Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Portland's fun-house mirror, part 1

I lived in Austin, Texas as the decade changed from the 1980s to the 1990s. It was the world of Slacker, of Generation X's first flush, of listening to bands that would be called grunge a year later. It was also a dying world, but we didn't know that, yet.  In retrospect, the next few years constituted the last bored sigh before the whole world wired up, plugged in, and went online. The world was about to change utterly, but no one in Austin focused on that. They focused on what had already changed, casting longing backwards looks at the days of the Armadillo World Headquarters in the 1970s, when Austin was some weird and much smaller capitol for the nine people who couldn't decide whether they wanted to be hippies or cowboys.

Last year, Slacker 2011 was released, revisiting the locations of Richard Linklater's original film and, in the process, showing how much Austin had changed. So, naturally, everyone cast longing backwards looks at those days.

Cities change. The only constant is that many of their citizens will think they used to be much better.

Last night we attended a history lecture in a bar1. It was a fascinating history, delivered by Joe Streckert, of the former town of Albina and the neighborhoods that compose it.  The now-hip area of Albina was once a town, annexed into Portland in 1891, and has been, variously, a railroad company town; the site of Vanport, a shoddily-built housing development for wartime workers; a post-Katrina-esque wasteland of destroyed shoddily-built homes and refugees when the Columbia river flooded in 1948; an economically blighted and racially red-lined mess taken advantage of by predatory lenders; and a semi-abandoned urban wasteland that was frightening to ride a bicycle in when Streckert was a kid.  But here's the thing: at each of those points in the past, Albina was better than the gentrified mess it is now. Because, hipsters!

Okay, I'm exaggerating the extent to which Streckert rhapsodized over the past and bemoaned the present. I'm also (slightly) exaggerating his attacks on hipsters, because I want to digress and ask, what did hipsters ever do to all of us, anyway?  Why do we get so bent out of shape about them? Why do they face attacks from all segments of society, including the hipster community itself?2 I mean, yeah, sure, they should just admit that they are broke or cheap but still want to get drunk and stop pretending that Pabst Blue-Ribbon is somehow cool and ironic, but how does that little lie hurt me?

I'm exaggerating the extent to which Streckert rhapsodized over the past because I want to point out the inability to see itself clearly that is such an essential feature of the Things-Used-To-Be-So-Much-Better syndrome, Portland-style.  Portlanders bemoan the neighborhoods lost in the South Auditorium Urban Renewal Project of the 1950s and 1960s but don't always mention the parks, pedestrian mall, and fountains that eventually occupied the space. Portlanders love to talk about how I-5 cut through Northeast neighborhoods, but don't talk as much about the teardown of a highway-- Harbor Drive-- to make way for Waterfront Park. 

This commentary should in no way diminish the significance of the half-empty part of the glass.  The urban renewal projects of the 1950s into the 1970s wrecked neighborhoods and displaced minority populations.  But, by wrecking havoc, they also paved the way (so to speak) for the more enlightened urban planning for which Portland is now known. Also: hipsters on Mississippi Avenue didn't travel through time back to 1963 to suggest to Emanuel Hospital that they turn nearby houses and businesses into parking lots. 

1 No, seriously.
2 See my rant: "If You Use the Word 'Twee' To Denigrate Hipsters, You Are a Hipster."


  1. You'll be either happy or dismayed - but certainly not surprised - to hear that such thinking still occurs with alarming frequency in Austin.

    "There's no more Liberty Lounge!" What about the 10 or so clubs on Red River doing the same thing that didn't EXIST back in the Liberty Lounge days?

    "They closed Las Manitas to build condos!" And to get Las Manitas back you would trade Uchi, Franklins BBQ and all the myriad food trucks that have popped up since its demise?

    You can usually tell the ones who are stuck in the past because when they speak disparagingly of why they don't go downtown anymore, they focus entirely on 6th St, as if all of downtown (and a healthy chunk east of I-35) hasn't been turned into one big adult playground in the last decade... even if you downright loathe SXSW you can at least thank them for that.

    This may sound cynical, but I think as a lot of people age and get weighed down with jobs, kids and various other responsibilities, they lose the energy and the enthusiasm to engage in activities that require even a modest time or travel commitment. "What, drive all the way downtown to see a live band? There's a bar a block from my house, and they have a jukebox".

    But rather than admit that they've become domesticated couch potatoes whose funner days are in their rear view mirror, they look for reasons why things have gone to shit, if nothing else to reassure themselves that they aren't missing out on anything by staying in their low demand comfort zone. Pshaw, I say.

    1. That's part of it, but the biggest reason people proclaim that things used to be so much cooler is because it allows them to feel superior to the newcomers

    2. You're both right. It allows them to feel superior WHILE being lazy. That's very appealing, for obvious reasons.

  2. Okay, so much flying through my mind at once, but I will first mention what garnered my biggest of many big reactions:

    I just want to clarify quickly because I positively cannot believe the words on the page. Are you telling me - I know this is Portland and all but I am culture shocking right now - did you actually say a *highway* was *torn down* to build a *park* ??????

    I mean, like, people actually did that?? Not the other way around?? Are you SURE??? That*actually*happened???

    Speaking as someone who spent an hour searching for your house in Amarillo because I confused the house number from 1017 to 1710 and could not for the life of me find the 1700 block of your street because, as I came to realize, it had not existed since 1966 when it had been bulldozed to build I-40 - - - a highway - - - tearing through homes, churches, and parks smack in the middle of town (the only positive point about it being that it was a sucky town, therefore not as great a loss but a loss nonetheless) and there is actually SOMEWHERE in the world that TORE DOWN a highway to PUT UP a PARK???? Really? That happened?? And I realize I-40 is an interstate and that's different and blah blah and if it had not been for one ginormous interstate running through town I would have been lost way more often which is stupid being Amarillo but I would have been so I'm thankful it was there so I wasn't lost but . . . really? They tore down a highway in Portland to build a waterfront park??? Really?

    That may be the best thing I've heard all day.

    A park. With birds. On the waterfront. And not cars.

    I'll have to come back to you on this one. I have to wrap my brain around this for a minute. Don't worry, I'll digest it slowly. It's just so backwards. In a good way backwards. But backwards.

    I was stuck on a turnpike once just trying to get around Oklahoma City and drove down that thing and back for four hours - it took all my money and I was out of gas and I was one exit away from TULSA before the damned thing would LET me TURN AROUND and get off the stupid turnpike just because this country is so car crazy they have to make a nonstop highway to get me across Oklahoma as quickly as possible because who wants to be in Oklahoma but I was stuck on that thing because this country is so obsessed with roads and there is actually a place that tore one down? For a PARK??

    That is fantastic.

    I'll be back . . .

    Lisa Freeman


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Upside Down on Mars by Barry J. Cochran is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.