Editor’s note: It’s a fine line for people in this city to talk about the precocious rise of—and perplexed response to—Portland culture around the country without sounding, well, smug, parochial, boastful, hypersensitive and (dare we say it) passive aggressive. We decided to avoid that problem entirely by running this clever story by former Rose City resident Adrianne Jeffries, who shows the residents of Brooklyn how they are exhibiting unmistakable signs of Portlandification. A version of this story first appeared July 26 as “A Twee Grows in Brooklyn” in The New York Observer and is reprinted here by permission.
On a cold day in late January, Paul LaRosa, an author and CBS producer, and his wife, Susan, were shopping in Brooklyn for cheese at the Park Slope/Gowanus Indoor Winter Farmers Market at 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street, when they struck up a conversation at one of the stands with a tall, clean-cut yoga instructor who had just returned from studying meditation in Thailand.
He had discovered the most marvelous cocoa there, he enthused, and offered them a tiny, wrapped sample of stone-ground, small-batch “virgin” chocolate, which he sells in four flavors, including blueberry-lavender and vanilla-rooibos.
“I had just seen Portlandia,” Mr. LaRosa said. “And as this nice guy began telling us all the trouble he’d gone to to make this chocolate, my head went straight to the first episode, where a young couple cannot order the chicken on the menu without knowing the chicken’s name and whether it had any friends.”
“Would you like one of my cool little bags?” the chocolate vendor asked after Mrs. LaRosa bought a few bars to use for baking. No thanks, she said.
So it wasn’t until later, when he passed by again, that Mr. LaRosa noticed a sign above the bags. He took a picture because he was afraid he wouldn’t be believed: “Raaka’s packaging is designed by his friends and printed with soy inks on 100 percent postconsumer-recycled, chlorine-free, processed paper that was made from wind-generated energy.”
He put the picture on his blog in a post titled “Brooklandia?”
Brooklyn’s overwrought mustaches and handmade ice cream in upcycled cups are now well-established facts of life. It’s as if the tumor of hipster culture that formed when the cool kids moved to Williamsburg had metastasized into a cluster of cysts pressing down on parts of the borough’s brain.
Around the militantly organic Park Slope Co-op, for example, or Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene, where you can buy rings glued to typewriter keys as well as used, handmade, vegetable-dyed, vintage Oriental rugs for $1,000. Brooklyn is producing and consuming more of its own culture than ever before, giving rise to a sense of Brooklyn exceptionalism and a set of affectations that’s making the borough look more and more like Portland, Ore.
Portland was “Brooklyn before Brooklyn was Brooklyn,” NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro once quipped. His colleague Kurt Andersen, host of the public radio show Studio 360 and co-founder of Spy, put it more starkly: “Brooklyn without black people.”
Mr. Andersen in 2010 co-founded the Portland Brooklyn Project, a “loose sister-cityish entity” to unite what the organization calls “creators of culture…with an interest in the connection between Portland and Brooklyn”; it’s since changed hands.
“Both suffered from an urban inferiority complex that during the last decade or so has become a superiority complex,” he explained in an email. “Brooklyn at its best today is in lots of ways probably like Manhattan at its best in the middle third of the 20th century, although with less hard-core, playing-for-keeps, drunken, druggy, up-all-night bohemianism.”
I lived in Portland for two years after college. It’s a delightful place with plenty of drunken, druggy bohemianism. But, dear Brooklyn, you do not want to go there.
This cautionary tale begins in December 2008, when your unemployed college-graduate reporter wrote a post on Couchsurfing.com looking for a place to stay. “I’d love to show you around (currently underemployed) so weekdays are just fine for me,” replied Laura, a filmmaker who became my first friend in town. She lived with three or four roommates in a vast former church in Southeast Portland, across from New Seasons, Portland’s local answer to Whole Foods. “I can teach you how to properly wipe your tush with just one square of toilet paper,” she promised on her Couchsurfing profile.
I never took her up on that offer, but she gave me a copy of the Zinester’s Guide to Portland—this was before I knew about zine culture, when I thought “zinester” rhymed with “sinister”—and loaned me and my then-boyfriend bikes so we could ride with her to the Green Dragon, a warehouse-turned-bar known for a rotating selection of 50 microbrews and geeky gatherings such as Beer and Blog. We rode back tipsy and crashed on a pile of mattresses in a corner of the church.
We wound up sharing a house with a yoga instructor and an underemployed DJ. Our rent was $195 each; we spent about four times that on food and beer. I bought a bike immediately and talked about it a lot; I developed a highly discerning palate for gourmet coffee and IPAs. We bought local and composted impeccably. I carried around a Kleen Kanteen to which I’d affixed a map-of-Oregon decal with a green heart in the center. We were irreproachable environmental stewards with one guilty exception: the gallons and gallons of water we used to fill and refresh a 12-foot inflatable pool in the front yard, a gift from the Israeli backpackers we were hosting during the summer heat wave of 2009. We had a video projector in the living room for movies and Nintendo. Pot was $30 an eighth and very potent. We indulged frequently on the front porch, splayed on the full-size couch we got for $25 on Craigslist.
One of Portlandia’s catchphrases is that Portland is “where young people go to retire,” but that doesn’t fully capture it. Rather, think back to the moment when you realized you were grown up enough to buy candy whenever you wanted. Then imagine extending that phase indefinitely, for years.
Portland, a city of about 600,000 residents (compared to Brooklyn’s 2.6 million), is, according to various lists, the “greenest,” most bike-friendly and most-tattooed city in the nation, in addition to boasting the highest concentration of food carts. It’s also the 11th-most alternative city in the nation, according to a “Weirdness Index” commissioned in 2006 by the Chicago-based nonprofit CEOs for Cities; weirder than New York City (14th) and Austin, Texas (17th), but not as weird as San Francisco (first).
The city has embraced the idea, and for good reason. Without the weirdness, Portland would be little more than a dreary, down-and-out, virtually all-white town in the flyover between San Francisco and Seattle. It inspires a weird pride: More than 18,000 “Keep Portland Weird!” bumper stickers are said to be in circulation (they sell for $2 apiece).
“Keeping Portland Weird ought to be the theme of our economic strategy,” Portland economist Joe Cortright wrote in an editorial in The Oregonian. “As Hunter S. Thompson advised, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”