The Secret Magic of Portland, Oregon
Its rapid-fire development and breakthrough food scene have been breathlessly documented, but the city remains full of secrets, both old and new. Sara Jaffe returns and uncovers a few favorites.
When I lived in Portland briefly in the late 1990s, East Coast friends kept calling to ask me how life was in Seattle. Fast-forward 20 years, and Portland’s national profile has skyrocketed; it’s the subject of travel-magazine features like this one, a 2012 exhibition at Paris’s Centre Pompidou called “Keep Portland Weird,” and, of course, a certain TV show. Today, when people ask me how life is in Portland (I moved back in 2011), I’m almost certain they’re imagining eco-baby boutiques, artisanal ice cream, and urban chicken coops. And though I sometimes eat that ice cream and buy cute eco-items for my infant son, those aren’t the experiences that have captivated me in my chosen city.
Instead, I’ve sought out places that couldn’t exist anywhere else—like the grassy banks along the freeway exits, which bloom wildly each spring with roses planted by the city. Unlike their counterparts at the International Rose Test Garden, they feel unruly, as if they might rally their forces to reclaim the land for themselves.
One of my favorite urban nature spots is Pier Park, in the North Portland neighborhood of St. Johns. I love swimming in the public pool, inhaling the heady scent of ancient cedar trees every time I lift my head for a breath. Even on the most gorgeous summer day, I usually get a lane to myself. Forest Park, one of the country’s largest urban forests, is similarly uncrowded. Over drinks, my friend Rebecca Gates, an artist and activist who used to play in the indie band the Spinanes, recalled that when she was a kid, the park wasn’t necessarily safe for casual hikers. Now, with its well-maintained trails and protected ecosystem, it has become, in her words, “the true jewel of Portland.” Yet somehow it still feels like a well-kept secret. She worries that if newcomers don’t take full advantage of Portland’s abundant green spaces, they’ll be less politically and emotionally invested in the future of the city’s parks.
In addition to those newcomers—transplants from the Bay Area or, like me, New York—Portland is home to numerous immigrant populations, many of which are concentrated in the outer reaches of East Portland. The best place I’ve found to get a sense of the city’s diversity is the affordable and unpretentious Lents International Farmers Market, which runs on summer Sundays through October in an otherwise vacant lot off I-205. Vendors include a honey-purveying, Russian-speaking religious refugee from Uzbekistan, Hmong merchants hawking huge bouquets of dahlias for $5, and Mexican farmers selling countless varieties of chili peppers. The multicultural makeup of both vendors and shoppers truly surprised me—according to a recent Washington Post article, Portland is “the whitest big city” in America, at 76 percent, but you’d never know it shopping there.
The city’s homogeneity gave me pause when we were considering whether to settle down here. Still, 24 percent is not nothing, and I’ve been excited to discover artists like Intisar Abioto, a photographer and poet whose documentary project The Black Portlanders celebrates the long-standing presence of African Americans in the City of Roses. Over tea at the Warehouse Café & Market, we discussed Portland’s weird relationship to race and its “history of ugliness,” as Abioto put it—from exclusionary settlement laws in the 19th century to the disappearance of historically African American neighborhoods in gentrifying North and Northeast Portland. However unflattering these aspects of the city’s history may be, I’m glad I know about them. You can’t understand a city—or contribute positively to its evolution—if you don’t learn about its failures as well as its triumphs.
Recently, the writer Jon Raymond told me over lunch that he misses a time when Portland wore its failures a little more openly. He’s best known for stories and screenplays grounded in the Northwest (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy), but as a newer, shinier Portland has emerged, he feels less moved to continue his regional writing. “I’m not interested in writing about successful things,” he said. When I asked him to share a favorite bygone Portland spot, he described a corner store that had gone out of business with all of its products left sitting on the shelves—“a dusty museum of a corner grocery.” He misses a Portland that would let such places linger before being sold to the highest bidder. We were eating at Roman Candle, a flatbread-style pizzeria on Southeast Division Street surrounded by new condos. The irony was not lost on us that we were bemoaning the disappearance of old Portland over delicious pizza at a new Portland establishment.
It’s too simple an equation, of course, to decide that all that is “old Portland” is good and all that is new is inauthentic at best, nefarious at worst. There’s plenty of new Portland that I love. I’m ecstatic that the city finally has a great free-form radio station in listener-supported XRAY-FM, where I can hear soul rarities, 1950s calypso, and my post-punk favorites. The three-year-old Portland Museum of Modern Art is a tiny gallery in the basement of a record store whose mission is to showcase folk art and visual work by artists known predominantly in other fields (music, performance) and to put on group shows that bring contemporary stars together with little-known artists. And in a city nearly bursting with food trucks, a much-welcomed addition opened this year: the Portland Mercado, featuring carts serving Latin American cuisine as well as an indoor public market.
A few years ago, I wrote a short story called “Stormchasers” in which I explored my ambivalence about how “easy” it was to live in Portland compared with Brooklyn. Like so many other transplants, I moved here in part for the laid-back lifestyle, but in order to really make Portland feel like home I’ve had to get out of the backyard hammock and explore—by bus, car, foot, and bike. I’ve had to pay attention to the incongruities, the rumblings below the surface. Rather than seeking out the Portland I thought I knew, I’ve learned to let the city surprise me.
Sara Jaffe is a writer and musician living in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novel, Dryland, is out from Tin House in September 2015.
Beyond the Ace
Two new hotels are giving Portland’s signature property a run for its money.
Hotel Eastlund: This Eastside hotel, near the convention center, is a welcome haven after long meetings: an oversize image of Brigitte Bardot beckons from the lobby, and cozy fire pits dot the rooftop bar. Dine at David Machado’s beer-driven Altabira City Tavern for great skyline views. Doubles from $189.
Society Hotel: Part boutique hotel, part upscale hostel—this property in Chinatown’s regal 1881 Mariners Building is slated to open this fall. There are 38 private rooms for those seeking solitude, as well as a room with 24 bunks that each start at $40 a night. Doubles from $145. —Hannah Wallace