The Dream of the ’90s Died in Portland
A typical night in Portland 2020. The sun is down and a few hundred people, nearly all in their 20s and 30s, start to congregate, by twos and threes, at a prearranged location, usually a city park but sometimes at the U.S. Immigration and Customs building, or City Hall, or, as they are tonight, on the strip of downtown that is home to local and federal courthouses and the city’s central police station, known as Justice Center. The drumming starts, there are some Black Lives Matter slogans shouted but mostly it’s calls of “FUCK THE POLICE,” none of whom are in evidence. They almost never are during the nightly protests, or not until things get hot, when windows are smashed and, for what will end up being nearly 200 nights in a row, fires started.
On this night, I do see one officer. He is sitting alone inside the lobby of the back entrance to Justice Center. Beside him is an industrial fan. When I ask why, he explains that the night before, a group of protesters sloshed in a giant bucket of diarrhea into the room where he sits. The fan is to try to get the stench out. Behind me, five teenagers stand at the curb gawping.
“What happened? What happened?” they ask. They’re not black bloc—the darkly clad anarchists roaming the streets—but random teens with random energy who came downtown, maybe, to see what all the fuss was about, to lightly taunt a police officer before running off. The J.V. team.
In their stead there soon appears a young couple. They are outfitted in the black bloc uniform of head-to-toe black; the boy carries a steel baton and wants me to know it. There is nonetheless something patrician about them, as if under different circumstances one might encounter them at cotillion. The uniform conceals their identities, but it can’t hide the sense of entitlement that allows them a cheap laugh at the cop, at the fan. What I want to know is, why do they think throwing human shit as a tactic is OK?
“Do you believe that property is worth more than human lives?” asks the boy.
“Do you believe the police should be allowed to murder people?” asks the girl.
I do not mention that, at this point in the year, there has been only one deadly police shooting in Portland. I do not mention it because, after 15 years of living in Portland, I know the city’s fledgling anarchists do not deal in facts, that they instead keep a set of platitudes up those black sleeves.
“We’ve tried for 20 years to do it another way. It hasn’t worked. Nothing changes except with violence,” says the boy, who is maybe 22. Then he flips me the bird.
The dream of the ’90s is alive in Portland
Sleep till 11, you’ll be in heaven
The dream of the ’90s is alive in Portland
The dream is alive
Around the turn of the century, Portland was the new belle on the block, not despoiled like San Francisco or in bed with high tech like Seattle. Oregon was not known nationally for much more than Nike and pinot noir and former Republican Sen. Bob Packwood, but maybe (with the exception of Packwood) that was OK. Maybe the city could debut as a fresh canvas, eco-friendly and affordable, a place to achieve your achievable dreams.
A lot of people were willing to take the chance, including my family. We moved from Los Angeles to Portland in 2004, and for a while, everything seemed on the up. The city in 2009 was, according to The Wall Street Journal, attracting “college-educated, single people between the ages of 25 and 39 at a higher rate than most other cities in the country.” New residents built the city they wanted to live in: farm-to-table restaurants and 40 million brewpubs and too many bike paths and aggressively progressive politics. When then–Illinois Sen. Barack Obama swung through on the campaign trail in 2008, more than 75,000 people lined Portland’s waterfront to see him.
Portland had entered the national stage. Was it a little bit goofy, a little bit twee? Sure, but also energetic in the way a young city can be, with people cutting what seemed to be genuinely new paths. Would the dudes slinging Korean barbecue out of an old R.V. take it brick-and-mortar? Who knew? Who cared? The dynamism of what-could-be hung in the very air.
Air, it turned out, a lot of people wanted to share. Soon, some who’d come to Portland expecting the city to deliver their dreams grew restless. They couldn’t find their footing, or couldn’t settle on who they were supposed to be, or both.
“I sometimes think we’re the scatterbrained generation,” a 26-year-old barista with a degree in anthropology told me for a 2010 article I wrote called “Is Portland the New Neverland?” “You have so many choices, and you know what you end up doing? Nothing. You become the D.J.-fashion-designing-knitting-coffee-maker.”
Portland’s leadership seemed likewise unserious. Democratic Mayor Sam Adams had to fly home from Obama’s first inauguration to face changes of having had a sexual liaison with an underage legislative intern with the readymade name of Beau Breedlove, and in 2019 he was accused by his former executive assistant of sexual harassment. In 2015, Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned amid allegations of influence peddling by his fiancé.
“It’s not a well-governed city. It’s not a well-governed state. Portland has basically had three failed mayors in a row,” says T.B., who previously held a high-ranking position in state government and who asked not to be identified by name. “Tom Potter was a former police chief who became mayor. He was totally hapless. Sam Adams was hyperkinetic, one thing after another and scandalous and so totally ineffective. And then Charlie Hales—I don’t know exactly what happened to him, but he also served one term; they all did. And now you have Ted [Wheeler], who I think has had three police chiefs since taking office. There’s certainly political instability at the municipal level, to say the least.”
Out of instability, good things nevertheless grew—including Portlandia. The comedy series debuted in 2010 and served up the city at its most parodic, with real-life Mayor Sam Adams playing a bumbling mayoral assistant and restaurant diners demanding the life story of the chicken they were about to eat.
The show riffed on slacktivism and five-hour yoga classes and men whose only “safe space” was Reddit. It was often genuinely funny. Who didn’t like to laugh at themselves?
As it turned out, a lot of Portlanders.
“Fuck you, Portlandia!” read an anonymous letter printed in one of Portland’s alt-weeklies. “I’ve been here for 20 years. I have watched it change. Portland is now a soulless amusement park for the entitled and wealthy. I hate what this city is becoming and I blame YOU!”
“One thing I do like,” wrote the culture editor of Willamette Week, another local newspaper, of the show in 2011, “is the idea that Portlanders are furiously angry underneath their calm demeanors.”
Young people had come here to achieve those achievable dreams. What was taking so long? Why did they have to live three, four people to a house, when just a few years ago rent was affordable? When my husband told baristas at the cafés he owned that, no, he couldn’t raise the starting wage to $12 an hour—this was in 2014—seeing as they also received tips and health insurance, the response was a general chilling, an “us against them” ethos that seemed to seep into the city. Activists became more vocal, denouncing businesses they saw as anti-LGBTQ. The city’s most active queer center was called out in 2015 for being too “white-centric.” And in 2016, students at Reed College formed RAR (Reedies Against Racism) and staged a protest against the 1978 Saturday Night Live skit “King Tut,” claiming Steve Martin’s portrayal of the Egyptian pharaoh was racist. “The gold face of the saxophone dancer leaving its tomb is an exhibition of blackface,” a student told the student newspaper.
The anger seemed free-floating; it was gathering momentum, was becoming an identity in itself.
When Donald Trump won the presidency, Portlanders’ anger catalyzed into a manic animus that took the form of compulsive marching and letter writing and CNN watching and the schadenfreude-tinged hope that Mike Flynn/Stormy Daniels/the Russia scandal would sweep the president out of office any day now. In this way, Portland was not different from other heavily Democratic U.S. cities.
But there was an additional agitation in Portland, in that the plans of those who’d come to try their hand at baking and winemaking and woodworking and beekeeping had become unreachable. In 2005, you could (and my husband did) open a coffee shop where the rent was $4
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