What Portlandia Really Says About Portland: A Portlander’s View

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 13 2012 5:16 PM

What Portlandia Really Says About Portland: A Portlander’s View

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Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein.

Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Last week, Slate’s June Thomas took stock of Portlandia’s second season premiere by offering a longtime Seattlite’s view of the both the show itself, as well as its sociological accuracy in depicting its namesake town.

This may make me seem like one of the show’s fictional, nitpicky denizens, but while “I did read that” piece, I did not quite approve of the end of it. (If you don’t catch the reference, do yourself a favor and watch the Season 1 sketch embedded below, which June rightly cited as one of the show’s defining moments.)

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June’s kind attempt to understand the mindset of the typical Portlander was, I must say, off the mark. And her failure to understand Portland also leads her to miss out on some of the IFC show’s strongest humor.

Quick biographic bona fides: Though I have spent some time in Seattle, I grew up primarily in and around Portland. My first bylines ran in the town’s long-running alt-weekly, Willamette Week. Though now based, like June, in New York, I still visit Portland every winter.

June doesn’t link to the people—“Portlanders mostly,” in her experience—who bleat and primp and otherwise strain to compare themselves to Seattlites. And, in fact, Portlanders don’t really do that so much. Yes, they are fascinated with status and cool (as in any bohemia), but the conversation around those topics is remarkably internalized. It is a conversation conducted between Portlanders, and about Portland itself, as opposed to how the city compares to the outside world. And this is not unrelated to Portlandia’s charm: the way it lets us look not just at smugness, but at Portland’s own oft-unacknowledged anxieties (as in the “have you read” everything sketch).

Seattle is too big and too protean to have a coherent cultural identity: Think of grunge’s legacy, the two major sports teams (until recently, three—and still three if you count the Sounders), and the opera house with enough resources to put on a Ring Cycle. And yet it’s too small to support a cosmopolitan mythology à la Chicago or or Los Angeles or New York. Portland is being lavished with attention by the New York Times and the New Yorker and, of course, IFC viewers, precisely because it is small enough to keep a certain brand of distinctness alive—even as all this attention risks the whole enterprise. (It’s a city-planner’s version of the Heisenberg principle: Does Portland’s charming out-of-the-wayness change when everyone’s looking at it?)

Oregon’s legislature pioneered state land-use laws in the 1970s, specifically enacting an “urban growth boundary” for its largest metro area that people (as opposed to developers) have generally loved. (I recall an intense debate, in 1998, when the boundary around the Portland area was extended by a couple thousand acres.) Put another way: Portland doesn’t want to get very big—and it has taken steps to prevent this that are every bit as intentional as its recent adoption of a city composting service to go along with trash and recycling. Unlike, say, Seattle’s Sub Pop record label, which played both sides of the grunge era by screwing with New York Times trend-piece reporters (so tempting, in fairness) while at the same time setting out the welcome mat for the British press, Portland keeps a comparatively coherent line with respect to outsider attention. You could say there’s an urban-growth boundary there, too.

The one problem is that most towns like attention from the New York Times—pride in “all things local” be damned. Should a local coffee roaster’s “cone” filtration system find itself written up in the paper of record, of course the store throws a link up on its blog. This is only natural; to negate such attention wholesale would be, well, a bit ripe for parody. Just don’t expect to see this news trumpeted on the front page of the business’s website.

This tension between welcoming bigger-city shout outs while also making a point of feeling aloof about the small scale is something Portlandia has proven to be skilled at mining. In another first-season sketch, after being tasked by the mayor with writing a theme song for the city, the show’s principals, Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, leave each other a series of phone messages, in which riffs and thematic ideas are proposed. The funniest one, to my ear, comes when Brownstein asks her songwriting partner, “Do you ever think about how Portland hasn’t had, like, a national tragedy yet?” Noted without any evident desire to have such a thing come about, it’s still exactly the kind of thing that a citizen of Portlandia, or Portland, might easily spend part of an afternoon considering.

While this precise fidelity to the psychology of the town provides much of the show’s value, it also poses a problem for the show’s producers. Portlandia needs to play beyond Portland. And the show did broaden its geography a bit during last week’s second-season opener: Fred and Carrie went to “SoCal” to search for Andy Samberg’s guest character. (In Portland, Samberg is a sensitive “mixologist,” whereas in California, he’s just a smarmy, frost-tipped “bartender.”)

But even if Portlandia begins to make its humor less Portland-specific, outsiders wanting a look into town won’t have to get by with just the Times travel section. June also mocked, a bit, the current coffee renaissance going on there. For the record, it’s not just Stumptown that’s responsible for this. Roasters like Coava, Heart, and Water Avenue are doing great work—and either ship beans via FedEx or have distribution partners in New York. (I’ve heard a rumor that the Sterling brand may soon strike a deal with Dean & Deluca, too.) Meanwhile, Portland’s madly popular Vietnamese restaurant Pok Pok is planning to open up a full satellite location later this year in Brooklyn (specifically, in the Red Hook neighborhood, which already has its own Stumptown; perhaps we should start calling it Little Portland).

June, last week you wrote that, like “bigger, stronger, cooler siblings everywhere, Seattle doesn’t worry too much about Portland.” But if I concede that you’re not worrying at all about any of that, I’d be happy to take you out for some of Stumptown’s ridiculously choclate-y El Tanque and some of the best chicken wings you’ve ever had, in any town.

Seth Colter Walls is a freelance reporter and critic whose writing has appeared in Newsweek, the Village Voice, the Washington Post and the Awl.

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