I came to Portland desperate to escape a vanilla world. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I would soon be living in a land of artisanal, handcrafted, organic, fair-trade, and gluten-free pure vanilla bean extract.
Fresh out of college with a journalism degree, I was taking my first baby steps out of the closet, and was long overdue to escape Salem, the city where I was born and had spent most of my life. Not the witch-trial Salem, not the menthol-cigarette Salem, not the Salem from Days of Our Lives.
You know ... the other Salem.
No offense to my hometown, but Oregon’s capital was never exactly on my wavelength. It’s situated right along the 45th parallel, halfway between the equator and the North Pole—fitting for a city that always seemed like a neglected middle child. In other words: I felt trapped in the Jan Brady of Oregon. College town Eugene, home to the University of Oregon, would be the adorable baby of the family, Cindy. Which leaves Portland as the sophisticated older sister, Marcia. (For the boys, maybe Greg is Astoria, Peter is Bend, and Bobby hops between Hood River and the Bay Area.)
Since moving here in the mid-1990s, I’ve seen Portland grow and mature into its role as the competitive overachiever of the family. When I first arrived, the city was considered a slacker haven, at least according to The Official Slacker Handbook. Seattle’s musical revolution was hogging most of the pop culture spotlight for the Pacific Northwest. The only national attention we received was for somewhat infamous figures like ice skater Tonya Harding and handsy US Sen. Bob Packwood.
But Marcia Brady wouldn’t stand for that. In our rapid evolution to national prominence (or something like that), we’ve become quite proud of our distinctive superlatives. We garden hard. We DIY hard. We brunch hard. Nothing half-ass. This old logger and longshoreman city may have humble roots, but when we tackle something, we’re in it to win it. Here are just a few ways in which Portland excels. Maybe one of them is even what brought you (and your inner aspiring Marcia) to town.
We’re the queerest. If Portland had its own anthem, it would probably contain the words: “O’er the land of the freaks ... and the homos ... and the gays.” Portland is the proud kingdom of Darcelle XV, who at 87 holds the record for World’s Oldest Drag Queen. Since 2007, we’ve been home to QDoc, the nation’s only film festival devoted exclusively to queer documentaries. In 2008, Portland became the largest US city to elect an openly gay mayor, Sam Adams. Eight years later, Oregon made history as the first state to elect an openly bisexual governor, Kate Brown. Last year, we became the first state to issue gender-nonbinary identification cards.
We’re so feminist. Oregon was near the front on women’s suffrage, extending the right to vote in 1912, eight years before the 19th Amendment was ratified. Today, we’re reaping the benefits of those pioneering suffragists. Oregon is one of only six states with a female governor (our second). The Oregon House of Representatives’ dominant Democratic caucus is mostly women. The Multnomah County Commission is 100 percent women, the majority women of color. Long a boys’ club, city government is catching up, with this November’s runoff election set to give the five-seat city council a female majority for the first time. And according to a 2013 study by the Washington Post, all states now limit abortion access—except Oregon. (My day job as a reproductive rights activist is a little different than it might be in some other places.)
We’re left-leaning and loud about it ... An aide to President George H. W. Bush famously dubbed Portland “Little Beirut” due to the raucous demonstrators who greeted the elder Bush when he came to town. (Legend has it some Reed College students even ingested mashed potatoes and food coloring in an attempt to vomit red, white, and blue.) Barack Obama drew a record-setting crowd of 75,000 supporters during a campaign swing in 2008. Since the election of Donald Trump, protests have escalated once again. Politico recently labeled Portland “America’s most politically violent city”—though the crowd for 2017’s Women’s March, a gathering that rivaled Obama’s appearance in size, was pretty chill.
... But we have some issues. Despite the city’s progressive credentials, Portland and Oregon still have a long way to go in reconciling with a racist past (and present). With a population that is 72.2 percent white and only 6.3 percent African American, Portland is considered the whitest major city in the US. It’s the legacy of the 1857 Oregon Constitution, which essentially outlawed black people from settling here, but also ongoing struggles involving displacement and gentrification as well as the presence of hate groups. One glimmer of hope for progress: Last fall, Danielle Outlaw became the first African American woman to serve as Portland’s chief of police.
We’re OK with getting high. “Potland” has been known for decades as bit of a stoner mecca. In 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis. Just last year, we became the first state to defelonize small amounts of harder drugs. Since a 2014 vote legalized recreational cannabis, dispensaries have popped up everywhere. A part of NE Sandy Boulevard is now known as “The Green Mile” thanks to what’s quite possibly the world’s largest concentration of pot shops along one strip. (Here's your local weed primer.)
