by Mark Remy, writer, runner, and creator of Remy’s World
I’ve lived in Portland, Oregon, for about a year now. As a result, I consider myself the world’s foremost authority on Portland, Oregon.
OK, maybe not. But since moving here from Pennsylvania last summer, I think I do have a pretty good perspective on our adopted city. I’ve been here long enough to see and do a lot, but not so long to be taking it all for granted.
Portland has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years, thanks to the goofy TV series Portlandia and from the mainstream media’s coverage of, uh…Portlandia. As a result, almost everyone has a picture in his or her mind’s eye of the city and what it must be like to live here. (It rains SO MUCH! Everything is SO WEIRD! Tattoos are mandatory!)
Some of it’s true. Some isn’t.
Here are 6 Portland tropes that—for me, anyway—turned out to be true and 4 that missed the mark.
It’s weird: TRUE
I expected Portland to be weird, and it is. What I didn’t expect was how normal the weirdness would seem. Levels of irony and affectation here are very, very low.
Put another way: Strange things here don’t feel strange. They just feel Portland. And everyone’s cool with that.
You can be yourself here: TRUE
This goes hand in hand with the “weird” thing, I suppose, but it’s important enough to merit its own mention. There is an almost palpable sense in Portland that you are welcome here, no matter who you are—if you’re a tattooed, barefoot woman with dreadlocks or a guy dressed head-to-toe in J. Crew. (Who, come to think of it, is also likely to be tattooed; see below.)
It’s exceptionally bike-friendly: TRUE
Everything about Portland encourages people to get around by bike, from the city’s compact layout to its profusion of bike racks. (It’s not unusual, even on a busy block, to see 20 feet or so of prime on-street parking reserved for bicycles.)
A network of specially marked streets called neighborhood greenways is designed to give cyclists and pedestrians priority over cars. And drivers here show an incredible amount of respect for cyclists.
I still marvel at the bikes I see every day—not just the number, but also the variety. You see cargo bikes, fixies, cruisers, even unicycles (though I have yet to see this guy in person). I shuttle my daughter to and from preschool in a Burley bike trailer, which she loves. For her, it’s become normal—this is just how we get around. Which I love.
It’s ridiculously progressive: TRUE
Surprise, surprise: The “weird” place where you can be yourself and everybody bikes is politically left-leaning. Still—wow—Portland takes progressiveness to new heights. Back East, we had small recycling bins for paper, plastic, and glass. That stuff was collected once a week. Trash was picked up twice a week, and was basically unlimited. An old recliner? Toss it on the curb! Here, we have a huge, wheeled cart for recyclables and another for organic waste. Those go out once a week. Our trash cart, which is dwarfed by the other two—is emptied every two weeks. If we generate more garbage, we pay extra to have it hauled away.
That’s just one example, but a telling one. I could go on, about the light-rail service, the “arts tax” bill we recently got from the city, the farmer’s markets, the ban on plastic shopping bags, the solar panels, and so forth, but there’s more important stuff to mention. Namely…
Beer and coffee are huge: TRUE
Maybe it’s because so many Portlanders are underemployed or are freelancers and these people need places to hang out (and things to drink) all day. Whatever the reason, in Portland, you’re never far from a cup of really good coffee or a glass of really good beer. Much of that beer is local—Portland is home to at least 58 breweries—and it’s available everywhere.
Everyone has tattoos: TRUE
While tattoos stopped raising eyebrows a long time ago, they’re hardly the norm. Except in Portland. Look around and you’ll swear that half the people, easily, have a visible tattoo. To paraphrase an old workplace joke, you don’t have to be tattooed to live here—but it helps.
I’ve struggled to explain this phenomenon, and I just can’t. Maybe it’s something in the water. (Whatever that might be, it isn’t fluoride.)
It rains SO MUCH: FALSE
Well, yes and no. Granted, the weather this past year has been unusually pleasant for Portland, as everyone here keeps reminding us. (“Don’t get used to it!”) But in terms of annual rainfall, Allentown, Pennsylvania, gets more than Portland. The difference is in the nature of that rainfall. Here, the rain is lighter, usually, but way more frequent. It comes and goes like the wind.
Real Portlanders never use umbrellas: FALSE
It’s true that you see few umbrellas in Portland. But you do see them. However, a good rain jacket is de rigueur (which is French for “more valuable than a good car”).
Powell’s is overrated: FALSE
Wherever you go, it’s trendy for the locals to dismiss certain popular landmarks or establishments as “touristy.” (They know of a better place for burgers, or coffee, or mustache wax.) In Portland, Powell’s City of Books sometimes gets that treatment. Unfair! It’s a bookstore that takes up an entire city block. What’s not to love?
Portland is Utopia: FALSE
Despite my obvious affection for the city, and all it has going for it, Portland isn’t perfect. It has a significant and persistent homeless population. Drugs, including meth, are a problem. Even in quiet neighborhoods, cars are broken into fairly regularly. (See, “Drugs, including meth.…”) And, our recent experience notwithstanding, the weather really can get you down. If it’s perfection you’re after, you won’t find it in Portland.
Still. We didn’t move here for perfection. We moved here for Portland. And I’m happy we did. Almost every time I’m out on my bike, a fellow cyclist and I will make eye contact and share a little smile. It’s like we’re in on a secret, like we’ve both found something unusually good and we know it.
The smile lasts for just a moment. And then we roll on, each in our own direction.