There have been two universal reactions to my announcement that I was going to move from Portland to the Mid-West: surprise and disbelief. But I also found a number of people who, if given a few moments to find clear and honest footing in the conversation, could see through the self-absorbed mental fog that covers the city in equal measure to the grey rain clouds and tells its inhabitants every day that Portland is the most amazing possible place in this country to live. The amount of media devoted to reinforcing this idea is overwhelming in the sense that I believe it has overwhelmed people’s ability to have their own thoughts and identity in Portland. Instead they have a Portland identity…because they live in Portland and that is what defines them.
On the surface, Portland has many progressive aspects. Sustainability and the “greening of the city” stand front and foremost as two easily recognized. Curbside recycling and composting, increasing investment in bicycle transportation, native gardening, and urban farming. There is an intense concentration of a wide range of alternative health practitioners. Artisan craftspeople abound, creating specialty foods and other handcrafted products. “Shop local” is the resounding cry to support small businesses, and farmers markets adorn every neighborhood in the summertime.
Idyllic as this sounds, there is a less appealing aspect to this picture. As Portland concentrates is cultural practices into a few baskets, the proliferation of other ideas diminishes. Ten years ago I would have characterized Portland as a place that had progressive perspectives. Now I would characterize Portland as a place with few ideas, all perpetually reinforced and more deeply ingrained everyday. People regurgitate a handful of versions of the same thoughts in ever narrowing expressions. Everywhere you look it is repetition of the same ideas, whether it be on politics, design, or social culture. People strive to look the same, to dress the same, and to have the same lifestyle. It is so pervasive, that women within a 30 to 40 year age range may display similar choices in hair, dress, and accessories. What began as a city with progressive and forward looking ideas to develop a new urban course has become a closed container of cultural conformity. There is a new cookie cutter in Portland, and it is young, alterna-hip, and white.
I grew up in a place like this…it is called Orange County.
Sweeping shocked gasps aside, this comparison is worth a long pause to consider. Stripping away the key difference between Multnomah and Orange County of political affiliation, with Orange County being a historic Republican stronghold and Portland staunchly Democrat, these two counties have some key cultural similarities all hinging on a pivotal word used above: conformity. Conformity of dress, thought, and mannerisms, shared ideas and ideals, and a strong attitudinal belief that their is a “right” or “correct” way to be and to appear to others. There is also limited interest or investment in the arts, creative, innovative, or intellectual development. Just because the surface ideals these two places seem extremely different from each other, does not mean that they don’t breed the same obedience to a self-referencing norm within themselves. And by perpetuating their particular cultures and tailoring their environments to fit with a narrow range of ideals, the inhabitants of these areas increasingly live on the margins of reality and instead inhabit a fabricated cocoon of their own self-rewarding design.
What disturbed me most about Portland in the months leading up to my decision to leave was the increasingly strong social culture of invisibility. I am referring to the tendency of people in Portland to not acknowledge the physical presence of other people around them in close proximity. This can easily be seen by the increasing tendency of people to brush past you without making eye contact or saying “excuse me” and instead being intensely focused on some spot just beyond your left shoulder. But it manifests in countless other ways: letting dogs off leash (and not picking up after them), ignoring red lights and stop signs, allowing children license to act out without discipline in the presence of other adults. In this city where conformity to a particular identity is so strong, people no longer see each other as people. People come in and out of your field of vision as an object to be ranked according to usefulness to you, and invariably avoided, ignored and dismissed the majority of the time. It is unpleasant, unsettling and dehumanizing. The countless tiny social interactions we have with other people throughout the day are the glue that hold us together as a community and keep us from being automatons randomly bumping into one another like the balls in a pinball machine. And this critical stickiness in Portland is dissolving rapidly. As people lose the ability to engage and connect with one another, there appears to be an increasingly growing level of resentment, frustration and anger brewing under the surface of social interactions. Not just ones where overt conflict is involved, but all of them. Because it feels like they all contain some level of conflict just by the occurrence of people being together in a place, time and circumstance.
There is little likelihood that I would ever have been physically assaulted in Portland. But I think there is a pretty strong likelihood that if I were physically assaulted that no one around me would react or get involved or help. Because chances are, I wouldn’t even be seen.
When confronted with difficult situations or challenging environments, often it is heard “it’s the people that keep me here…keep me working, living, etc. in this place despite its shortcomings”. In Portland, the situation is reversed….the environment is being made increasingly pleasant and comfortable, but it is the people that make it so difficult to live there.