It’s not only the rent: Old, new, and middle Portland

There has been much ferment, uproar, and outcry against the gentrification of “the old Portland” in the weeklies of Portland, Oregon, and in conversations around town lately. The skyrocketing of rent is a well-known and much discussed issue, as is the second big migration of a certain underrepresented minority out of what has become the new standard boundaries of hip Portland. Another, somewhat less publicized reason to be concerned (except for the recent WW article) is the squeezing out of Portland’s artists, the very people who took a grimy drug-troubled city no one outside the Pacific Northwest had heard of, and turned it into the modern designer clean-living mecca of the United States. To understand this process, and what I think is going wrong, I must clarify a point of definition: Most people talking about “the old Portland” are not actually talking about old Portland; they’re referring to what I will call “middle Portland.” “The old Portland” is what you can see in the movie ‘Drugstore Cowboy’: Crime, drugs, rain, empty streets, and little to do.

I moved to Portland between the old and middle periods, in 1995. My first visit, a few years prior, had me entering the city on a Greyhound bus through the NW Industrial Zone (not exactly a pretty sight, but a necessary one), and staying at a hostel on Hawthorne just to see a famous Senegalese band before I headed back to the small town where I was going to college.

Portland was legendary: It had La Luna and Satyricon. Bands like Dead Moon, WIPERS, and Poison Idea were rumoured to play there. I could only imagine what they were like. I later found out I was pretty far off. In any case, I did eventually move to Portland in 1995 to go to grad school, preferring PSU to higher-ranking universities because I wanted to be in a city, no matter how small.

And it was small. Traffic was virtually nonexistent. People wore sweatpants everywhere, unless they cared even less and wore pajama bottoms, or cared more and wore outrageously awesome punk outfits. High-heeled shoes were unknown, unless they were worn by occasional glam holdovers. It was nothing like the Portland of 2005, what I call middle Portland, or the Portland of today, 2015, the new Portland.

In 2005, you could still get from any part of town to any other in 45 minutes by bus (Tri-Met) and 15 minutes if you drove. Downtown to Hillsboro took 20 minutes. A few years prior to that, I lived in the Brooklyn neighborhood, close-in SE, and worked in Hillsboro. My commute took about 25 minutes.

I am not listing these travel times for purposes of complaining, but only for comparison. After all, I grew up in a city of 12 million, and to this day, I’m not especially bothered by even a two-hour commute. My point is that Portland was different in 1995, and different in 2005 from both now and the way it was in 1995.

What I experienced was the development of Portland into an arts mecca, the next Seattle or Austin (from whom we stole our Music Millenium slogan), and the city collectors traveled to from as far as Japan to buy vinyl records. In 2008, when I attended a conference in Philly, a Drexel student asked me how long I lived in Portland. When I told her I’d been there since ’95, she said “Oh, so you’ve been there since before it was cool.”

Yes, I was a small part of making it that way—I’m one of the thousands of musicians and maybe tens of thousands of artists overall, that helped turn Portland into the place to be if you wanted to be cool. . . not one of the significant ones who made it big, but I was there, playing behind a few of the big names whenever I could, all because I happened to talk to everyone I met about being a drummer. There weren’t that many around, and I eventually met some awesome people who taught me, encouraged me, and occasionally called me up for something pretty awesome.

But, this story is not about me; it’s about those who are still trying to make music, make art, make films, and maybe even make it in Portland. (I was going to say “make it big” but these days, people are just trying to get by.)

And here’s the rub. When the people moving into old east-side neighborhoods start lobbying to end late-night live music or pressure their neighbors to stop practicing in their basements, they are trying to turn Portland-proper into a suburb. They moved to Portland because it’s “cool,” part of which is that it has interesting jobs and beautiful houses to live in within walking distance of bars, restaurants, and coffee shops. Many of those establishments are staffed by musicians, painters, graphic designers, theater actors, comedians, and writers. What made Portland cool in the first place was the artists! The musicians and graffiti artists are foremost among the people who made Portland visible to the rest of the world (though I should not forget the graphic artists, some of whose work reached me in my crazy third-world hometown back in the ’80s). And everyone contributed to the liberal, progressive, sometimes-so-woo-as-to-be-regressive, but always artistic culture of Portland. These people are being driven away by the rapidly rising cost of living, and also being told to stop making all that noise and mess.

This post was inspired by the entry ‘Manufactured Spaces’ (specifically pp. 47–49) in the book ‘Portlandness: A Cultural Atlas’. Created by a big team of cartographers, designers, students, and teachers, this is both a beautiful and a substantial book. The discussion of the official interpretation of quality of life drove me to add my voice to the uproar over the new Portland. True, I wasn’t born or raised there, but I spent more of my life there than anywhere else. I don’t exactly miss the old Portland, and I don’t mind many of the improvements of the new Portland. But I do worry about the destruction of middle Portland, which to me is all about the arts.

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