We’re serious bookworms. Powell’s City of Books looms as the world’s largest independent bookstore and one of downtown’s top tourist destinations. Our local luminaries run the gamut from beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary (the Ramona Quimby series, The Mouse and the Motorcycle) to cult writer Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) to the late, great sci-fi legend Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness) to Oprah-approved memoirist Cheryl Strayed (Wild).
We’re major film geeks. The Clinton Street Theater has shown The Rocky Horror Picture Show every weekend for the past 40 years, among the longest-running engagements in the world for the cult classic. The 92-year-old movie palace/nonprofit Hollywood Theatre also runs a first-of-its-kind microcinema at Portland International Airport. The city’s famous filmmakers include Academy Award nominees Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven), and Will Vinton (widely considered the father of claymation). The animation house Vinton founded has since become Laika Studios, slowly churning out stop-motion spectacles like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings at 24 frames per second.
We’re also big music geeks. In 1963, the Kingsmen put Portland on the national musical map with the unintelligible, allegedly obscene lyrics of “Louie Louie.” During my MTV-obsessed ’80s childhood, the biggest bands out of Portland were Quarterflash and Nu Shooz. The ’90s brought us Elliott Smith and Everclear. Those who call Portland home today include Grammy winners Esperanza Spalding and Portugal. The Man, renowned “little orchestra” Pink Martini, and indie darlings the Decemberists.
We’re pretty darn funny. Portland’s comedy scene has grown exponentially in recent years, with weekly comedy nights sprouting up all across town. The only downside is that Portland comics often fly the coop for the bright lights of New York or Los Angeles, like Bri Pruett (check out our Q&A), Ron Funches (who went on to star in the sitcom Undateable), Ian Karmel (now an Emmy-nominated writer for The Late Late Show with James Corden), and Shane Torres (regularly seen on Conan).
Some of us are even fashionable. Sure, a lot of Portlanders live in jeans, flannel shirts, and galoshes (at least fleece is no longer all the rage). But Portland-area designers have also won Project Runway a whopping four times. Local tomboy fashion brand Wildfang achieved viral fame with its “Wild Feminist” tees. Vintage shops abound, helping to give our local street style its unique character, and it seems like there’s a new fashion show every month full of local work.
We’re the greenest ... At 5,200 acres, Forest Park is the largest urban forest in the United States. Portlanders also really care about the perceived purity of our Bull Run Watershed; voters have rejected water fluoridation four times at the ballot box, making Portland the largest US city without fluoride in its water. In 2015, Bridgetown celebrated its first new bridge in more than four decades, Tilikum Crossing, the nation’s largest car-free bridge. The Rose City is about pedals as well as petals: We were the first large American city to receive “platinum” status as a bicycle-friendly community, the highest rating possible from the League of American Bicyclists. Bicycling Magazine has previously crowned us “America’s Best Bike City.” At 7.2 percent, we have the highest percentage of bike commuters for a large American city.
... But we’re also really congested. If you’re not already a cyclist or regular transit rider, now might be a good time to consider converting. One report lists Portland’s traffic congestion as the 12th worst in the nation. Our narrow stretch of Interstate 5—with just two lanes in each direction for a good portion of it—is considered the worst bottleneck between Canada and Mexico. More big rigs clog roads since the Port of Portland lost its largest container carrier in 2015, forcing some boat shipments to go by truck instead. To make matters worse, a recent study found that ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft are also contributing to the gridlock.
We’re growing, but we still have that small-town charm. You’re not the only one who just moved here. But even with Portland adding tens of thousands of residents this decade, with housing construction booming and cranes dotting the skyline, it will take a lot for this place to feel big. As the always-prophetic Madonna uttered a quarter-century ago in the locally filmed box-office flop Body of Evidence (hey, I said there were some great filmmakers here, not necessarily great films that get made here), “Portland is a small city. I even dated a man who dated a woman you dated.” That cyclist you just honked at? It might be your bank teller, the person behind you in line at the food cart, or your next blind date. So be nice. Remember, we’re freaky yet approachable. We’re crowded yet navigable. We enjoy our food snobbery and our pot munchies with equal gusto.
Welcome to Portland, newcomers. Now go out there and give it your best, just like Marcia Brady would.