Fellow citizens, it has come to this: Portland needs a restraining order against the national media. We are being stalked. The New York Times is giving us that look again. It makes us feel...funny.
Back in 1925, the legendary journalist H.L. Mencken wrote that "Oregon is seldom heard of." (Then again, he was from Baltimore—now seldom heard of except by fans of The Wire .) Well, lookee now, Writer Boy! In the past few years, and especially the past few months, you'd need a self-imposed media blackout to avoid hearing about how rad Portland is.
You've got Stephen Colbert calling us "hippies" and "communists." You've got Gourmet doing Portland-y stuff in its two most recent issues. Portland is such an obligatory pick for those endless "25 Best Cities to Live in NOW!" lists that magazine editors must fear they'll lose their jobs if they fail to name-check us. It's like New York's Gray Lady relocated here.
Using the powerful search engine LexisNexis, WW found 2,458 stories mentioning Portland in connection with the search term "beer" in the past year—and "gay" and "sustainable" weren't far behind. (See the rest of our search results.)
For local media nerds, the national love is all very entertaining. (If nothing else, it provides a break from our homegrown sensations: the ConAgra Pot Pie Recall Crisis, the Interstate/César Chávez Crisis, the Snowflake the Deer Crisis, TV news' daily A Methhead Ate My Baby Crisis.)
But, seriously, what's up? Why is Portland—Lord strike us down for saying it—"hot"? (For one partial explanation, click here).
Portland is, in fact, a beautiful city full of interesting people doing noteworthy things. But since when did truth have anything to do with media herd behavior? We suspect that the current fixation on our demure little city has more to do with reverse provincialism. For the most part, the national media are sequestered in one city obsessed with work (New York) and another obsessed with appearances (Los Angeles). Both are obsessed with money. From those vantages, Portland's relative relaxation seems exotic. And civilized life west of the Hudson and north of San Francisco? Always fascinating.
In any case, we'll know our own provincialism is finally dead when we stop caring what other people think of us. (Like that will ever happen; we still freak out when Jennifer Aniston is in town. Funny and pathetic, when you think about it.) In the meantime, we thought we'd survey a little of what's been written about Portland lately, just to see what fresh perspective or hilarious misinterpretations are out there.
We'll break down six of the meatier items and score them on how well they nailed this whole "Portland thing," according to our own special 1-to-10 scale. Think of a "10 " as almost on par with All the President's Men , while a "1 " would be closer to Juiced , by Jose Canseco. OK? Let's begin.
“Style Map: Portland,” by Armand Limnander
WHAT: A breezy, photo-heavy tour of hipster-chic boutiques and hangouts, like Stand Up Comedy, Canoe and Doug Fir.
WHO'S PSYCHED: The owners of approximately eight local businesses.
COULD IRRITATE: People who think Portland is getting too "cool," whatever that means; local business owners not featured.
BASE SCORE: Not bad. Fluffy, but hardly intended as trenchant social criticism. Highlights snappy entrepreneurs. Call it a solid +7.
1) LOCALS-ONLY "WTF?!?" PENALTY: While it's great that Limnander extends his stroll over to the east side, it's both strange and alarming that he annexes organic lower East Burnside to the bioengineered Pearl. (A) Isn't "LoBu" a fruity-enough fake neighborhood name for any upscale consumption-porn mag? (B) What could freak out Portlanders more than the idea that the Pearl, like some heavy-handed '50s B-movie conceit, is...spreading? -1
2) JUST-FEELS-ODD PENALTY: Live music? In the Pearl? Aside from the venerable jazz club Jimmy Mak's and that guy in the Mickey Mouse hat who plays the trumpet outside Powell's, we are bemused. Perhaps Brother Armand refers to Old Town and, again, to East Burnside, neither of which (not to be pedantic or anything) ARE IN THE BLOODY PEARL DISTRICT. -1
3) OVER-EXTRAPOLATION-BASED CLICHÉ PENALTY: No complaints about "bicycle-friendly eco-culture." (Anything that annoys the Cascade Policy Institute sort of delights us.) But listen—that naked bike thing happens maybe, what, once a year? Such exaggeration of real-but-rare local quirk leaves visitors disappointed when the One-Armed Man from Twin Peaks doesn't greet them at the airport and microbrewed ale fails to gush from public fountains. -1
SPECIAL AWESOMENESS BONUS: Armand Limnander. Armand Limnander! Simply saying it aloud makes us feel like we just ate something filthy and decadent, like those blind baby birds drowned in Armagnac that make even the French blush with shame. If there isn't a cocktail named the Armand Limnander, someone should get on that. +1
FINAL SCORE: 5/10.
