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Portland, Oregon’s Indie Scene

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Photo: João Canziani

Burnside Street and the Willamette River form a cross that divides the city into quadrants: historically, much of the district known as Northeast was African-American, though that has been changing over the past 15 years in areas like North Mississippi and Northeast Alberta, as the ballyhooed creative class descends on the city; Southeast encompasses the let's-do-the-1968-time-warp Hawthorne neighborhood (head shops, socialists working the streets), Reed College, and the pure Leave It to Beaver charm of the Belmont district. In Northwest, the city becomes more urban and grittier—Chinatown, Old Town—then softens into the monied calm of Nob Hill even farther north and west. Southwest begins as the rough-and-ready nightclub zone around Mary's; then the tone changes with downtown office and government buildings and the cultural district with the Portland Art Museum, Portland State University, and the elm-lined South Park Blocks, a narrow swath of green that's home to the popular Wednesday farmer's market.

Although this city of 538,000 has a knack for inspiring visitors to rise to its level of resolute consciousness, it is also home to swingers' clubs; the tattooed-up-the-wazoo punk stars of the Suicide Girls' alt-porn film studio; several entirely aboveground gay bathhouses; and what must be more all-nude strip joints per capita than any other city in the country. The latter tend to be beat-up neighborhood dumps rather than silicone glitz palaces; oddly enough, reasonable-looking young couples in the crowd are not an uncommon sight. Strip bars are as ordinary as the city's ubiquitous microbrew pubs, which are full of evolved frat boys in SNOB (Supporter of Native Oregon Beer) T-shirts. Mary's, which went all-nude years ago to compete, is the most beloved operation, adorned with vintage glossies of exotic dancers and a beautiful WPA-style mural of heroic, profoundly muscled dockworkers. Courtney Love started out here, and when the 90-year-old owner Roy Keller died last summer—his daughter Vicki runs the place now—the Oregonian ran a story that lionized him as an all-around great guy and visionary of the industry: "...a man who hired gays, African-Americans, transvestites, and snake handlers...." At times, even the voice of mainstream Portland can get a little too dreamy.

Lauderdale lives and works in a converted commercial building close to Mary's. Pink Martini's offices and rehearsal studios are on the ground floor, and their parties—attended by the likes of former Interview publisher Paige Powell, a Portland native who is devoted to causes like the Wildlife Rehab Center of the North Coast—tend to spill out into the street and mix with the after-hours set lurking around Voodoo Doughnut, last call for Red Bull doughnuts and "voodoo" weddings: $25 Intentional Commitment affairs as well as entirely legal ceremonies with doughnuts and coffee. After midnight, Voodoo Doughnut is always full of local musicians, and music, often driven by neopsychedelia conceits and smart lyrics, is the engine that drives this city: Portland has long since surpassed grunge-era Seattle as an indie cultural capital. One young alt-rock snot dismisses Portland as a "retirement home for indie rockers," though the local all-stars include members of Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, the Shins, the Decemberists, Spoon, and the Thermals. (Gino Vannelli, glam god of the 1980's, also lives in town for some reason.) Portland has even entered the Great American Songbook: in "I Will Buy You a New Life," Art Alexakis of Everclear promises to give his beloved a home in the West Hills, the Portland equivalent of Beverly Hills.

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