belted out, “Stand by Your Sam.” And a year later, when Adams got into a slow-speed crash in a parking lot and was said by witnesses to have both his fly and undershorts undone (Adams has denied these allegations), he did not go on an apology tour, he took a recurring role on Portlandia, playing the jack-rabbity assistant to the mayor of Portland, played by Kyle MacLachlan, who improvised a Portland anthem and sang it like some latter-day Robert Goulet, goofball stuff that had the city laughing at itself.

Portlandia ended its run in 2018.

This past February, Portland’s real mayor, Ted Wheeler, put before the public a resolution that would ban alt-right and hate groups. Three months earlier, he’d proposed an emergency ordinance to restrict public protests, with him making the call as to when and where protests could take place and who could take part. Half the city council had agreed then to give him that power, but the other half said doing so potentially limited people’s rights to free speech, and the measure was voted down.

Maybe Wheeler sensed the winds had shifted since that first vote. Maybe he was encouraged by students up the street at Portland State University, who carried signs that read “Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech.” Maybe he understood that by leaving the alt-right resolution hazy–there was nothing in it that indicated how or by whom hate groups would be identified–it might sail through.

“We’ve heard this resolution is mostly symbolic, we’ve heard this resolution will solve nothing,” Wheeler said, making what he was proposing sound not very sweeping at all, a show of earnestness on the part of the government to keep its people safe, and who could argue with that? And if the details of the resolution were not in place, maybe that was OK, you could craft it as you went, could apply it as needed to anything you deemed hateful, a prospect that seemed to alarm only a few people in the room, who may have sensed the resolution could be used on a whim, or as revenge, or to limit personal freedoms.

“Who is going to determine who these [hate] groups are?” one member of the public asked.

Mayor Wheeler responded, “This last testimony does not reflect anything in the resolution.” The resolution passed unanimously.

This invitation to shut up for the greater good might seem quaint, compared with the liberties being sacrificed elsewhere daily, the publishers who pulp books based on fictional characters not displaying subjective standards of cultural verisimilitude, The New York Times ceasing to run political cartoons lest someone take offense, the designer Carolina Herrera being called out for designing a gown with a floral pattern inspired by indigenous weavings. I get we live in an overheated environment where words and food and flowers can get you burned, and have myself been burned in Portland. Still, a city can develop a cast, a tenor, and when that tenor becomes law, you might have reservations about where the place is heading, might sense people taking undue pleasure in stoking their suspicions, might not think the environment one you want to spend any more of your life around. Did I mention I am moving back to New York?

At the end of June a colleague of mine, Andy Ngo, was beaten by a group of left-wing activists at a rally here. I say “left-wing activists” because they were said to have shown up in reaction to a protest staged by groups the city considers alt-right. At this point people in Portland march to aggress the “other” side, to goad others into fistfights, to use milkshakes as weapons, the latter a trend bizarrely receiving celebration, the former evergreen, violence seen by people on all sides as somehow necessary to the times.

The attack on Andy, who spent the night in the hospital, was instantly politicized. Michelle Malkin started a GoFundMe that in 17 hours raised more than $91,000. Laura Ingraham misinterpreted a tweet enough to make it seem a fact that the milkshake thrown on Andy contained cement. Those seen as progressive insinuated that Andy had provoked people into hitting him; that he was asking for it; some variation of pulling a Jussie Smollett. A friend who posted photos of one of Andy’s alleged attackers online messaged me that people were telling her to “call Laura Loomer. … I personally want to pack up my kids and dogs and leave my house for a week. I have a bad feeling about all this.”

Me too. Nothing comes out of the blue, and if you don’t think Portlandization can happen to a place near you, you have not been paying attention.

All cities have their terribleness, all their goodness, and there are things about Portland I will miss. I will miss the Waypost, a bar with amber lighting that makes everyone look 27 and a tiny stage where there’s usually something fine and unexpected, five guys on cellos, a girl telling bedtime stories. I will miss Oaks Park Skating Rink, where the massive 1920s Wurlitzer pipe organ drops from the ceiling and an organist plays disco for skaters mostly born after 2002. I will miss the National Sanctuary of our Sorrowful Mother, popularly known as the Grotto, with its cave carved into the side of a cliff, and inside, a replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà. I will miss the clouds, which Portland does better than anyplace I’ve been and which many of you have seen an iteration of on the opening of The Simpsons, whose creator Matt Groening grew up here. Portland does the nature thing pretty well. My first week here, I was taking a run and wondering what all the purple splotches on the sidewalk were. Plums. Food is everywhere, it falls into your hands, jumps onto your line, as when, that same first week, my husband called from the Oregon coast to say, beginner’s luck, he’d caught two salmon. We butchered them on the back porch, and they were so fresh, they smelled only and very faintly of watermelon. And I will miss the squad that took us through some recent hardships, including my daughter’s father living with us as he dies of lung cancer. As I have written before, he was a basketball star in his youth, and we leaned hard this year into the Portland Trail Blazers, this team of great heart, great toughness, a bunch of sweet, driven players who believed they could get us to the finals and almost did, we’d set our dinner plates around the TV and scream and cheer, we thank these guys so much, they made the season bright, and my daughter and I are already scoping out bars in Brooklyn that show West coast games so we can keep watching them play.

“It’s still beautiful here,” my husband said last night, as we sat on the porch, looking at a July moon. “It’s the people.”

Soon, other people will live in this house. I wish them well. I wish Portland well, and if I were to say anything to those who come here to live their ideals, it is to not be afraid of the guy in the MAGA hat, the girls making burritos. Anyone who tells you to hate swaths of people has their own agenda. Find out for yourself. Make your own courage. Make Portland beautiful.

This article has been updated to reflect Portland Mayor Sam Adams’ response to allegations concerning his sexual relationship with an intern and the details surrounding his involvement in a car accident.

Nancy Rommelmann’s work appears in the LA Weekly, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Reason and other publications. Her most recent book is To the Bridge, A True Story of Motherhood and Murder. Follow her on Twitter @nancyromm .

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