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Insufferable Portland

Oregon’s capital of cool and the downside of hipness.

Mar 5, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 24 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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I keep expecting America’s trendsetters to get over Portland, Oregon, but the odes to the City of Roses just keep on coming. The Portland tourism board could compile an impressive anthology of the New York Times’s recent coverage of the city, most of which couldn’t be more fawning if it were bylined by Bambi. 

In fairness to the Times’s travel writers, once you get past the fact it rains nearly six months out of the year, it’s hard to blame them for wanting to write about the city. At the base of soaring Mt. Hood and the gateway to the Columbia River Gorge, Portland might have the most beautiful natural setting of any major city in America. Its isolation has incubated a distinctive culture, and by any measure its art and culinary scenes are far more exciting than any city this size (nearly 600,000 people) should rightfully produce. 

Still, that doesn’t adequately explain why Portland looms so large in the imagination of the Paper of Record. Things reached the point in 2009 that a columnist for the Oregonian actually wrote a Dear John letter to the Gray Lady, announcing, “Sorry, NYT, we’re just not that into you”:

Look, we know you have strong feelings for us. We can tell​—​like the rest of the English-speaking world​—​by your incessant need to write about us.

   Two weeks ago, you made “Frugal Portland” the Sunday Travel centerpiece. In early April, you devoted another travel cover to touring our fair city by bike. You’ve also written recently about our conflicted attitudes toward gentrification, our quest for big-league soccer and our openly gay mayor, not to mention our great food, rainy weather and communal caffeine addiction.

    It’s getting embarrassing.

Speaking of embarrassing, during a recent visit to the city I got a firsthand lesson on what a fishbowl Portland has become. I was having a meal at a small-but-shockingly-good French bistro a block from my hotel downtown and struck up a conversation with the man next to me at the bar. He was an engineer at a local foundry, and about as close to a regular guy as you’re likely to find in a city noted for its bohemianism, so I was interested in his thoughts. I mentioned that I was a journalist from the East Coast, and he immediately announced he could not be quoted by name and turned the tables on me, demanding I explain “why the [expletive] New York Times likes us so much.” 

Alas, the Times’s pining for Portland may be unrequited, but the paper keeps penning more mash notes. I would later find out that the Little Bird Bistro, scene of this aborted conversation, had been prominently featured in a New York Times travel column last summer and got a full-blown review in January. The Oregonian’s website even had a blog post grumbling about how the Times was constantly letting the cat out of the bag regarding the locals’ favorite establishments. Thanks to the publicity, it now would be harder to get a table at Little Bird. Oh, and in case you’re looking for that first Times write-up of the restaurant, I should note it was in the “36 Hours in Portland, Ore.” feature in August 2011​—​not to be confused with the “36 Hours in Portland, Ore.” piece the paper ran in 2007. Last year’s travelogue pronounced Portland “the capital of West Coast urban cool,” while the 2007 piece said it “overflows with urban pleasures like chic restaurants, funky nightclubs and spritely neighborhoods crackling with youthful energy, but nobody’s boasting”—except, that is, the New York Times

So it was with some relief that audiences welcomed the sketch comedy show Portlandia on television last year, with its implicit promise that the city and the hype surrounding it were finally in for some richly deserved skewering. Starring Saturday Night Live journeyman Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein​—​a former member of feminist “riot grrrl” band Sleater-Kinney and a Portland celebrity​—​the show has mostly made good on that promise, wringing humor out of the city’s intersection of hipster culture and progressive politics. 

Portlandia instantly struck a chord as a Garrison Keillor-type takeoff on the edgy urban set. Instead of idyllic Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,” Portlandia is where “the tattoo ink never runs dry” and “all the hot women wear glasses.” The show is now in its second season and has even spawned a live comedy tour that’s bringing Portland to a venue near you. 

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