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Portland, Oregon’s Indie Scene

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Photo: João Canziani

The poor and just plain feckless can saunter through all the free gallery openings, concerts, and street fairs, brace themselves for four-inch distended earlobes at the "painfully friendly" Robot Piercing, catch the raucous MarchFourth Marching Band in their flapper costumes and stilt-walking ensembles at Doug Fir Lounge, grab a beer and veggie dog at Acme, or go to the Press Club for some punk history—Dave Allen from Gang of Four, the seminal British punk band, worked at Intel for a time and spins here occasionally. The idle can marvel at the sheer grace of skateboarders at the Burnside Skateboard Park, built entirely by boarders, or shop at the funky boutiques along Northeast Alberta Street. (One morning, the most stylish girl on the street turned out to be a hobo who hops freight trains around the country.) The fashion-forward—pierced and fierce pretenders to the throne of Kurt Cobain heroin immortality, the neo-mods, the gloom- and-doom girls working an emo-lite look somewhere between Emily the Strange and Wednesday Addams—can simply join the Quadrophenia-revisited crowd at Pioneer Courthouse Square, which also happens to be a prime milling area for tourists. Among the kids, the scene is as arcane and calibrated as life among the style tribes of Tokyo; it's enough just to be cool in Portland, and that energy percolates throughout the city.

Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the Dandy Warhols climbed out of the local grit ghetto to a house in the West Hills with songs like "Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth" and "Bohemian Like You," a satire of the Pacific Northwest poverty-equals- integrity aesthetic that wound up on a General Motors commercial. The symbol of his DIY-dream-come-true is the Odditorium, a former machine shop north of the Pearl that he transformed into a psychedelic playhouse for sort-of grown-ups, equipped with motorcycles, pool tables, murals of the Sahara desert, medieval-style doors, Victorian chairs, a louche little bar, and a recording space for the band. The Eagles of Portland are living it up at the Hotel California, and at a barbecue one evening—attended by the usual hangers-on and, naturally, a stripper ("I like Portland because it's so clean," she tells me)—the guests debate the grassroots-gone-mainstream KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD bumper sticker campaign. Portland's marketing onslaught began a few years ago, some time after the similarly lame but lasting effort mounted by Austin, Texas (KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD), and now the Portland stickers are turning up everywhere, even in the city's official media kits. To Taylor-Taylor, a "keep Portland weird" groundswell is "precisely the kind of thing that guarantees Portland won't stay weird."

Portland is still plenty weird—on the way back to my hotel on the evening of the barbecue, a cab driver affably talked about being the reincarnation of Amun-Ra, a destiny that inevitably inspired the Ammon-Ra Web site, but what is really remarkable is the openness, the willingness to trust in goodwill.

In Portland, anyone who walks into Alma Chocolate, specializing in organic, fair-trade chocolate molded into religious icons, might run into Chuck Palahniuk, the exceptionally fit forty-something author of the novel Fight Club. The exquisitely well mannered Palahniuk is also the author of the new Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey and Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon, the definitive guide to such singularities as the drag institution Darcelle XV, the Vacuum Cleaner Museum, the Van Calvin Mannequin Museum, and the 24 Hour Church of Elvis. Palahniuk moved to Portland in 1980, when it was still a blue-collar town, and the more recent history of his beloved dirty little city is an intensely personal affair: "When I think back and get nostalgic, it's hard to tell if I'm missing the grungy old days of Portland, or being twenty-two and immortal."


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