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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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But while Portlandia is more acerbic than Prairie Home Companion, it too can come off as a twee, chiaroscuro character study that spends as much time burnishing the city’s reputation for “West Coast urban cool” as it does mocking it. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. I’m just afraid that the real-life absurdities of Portland merit a more cutting critique. 

Case in point: One of the most commented-on sketches from the show is a scene from the first episode in which Armisen and Brownstein are sitting in a restaurant. After asking their waitress a series of absurd questions about whether the chicken they are about to eat is local​—​“the chicken is a heritage breed, woodland raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy, and hazelnuts. .  .  . His name was Colin, here are his papers”​—​the couple ends up leaving the restaurant and driving to the farm to see the environment where the chicken was raised in order to assuage their guilt about eating it. 

As a comment on urban America’s foodie culture, the sketch is funny and incisive. But it doesn’t begin to show how insufferable Portland actually is in this regard. Portland’s restaurants are incredibly good, provided you don’t gag on their politics and pretension. It’s common for restaurants to brag about keeping “food miles” to a minimum​—​a rough calculation on the menu informing you how far all the ingredients have traveled to your plate, as if this were a rational measure of the restaurant’s environmental impact. One Portland ice cream parlor I visited recently was inviting patrons to swing by on Saturday afternoon for a meet and greet with the local producer of its “artisanal finishing salts.” 

And in 2010, the Oregonian actually ran a story with the headline “Portland pig cook-off followed by brawl over the provenance of pork.” During a local culinary competition a fistfight broke out because one of the chefs​—​the horror!​—​wasn’t using locally sourced pork. The mêlée ended with one of the chefs and the organizer in rough-looking mug shots and the latter in the hospital with a fractured tibia. When it comes to the city’s food obsession, the truth far outstrips Portlandia. 

Given the lack of critical attention to the city, I guess it falls to me to state the obvious: Portland is quietly closing in on San Francisco as the American city that has most conspicuously taken leave of its senses. 

While I don’t blame Portlanders for being suspicious of interlopers who write about their city, I should mention that I am an Oregonian​—​albeit one who hasn’t lived in my home state for 13 years. But my mother and her three siblings were raised in Portland, I still have relatives in the area, and I lived in the city for a short time after college. 

So I may be 3,000 miles away as I write this, but I’m not a disinterested observer. Perhaps some time and distance are needed before rendering an impartial judgment on what has become of a city that you truly know and love. Unlike the New York Times, I write not to praise the place but to note the litany of things that plainly have gone wrong. Also to alert anyone else who’s listening: Right now, America’s civil and social engineers are beavering away trying to turn your city or town into the next Portlandia.

"It sometimes seems as if the whole country is looking to Portland as a role model for 21st-century urban development,” Governing wrote of the city. Clearly the magazine knew nothing about the political history that has turned Portland into a caricature of itself. God help us if this is America’s civic ideal. 

The major justification for our increasing urbanization​—​and 243 million Americans now live in urban environs​—​is that “urban density provides the clearest path from poverty to prosperity,” writes Harvard economist Edward Glaeser in Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Great cities are remarkably good at generating wealth, and here Glaeser provides a useful comparison: Workers in the five zip codes that occupy Manhattan between 41st Street and 59th have a larger payroll than the entire state of Oregon. 

Of course, if Oregon doesn’t have a bigger payroll, that might be because over half the state’s residents live in or near a metro area that has spent nearly 40 years justifying political corruption and heavy-handed economic regulations as forward-looking environmental policy. 

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