Cheers to Weirdos and City Parks in Portland, Oregon

Billy here: When I first visited Portland, I was a fresh faced sixteen year old queerdo. I saw girls holding hands with other girls in public! I saw pink mohawks, hairy legs, girl punk bands, record stores, art shows and costumed unicyclists! I wanted to move to Portland as soon as I possibly could! Eight years later I finally made it here and made a rock and roll production with some of the very same women I idolized in my teen years. It seemed like Portland was a city of dreams come true.

But then, as one of my good friends has said, Portland also “kicks your ass” to see if you can hack it. Nearly everyone I’ve ever known got their ass kicked almost immediately after moving here: heart break, debt, bike wreck, you name it, sometimes all at once. Well, it seemed like I was already black and blue on the posterior when I got here, but there’s that old adage: The same thing will keep happening until you learn the lesson it’s trying to teach you. People will keep pushing your buttons until you learn to stand up for yourself. Portland is now so intimately tangled into my own personal history that I don’t know how to talk about it objectively. We are always a part of our geography. But my point is, for something this good, Ye Olde Portland, you have to work hard. That work is usually emotional and spiritual work. Money doesn’t get traded for it.

We walked long miles through the town one evening together, our first real walk on the town after moving back from the mountains, and noticed the city seems to be “growing up” – gentrification, hipster-ification, whatever you want to call it. But this “growing up” is represented by a new generation and immigrants from folks from places like L.A. and Brooklyn. Among the new condos, literally every other new fancy business is a swank bar or a hip hair salon, with an occasional baby boutique. It seemed, we joked, that young people are interested only in looking good and getting drunk, and that the result of these two things leads obviously to having babies. I was somewhat dejected by this. Where was the old Portland? And was my favorite city of working hard for things more meaningful than money getting taken over by the capitalists once and for all? Or was Portlandia convincing urbanites everywhere to move in? 

Ah, but I’ve been taking more walks and I see the food forest gardens where parking lots used to be, intersections painted with rainbows of flowers, avant music salons tucked away behind the condos, independent publishing companies like Microcosm still selling zines on how to make your own tinctures and subverting paradigms, all the new vibrant murals, and, of course, the goat herds on public blocks. All we have to do is step outside and walk, and we are a part of all this. Where there is freedom to create, humans create. We won’t be squelched by the rat race. Maybe I will write a song on the harpsichord tomorrow and wear something sparkly…

Spence here: In a previous job, I won’t mention which one, I spent a year of my life talking about “Good Growth Principles”. Basically, it was a way for our team at the time not to feel bad about over-development, making more money, continuing to over-burden ourselves with work in the name of “Progress”, gentrification, and “spreading our business model”. I was thinking I would be way more into the conversation of “Good Growth” and its equally boring “Growth Capacity” if we were talking about the plants taking over the buildings, or moss growing on neglected cars or uprooted sidewalks, replaced by cedar foot paths. I have always been a fan of “Ruin-Porn“. But it’s tricky talk because to fix neighborhoods up and bring in needed services isn’t inherently bad. Perhaps it is the question of empowering people to get involved–to enable each other in our neighborhoods to collectively better the health of our places–caring for all the inhabitants, people, plants, animals, water, air, soil, spirits. Alas, capitalism and helping our neighbors sometimes are entirely different pursuits. That said, I guess I can appreciate when a new grocery store goes in (granted it is one the people who live there can actually afford) but I’d rather see a farm. But here we are again, trying to judge what might be good growth. I can tell you this, store front after store front of swank bars and hair salons isn’t exactly what neighborhoods need. Which is what we encountered on our big walk through the city this week.

But today, this blog isn’t about what is wrong with Portland, or every other revitalizing city, (whose “Growth Capacity” sends investors drooling), it is about what we love about being here. Every place has its pros and cons and complaint department, but Portland actually has a pretty big “Yay!” department.  Recently, we walked through two of my three favorite city parks, Laurelhurst Park and Mt. Tabor Park, (my other favorite being Forest Park.) I love Mt. Tabor for its “hill-top” view, old, mossy castle-looking restrooms and reservoirs like moats around them, and its friendly steps. Our friends were married in this park a few years ago, and we found a newly planted tree right where their ceremony was…did they plant it? The tree had little feathers on strings tied to the branches, as well as small beads stuck onto the twigs and plastic hearts dangling from twist-ties. Could that have been the work of our magical friends? Walking further around the circular drive, we came to a funny stuffed animal sitting on a wood fence.  Several couples were sitting on park benches chatting, the misty background and calm trees creating a very pleasant attitude–no one seemed to think the stuffed animal was the least bit remarkable or odd. This, is what I love about Portland: a strange, home-made stuffed animal, lacking features, such as arms or a mouth would be pretty “at home” here, sitting on the fence at the park, next to the other weirdos. Another wonderfully weird thing about Portland are all the toy horses (or monsters or dinosaurs or super heroes) tied to the old metal ring hitches, set into the the curbs for when people still had real horses in the city. I noticed this phenomenon a few years back walking along the neighborhoods bordering Laurelhurst Park.

Basically, if it is conventional, people here aren’t really interested. You can be a pizza delivery guy anywhere, but here it’s by bike–my current profession! And we deliver beer too! And actually, people have all sorts of jobs here and seem to get by loving what they create and vice versa. There are tall bikes (bikes welded on top of each other) ridden as daily commuters! There are punk bands playing on bridges, art in the trees, tiny hobbit doors set into the nooks of Douglas Fir trees, recycling of everything (I heart SCRAP) and DIY everything and even a misunderstood worship of fashion from the 80s. I think a lot of what I love here is that people really do pay attention to details in an aesthetical way–they care about art and creativity and doing things a little differently.

And then there are collectives: bike collectives, wood collectives, clown collectives, dance collectives, food collectives, meat collectives, housing collectives, urban farm homestead collectives, awakenings collectives… you get the idea. Next week, Billy and I head out to the International Film Festival, which never fails to give insight and inspiration. Also, the Portland Art Museum has a free night at the end of the month we will try to attend. We basically go to the Multnomah County Library everyday and Billy is excellent at finding new music to bring home–or old–the last few weeks I have been listening to the Smiths Box Set over and over again, playing the drums in our newly finished studio.

As far as capitalism goes, VeloCult is my new favorite business: a full service bike shop, which repairs bikes, sells new and old, sells coffee, sells beer and has shows on a homemade stage salvaged from an 18th century drawbridge… They even have a bike museum, with such frames formerly belonging to Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond from the Tour de France. My new favorite anti-capitalist place besides the park, is called Bike Farm: a neat non-profit that exists solely to create space for people to learn how to be self-reliant with bicycles, skills and confidence. Needless to say, I am happy to walk, bike and engage in this city. I have a lot of hands in different things right now, which are all fun and interesting, but the best part is my hand is in Billy’s hand too. We made a pact to try to get the most out of being here this time around, and try to do all the things we always said we wanted to do. I am happy that also includes getting out of the city to Mt. Rainier, Three Sisters, Mt. St. Helens, Goat Rocks and other amazing wilderness areas coming up.

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