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Portland, Oregon’s Indie Scene

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Photo: João Canziani

The Pearl District, west of Chinatown, was a seedy, highly cinematic neighborhood not that long ago, the setting for much of Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy, his 1989 elegy to lost squalor. But now it's the pride and joy of official Portland: in 2001, to spur development, the government installed a Czech-made streetcar system linking downtown to the fringes of the Pearl. The North Pearl has become an even more alienating and scary version of New York's SoHo, with the streetcars silently gliding past Liveinthepearl.com realtor signs in a Soylent Green kind of way. Powell's City of Books, widely regarded as America's best independent bookstore, anchors the more seasoned stretches of the Pearl, close to the Bettie Ford Lounge, the new Ace Hotel, gay bars, assorted flophouses, and the hale and hearty Jake's Famous Crawfish Restaurant. In the café at Powell's, Mike Richardson of Dark Horse Comics, which published Frank Miller's Sin City, is chatting about Tonya Harding and selling comics to the followers of Bhagwan Rajneesh, whose rogue-ashram wreaked havoc 22 years ago in Antelope, Oregon.

Like everyone else in Portland, Richardson is sunny as all get-out, pointing outside the café windows to a Brave New Urbanism scene that could have been choreographed by an exceptionally hip Chamber of Commerce: the requisite Wavy Gravy wannabes twirling around as if it were still the summer of love in Haight-Ashbury; an apparently homeless young professional gone astray, lying with his purple hair splayed out on the sidewalk, nodding politely at gaping tourists while he reads Morgan Spurlock's Don't Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America; an earnest businessman on a high-tech tricycle pedaling past hardwired nut jobs, meth heads, and one schlub in ordinary street clothes whose face is completely tattooed in a checkerboard pattern. This human comedy resembles a curious laboratory experiment—it would have gotten B. F. Skinner going in all kinds of different directions—but perhaps happiness can be as effectively engineered as a streetcar system, since everyone in town, as Richardson points out, "just can't stop smiling."

Portland grants the gift of hope: the Holy Grail of freedom, the joy to be found in chance and opportunity are the promises this country was founded on, and more American cities could stand to loosen up and let the possibilities of life unfold. Across the street from Powell's is a stack of 20 or so customized children's bicycles chained to a pole: on Sunday nights, the Zoo Bombers—just one of the local bicycle tribes (two others feature convoys of nude riders and daredevil jousters)—meet at Rocco's Pizza, then ride down the hill from the zoo on busy thoroughfares, dodging cops and cars along the way. Portland changes people: within a few days, I found myself dancing in mosh pits at punk clubs, and one loopy evening, I just narrowly missed the chance to become a middle-aged Zoo Bomber.

Any American Eden is a fragile proposition and Portland is consciously trying not to repeat the urban-planning mistakes made by its traffic-ridden neighbor Seattle. But the money is pouring in at every level, and tract-house developers are continually making assaults on the Urban Growth Boundary, which rings Portland and was designed to contain suburban sprawl. One of the best things about this city is how quickly visitors can get out of town: true bucolic landscapes—right down to the inevitable pickups bearing Confederate flags—commence just past the city limits, and within an hour or two, it's possible to be surfing at Cannon Beach or skiing—even in summer—on Mount Hood, the magnificent dormant volcano that looms over the town.

For aspiring artists and kids just out of college, Portland is still a refuge for the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) indie dream that New York, San Francisco, and Seattle afforded 20 years ago: inexpensive rental apartments, cheap bars, and the chance to jump-start your ambitions with a post-punk band, performance-art collective, experimental film, or a line of clothes that can be sold in local boutiques like Magpie. Failing that, they can hang out at the Black Rose Collective Bookstore & Community Resource Center in the North Mississippi section of town, a fantastic power-to-the-people commune-thrift operation (everything in the shop is free) with an anarchist bent: "Not one yuppie vehicle should be safe...."

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