“Portland, schmortland—we still say Seattle rocks” by Tom Scanlon
WHAT: Prompted by a Slate.com article by former WW staff writer Taylor Clark about the frightening number of indie-rock stars in Portland, a Seattle writer defends his city.
WHO'S PSYCHED: People who take anything nice said about another city as an implicit criticism of their own.
COULD IRRITATE: Anyone who objects to the use of "schmortland" in a headline, or in the English language, ever.
BASE SCORE: Let's say it rates a +4 for passion.
1) JUST A NOTE: We won't be discussing the Slate article for the usual dull conflict-of-interest reasons, even though it's a valid example of the recent PDX media mania. Plus, Taylor Clark has a violent temper, and the dude is frickin' HUGE.
2) CRITICAL OMISSION PENALTY: Tom, man, you left out "snippy and defensive." -1
3) TRUE 'DAT BONUS: You know, he's got a point. Seattle, for instance, is home to the Center for Wooden Boats! +1
4) THAT DOES SOUND INSANELY AWESOME PENALTY: And that would be sarcasm. -1
FINAL SCORE: 3/10
“In Portland, a Golden Age of Dining and Drinking,” by Eric Asimov
WHAT: A tawny paean to all the great restaurants and all the snazz food in Portland.
WHO'S PSYCHED: Chefs, restaurant owners and financiers; foodie bloggers who needed something to do that day.
COULD IRRITATE: Applebee's loyalists.
BASE SCORE: You can nitpick something like this to death (in fact, we're going to do just that in about five seconds), but basically this is a good national take on the fact that, yes, food here rocks. Plus, rereading it inspired us to drink a bunch of pinot noir, and now we're feeling generous. +9
1) ORIENTATION CLICHÉ PENALTY: Why do we always have to be "at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia"? Why can it never be "hunkered in the dark shadow of sinister Mount Hood, abode of the ice dragons" or "perched at the edge of that vast unknown chasm, the dread Pacific"? Just asking. -1
2) DID YOU BOTHER ASKING AROUND? PENALTY: "About the hardest thing to find in Portland these days is a homegrown chef." Unless you step out the front door of Le Pigeon, which Asimov praises at length, throw a fresh chanterelle and hit Leather Storrs (Portlander!) at his restaurant Rocket, a few blocks away (and later written up, coincidentally, by one Armand Limnander). Or consult with Cory Schreiber (Portlander!), whose pioneering Wildwood may have deserved a mention. Or watch Caprial Pence (Portlander!) on her nationally televised cooking show. -1
3) MISPLACED CONDESCENSION PENALTY: Fifteen years ago, you say? So, like '91-'92? That's about when Gus Van Sant shot My Own Private Idaho. Portland's own Crackerbash, just one of many bands in our fizzy underground music scene, put out a cult-favorite 7-inch as part of Sub Pop's legendary Singles Series. Craft brewing and first-class Oregon wine were already old news.
And New York City? NYC lost 300,000 jobs in that era, saw huge race riots in Crown Heights and was on the verge of giving America the gift of Rudy Giuliani. All so cutting edge! -1
4) YOUR-EDITOR-NEEDS-TO-SEE-YOU PENALTY: As you may have heard, Asimov was a very, very naughty boy—he failed to disclose his personal friendship with the owners of one of those "exploding" restaurants he praised (Paley's Place). Not a capital offense, but now the article has to live forever online with one of those groveling "editor's notes." -1
FINAL SCORE: 5/10
“American Eden,” by Tom Austin
WHAT: An exploration of "alternative" Portland.
WHO'S PSYCHED: The "Keep Portland Weird" constituency...even though the article actually criticizes the whole "Keep Portland Weird" thing.
COULD IRRITATE: Holier-than-thou punx, crusty oldsters, Dandy Warhol foes.
BASE SCORE: Not bad—flattering, etc. The problem is that it could have been assembled by a local boho-culture politburo. It starts with Thomas Lauderdale, hits the Suicide Girls and Zoobombers along the way, communes with the Dandy Warhols and finishes up with Chuck Palahniuk. Zzz. It's like a checklist of usual suspects. Hell, we pull that off just about every week, with no expense account. He did forget Storm Large, though. +6
1) GILDING THE LILY PENALTY: A "peculiar" utopia? As opposed to all those dead-normal utopias out there? -1
2) AID AND COMFORT TO THE HIPPIES PENALTY: Again, they need no encouragement 'round here. -1
3) BOTHERING THE BOTHERERS BONUS: This piece will infuriate the Portland skeptics—those miserable player-hating blighters who always have something nasty to say about the prevailing local political, social, aesthetic and cultural ethos. We can hear them screaming into the Internet now, and the sound is pleasing. +1
4) FLAGRANT USE OF THE WORD "GRUNGE" IN A STORY ABOUT THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST PENALTY: Yeah. Them's the rules. -1
5) PETTY REGIONAL RIVALRY BONUS: Of course, we dream of the day when Seattle and Portland will unite to lead the Cascadian Empire. But until then, we can't help it. +1
FINAL SCORE: 5/10
“This Is Not a Bob Dylan Movie,” by Robert Sullivan
WHAT: A rangy, ruminative and slightly awestruck profile of director (and part-time Portlander) Todd Haynes and his weird new Bob Dylan biopic, by journalist (and sometime Portlander) Robert Sullivan.
