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Portland, Oregon’s Indie Scene

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Photo: João Canziani

Rich or poor, they all come to Portland for the quality of life. In the past few years, Portland has become a metaphor for enlightened humanism and progressive government, a little pocket of Sweden in the States. Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life has become a bible of development for forward-thinking city planners and politicians, and every city is trying to lure the eminently employable post-yuppie Information Technology nomads who can revitalize a moribund downtown almost overnight. Portland is a city of youth and intelligence, full of microbrew-chugging tech nerds from the campuses of such higher-learning institutions as Intel, Nike, and Adidas. The new people in town are fleeing mainstream America, especially the deracinated, let's-grab-a-bite-at-the-multiplex life of the soul-crushing suburbs.

Portland could be this country's largest European-style city. It has more green space than any other comparably sized American metropolis: in the hills to the west is the 130-acre Washington Park—home to the Oregon Zoo, the International Rose Test Garden, and the exquisitely serene Japanese Garden—plus the 70 miles of trails in Forest Park, the most extensive urban wilderness in America. Portland also remains a capital of environmentally responsible design, as reflected by Holst Architecture's revolutionary Ecotrust Building and Boora's Adidas Village. The city is in the forefront of the national movement toward locally grown organic produce: sustainable-food champions Plate & Pitchfork stage elaborate outdoor dinners at local farms, and such stalwarts as Park Kitchen, Paley's Place, and Higgins Restaurant & Bar have all won or been nominated for James Beard awards. Greg Higgins can whip up a masterful seared Oregon albacore tuna with red wine ragout and knows every corner of the farmers' market, where he combs through free samples of sweet, heart-shaped Rainier cherries. Nearby are fragrant loaves of Pearl Bakery bread and lamb-on-pita sandwiches from the Tastebud Farms mobile grill. Portland is a daily lesson in how simple, everyday food should taste.

Like Charleston, Portland is one of the most polite and civilized American cities imaginable. The audiences at the Chamber Music Northwest festival know when and when not to applaud, and even at rock concerts fans actually listen to the music: during a performance by the withered rockers the Bottle Rockets, at the Crystal Ballroom, the rapt crowd resembled Easter Island megaliths with a penchant for beer. America has become a lonesome country, full of isolation and distrust, but strangers actually talk to one another in Portland, and more. One summer afternoon on Northwest 23rd Street, the local equivalent of Rodeo Drive, a homeless woman suddenly began pulling at her face and screaming about dry skin: rather than turn away, two Prada warriors who were passing by rushed over and gave her some moisturizer.

At certain moments, it's very easy to forget that Portland began in darkness. Throughout the late 1800's, during the reign of the notorious kingpin Joseph "Bunco" Kelly, unwary customers in Chinatown gambling dens would be drugged and then carted through "Shanghai tunnels" (tourists can now visit a section of one of these legendary tunnels below Hobo's Restaurant & Lounge) to ships tied up at the Willamette River, then sold to sea captains as indentured sailors. During Prohibition, an era when the Ku Klux Klan put its own mayoral candidate in office, the city moved into smuggling Canadian whisky, then into brothels. Until the late fifties—when Bobby Kennedy and the Senate Rackets Committee dragged assorted politicians and gangsters to Washington, D.C., for televised hearings—it was a dirty little town, a national code word for sin and fun. Tempest Storm was running her own strip show at the Capitol Theater, Justice William O. Douglas and a local B-girl named Little Rusty were taking in an unknown Sammy Davis Jr. at the Clover Room, and Bugsy Siegel contemplated opening a casino in the northwest part of town on Sauvie Island, now home to a nude beach and organic farms. These days, save for a few sputtering neon signs trumpeting the charms of chop suey and cocktails, the mood of even Chinatown is gone, though there's a whisper of the old Portland after dark at places like the Alibi. Downtown property is too valuable to serve as mere atmosphere: the fancy Governor Hotel was derelict when native son Gus Van Sant shot parts of My Own Private Idaho there in the early 1990's. Now, the lobby is connected to—what else?—a Starbucks.


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