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Why the Portland Backlash Is Good for Portland

Portlandia, and Portland fetishism in general, isn’t really about the city at all, but a utopian fantasy version.


When I first told my mother about Portlandia, the sketch comedy show that gently parodies the city where we both grew up, she didn’t get it.

“It’s making fun of young, liberal, nerdy types who love craft beer and bikes and indie music,” I explained, grasping to define “hipster” for my 50-something minister mom. “You know how Portland is famous for that?”

“I didn’t know Portland was famous for anything!” she said.

I laughed, but I understood her point. Carrie Brownstein, the former Sleater-Kinney guitarist who created and stars in Portlandia alongside Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen, has described the show, whose second season premieres tonight, as “a love letter to Portland.” (Both Armisen and Brownstein live there, though neither is from the area.) But that affection appears to be directed toward the idea of Portland, not the city itself.

Portlandia may be intended as a love letter, but it's inspired quite a bit of hate. More than a handful of people seem to have mistaken satire for documentary; one woman asked me if I took journaling classes in school. It's common to hear the Portland experience derided as "narcissistic immersion in hedonism" or a minefield of self-righteous enviro-Nazis. The Washington Post, not exactly known for being on the cutting edge of trends, says Portland is out, deeming Pittsburgh the new "it" city because the people there are "far less insufferable" and don't do everything with an "ironic wink and a superiority complex."

Today it's considered the national capital of hipsterdom, but Portland has been home to foodie establishments and bird-adorned boutiques for decades. The mild weather and affordable cost of living are nothing new, and it's never been a bastion of snobbishness. It is—and has long been—a mid-sized, middle-class town south of Seattle with a thriving arts scene. Portland hasn't changed; its reputation has.

I moved out of the Portland area as a decidedly lame 14-year-old, long before I started getting interested in craft beer and indie music. My favorite parts of the city—the Rose Parade, the Blazers, the Dragon Boat Race, free birthday sundaes at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour—were never hipster-approved, anyway. So it's hard for me to make a before-and-after assessment. But my older friends and family members, one of whom was a microbrew-sipping, skinny tie-wearing 20-something in the mid-'90s, are baffled as to how and when the city became such an icon. None of them remembered Portland suddenly becoming cool, just that one day it had been anointed as such.

Luckily, tastemakers are fickle. As soon as the spotlight began to shine on Portland, the stopwatch began counting down its 15 minutes. Now that the Portland backlash is in full swing, I say bring it on. I find Portlandia's mocking hilarious, and if it helps the perception that the city has jumped the shark, all the better.

After all, the show, and Portland fetishism in general, isn’t really about Portland, but a utopian fantasy version of the city created by people who visited for a weekend and dream of moving there. For them, Mississippi Avenue has never been anything other than the site of the “hottest new restaurants and the hippest shops”; its pre-gentrification history as a hub of black business and social life has been lost to time. In Portlandia, it never even rains. So part of me hopes the Post is right that the city’s time in the national spotlight is over. I’m ready to go back to the time when Portland was only cool to Portlanders.

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