WHO'S PSYCHED: Cinephiles, some Dylan fans.
COULD IRRITATE: The Portland Business Alliance, some Dylan fans.
BASE SCORE: We admit it. We were suckers for this one—a thoughtful portrait of artistic struggle with a hearty dose of Rose City boosterism on the side. Based on Portland content alone, this longish article starts at a boffo +9.
1) DEMOGRAPHIC-SPECIFIC FLATTERY BONUS: Behold the kind of characterization that drives Portland's more straitlaced citizens nuts, in that it implies that we whittle our own furniture and are too busy gathering thrice-used rainwater for our monthly baths to hold steady jobs. Doesn't bother us, however: We're deeply into knitting, composting and all that shite. +1
2) BERLIN INN BONUS: For mentioning this ultra-rad, mildly weird, pretty obscure German restaurant, this article receives +1.
3) FILTHY HIPPIE PENALTY: OK, that's enough crunchy. -1
4) WE KNOW, WE KNOW, WE KNOW! PENALTY: Memo to the editors of The New York Times: We know Portland is much cheaper than New York, a fact alluded to in this piece and Asimov's piece and a recent James Traub essay we're not even dealing with here. A night out with Sweden's three most exclusive adult escorts would be cheap compared with New York. Please consider that we also make much less money than y'all and never get written about on Gawker. If a bargain ye seek, check out Detroit. Cheaper than dirt, last we heard—gotta be a story in there somewhere! -1
EXTRA COPY-EDITING PENALTY: Later in the story, the club Holocene gets misspelled "Holecene." Wrong, and vaguely dirty. -1
FINAL SCORE: 8/10.
“Portland, Portland, Portland,” by Eli Sanders
WHAT: A Stranger writer reports from his vacation in New York, where tout le monde was talking up Portland.
WHO'S PSYCHED: People who care what New Yorkers think, which for some reason seems to include us.
COULD IRRITATE: Seattle.
BASE SCORE: Actually, we're not going to score this one. The humble-but-useful blog post, off-the-cuff by design, doesn't really lend itself to nitpicky analysis the way a full-blown article does. But it's always interesting to see what the Seattle weekly has to say about Portland—after all, The Stranger likes our town so much it started its own newspaper here, our spunky kid bro The Mercury.
1) No disrespect to this particular post, but journalists blogging about their vacations ("I went to CITY/COUNTRY X and, betwixt margaritas, learned something applicable to CITY/COUNTRY Y") is the 21st-century equivalent of quoting a cab driver in a story about a foreign land—a cheap 'n' easy way to squeeze out copy without actually having to work. Not that we've ever done that sort of thing.
2) Let's have a NoLita vs. LoBu rumble! It's on, muthafuckaz!
3) Even the gays—New York City gays!—are into us. Relax, gang, we've made it.
4) You know the great thing about this, and the Portland media phenom as a whole? It makes people in Seattle absolutely psychotic. Last time we looked, there were 44 comments on Sanders' post: a catalog of whiny dyspepsia and poorly sublimated Napoleon complexes assembled by people both sad and bloated with rage. Check it out at slog.thestranger.com when you need a giggle.
The PDX-haters and PDX-boosters both just need to face a sexist-but-apt high school-based metaphor: While Seattle is the once-popular girl who has "made the rounds," so to speak, Portland is the foreign-exchange student with the hot accent who nobody knows a thing about. Give it a semester. No one will like either of us anymore, and we'll be back where we started, drinking in the corner, alone but together. You want an Armand Limnander? We're buying.
How Portland sought—and won—national media love.
By Aaron Mesh
It's flattering to think Portland's media acclaim is a spontaneous response to our many virtues. It's also pretty naïve.
The truth is, Portland sought this press. We courted this press. And in many cases, we literally bought this press dinner and a hotel room.
If you want to applaud someone for creating our city's media lovefest, thank the Portland Oregon Visitors Association. Stumptown's spotlight can be traced to a smart, targeted effort by POVA and other PR teams to attract freelance travel writers.
"They invested their money wisely, and they've peaked," says Regina Schrambling, a former deputy dining editor at The New York Times who now freelances on contract for The Los Angeles Times . "I actually think they handled it brilliantly. It's looked completely natural."
