New York native Christian Gunther is a consummate member of the "creative class" that some economists hope will save American cities like Portland from post-industrial rot.
Gunther moved here in 1999 because he felt Portland was about to bloom like Paris in the 1930s (before the Nazis quashed that joie de vivre ). He promoted arts groups like the Imago and Artists Repertory theaters. He played politics, running for City Council in 2002, and losing to Randy Leonard; and, most recently, poring over data for Mayor Tom Potter's visionPDX project.
Now 37 and going by X-tian—pronounced "ex-tee-an"—Gunther tired of waiting for a Portland spring and moved to Seattle in September, where, he says, "anything's possible." He recently spoke to WW about why Portland failed him.
WW : Why'd you leave Portland?
X-tian Gunther: Part of it was financial. Part of it was cultural. Part of it was across the board. Oregon is a problem state.
What do you mean, "problem state"?
Oregon's roads and bridges are falling apart. Seattle has a public utilities district, and it's not controversial. The trans fats cover story ["No Fries For You!" WW , Oct. 25, 2006]: That to me was the tipping point. King County was moving ahead, and Portland was laughing at it. Oregon has a heritage that's one part hippie/progressive/open-minded/for the betterment of the people, but it's another part Ruby Ridge.
I'm from Washington, and it's like that up there, too.
Not so much. It wasn't even a blip on the radar that they banned trans fats here. What I'm really talking about is for Jim Spade, generic guy in Portland, who is an artist, being able to hang his work on a wall somewhere.
If he can't, is that Portland's fault? Or Jim Spade's?
It's Jim Spade's fault, but…I can tell you artists who are like, "I'm out of here."
Seattle has built-in advantages. It's bigger.
Why is it that Portland always falls back on "we're smaller"? That's part of the reason I left. I feel there's a steady stream of defeatism.
How could Portland have lived up to your expectations?
We have to be honest about what has occurred. Five years ago, when Vera Katz was the mayor, we wasted two years on a discussion about building up the biotech industry. That's not Portland's forte. Green technology is. Seattle can be a more green city because it has money. I don't like most multinationals. Most of them are crooked. But that doesn't mean they can't act in ways that are beneficial. Building an airplane can't be done by a mom-and-pop industry.
Here's where Portlanders would say: "You sound like a sellout."
Of course they would. You think you're saving the world because you buy Stumptown coffee? I'm buying Stumptown coffee in Seattle. The discussion in Portland needs to elevate. It [shouldn't be] about "big businesses are bad," or "you're a sellout." Those are the kinds of things 18-year-olds say. And I don't want to be in a city where 18-year-olds steer the conversation. You want to be a city? You have to act like a city. You can no longer act like you're a town. You're building a frigging light rail that moves 10 miles per hour.
The traffic is awful in Seattle.
It is. But if you're blessed with a job downtown, you're not stuck in traffic. It's those highways. And to Seattle's credit, they haven't built tons more.
You seem to argue that Portland lacks ambition.
It's a little more dynamic than that. Oregon as a state is poorly educated. I think people believe the hype. I think people are narcissistic. I think that's an outgrowth of a lack of education. Another thing: This is a little more out there, but I would be very curious to know the rate of fetal alcohol syndrome [in Oregon]. I'm not talking about people who are 30 now, I'm talking about people who came in the '60s and '70s. You have a governor who, when he rolls up, he rolls up in a Ford Taurus. Like he's your next-door neighbor. To me there's a problem with that. The governor needs to be in control.
So, basically, Portland isn't big-league enough for you.
I think it's fighting growing up. I would argue that we have to. What's really happening in Portland is [allowing] that new money to come in and push up the cost of housing, and make it so you can't afford to live there. So I ask you, who's the sellout?
Gunther says his name change to X-tian was "a business-slash-creative decision. It really does filter out those folks you might not want to be doing business with."
Gunther got 3,570 votes in his 2002 City Council bid, coming in eighth in a field of 16 candidates. His thoughts on the Portland mayor's race? "You need, like, a liberal Giuliani," he says. "Maybe he's a little awkward, maybe people can't stand him, but he's gonna get shit done."