Portland's media wooing began in earnest in 1996, when Joe D'Alessandro became POVA's CEO, and had to get big-city press on a small-city budget.
"We had a very limited advertising budget at POVA, and the only way that we were going to break through was to go through the PR route," says D'Alessandro, who left POVA last year to head the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Our goal was to find authentic stories...and really pitch those aggressively to the media."
Enter the familiarization trip. Known colloquially as a "FAM trip," this is the fancy young cousin of the press junket—those tours that schlep journalists from free meal to cheap drink. FAM tours are standard practice in the city-promotion business, but D'Alessandro and POVA director of communications Deborah Wakefield decided to think small: They offered trips to individual writers or groups no larger than six, and they tailored the itineraries to the journalists' interests.
In the past year alone, POVA has aided or organized more than 50 such visits—25 just since July. Wakefield says POVA works with an annual budget of $259,700 to promote the Northwest quadrant of Oregon to journalists, and an additional $21,350 for FAM trips to Portland proper. It uses that money to ensure that few journalists must pay for meals—or hotel rooms or airfare. Wakefield estimates that POVA "hosts" 80 percent of the writers. The other 20 percent work for publications (including The New York Times , Esquire and Travel and Leisure ) that do not allow these kinds of freebies and pay their own way.
"Freelance writers will pretty much take any discount they can get," says Wakefield. "If we were not able to provide the complimentary hotels and airfare," D'Alessandro says, "they wouldn't come."
The investment pays off. In June, four travel freelancers—Troy Petenbrink, Andrew Collins, Aefa Mulholland and Dan Allen—were given a gay-and-lesbian FAM tour that included free rooms at the Ace Hotel and Hotel deLuxe, free cocktails at Mint, dinner at Bluehour and a night at Darcelle XV. Wakefield estimates the weekend cost POVA $5,000, and resulted in gay-oriented profiles of the city in The Advocate , EDGE Boston and About.com. (Heck, Collins liked Portland so much he moved here.)
Other guests on the POVA tab this year have included writers for Travelgirl Magazine , The Jewish Exponent , Meetings West , Canada's Bump TV and enRoute Magazine , Britain's Globe and Mail, and China Central Television. Wakefield is especially pleased about hosting a History Channel production team in July, a trip which led to a one-hour Portland episode of Cities of the Underworld on July 23. "When you look at what it would cost to buy advertising [on the History Channel] for that [same] length of time, that was about a $1.3 million hit." The actual cost to POVA? Three nights' lodging at the Hotel deLuxe, renting a van, and buying the film crew one afternoon's box lunch.
In some cases POVA gets airlines—including Lufthansa and Northwest—to reduce fares, and hotels frequently kick down free rooms. "I can't think of a hotel in the city that hasn't worked with us," he says, "from the Heathman to the Monaco to the downtown Marriott." But POVA has been a victim of its own success: Wakefield says high occupancy rates at Portland hotels have forced POVA to pay for rooms again.
Outside observers question the ethics of writers accepting handouts. "The travel business is really corrupt," Schrambling says. "Because who among us can afford to travel like this? Somebody buys you a free trip, you're pretty much obligated to write positively about them. Or you don't get invited on the next trip."
Wakefield, however, says no strings are attached to a Portland FAM trip. "When we host people, we're very clear with them that the only thing we expect them to do is to come in and take an objective look at the destination. We just want to get them out here."
MANIA BY THE NUMBERS
Yeah, we know Portland's hot shit. But we wanted to prove it to the world. So we did a search of all things Portland on LexisNexis, a really powerful search engine that looks for content from newspapers, magazines, and anything news-related. Our intuition was correct—Portland is in the news a hell of a lot. In fact, when we tried to search for how many times "Portland, Oregon" appeared in the news over the past year, we
LexisNexis (well we didn't exactly break it, it just stopped working due to information overload). But we were able to think up a few things Portland may be known for and find out how many times those words have shown up in the news in conjunction with Portland since September 2006. Here's what we found (hint: beer, sustainable, and gays top the list). —
- Bike-friendly + Portland = 53
- Soggy + Portland = 135
- Vegan + Portland = 159
- Beer + Portland = 2,458
- Hipster + Portland = 163
- Dogs + Portland = 197
- Lesbians + Portland = 750
- Liberal + Portland = 1,379
- Ace Hotel + Portland = 52
- Suicide + Portland = 1,134
- Weird + Portland = 742
- Sustainable + Portland = 2,242
- Pearl District + Portland = 867
- Marijuana + Portland = 554
- Gay + Portland = 2,497
- Coffee + Portland = 316
- Indie + Portland = 72
intern Krista Stryker provided additional reporting for this article.