Inside Eye: Portland
In the first week of March 2018 Tiff and I went to Portland for 6 days to visit friends. We stayed in the South East district, and made our best effort to get an idea of what the city has to offer. With such a limited time we knew we wouldn’t see the whole city, so please don’t take this as comprehensive insight. Portland is revered and loved for its vast expanses of wilderness, which set the perfect scene for days and nights spent basking in the glory of the natural world. We weren’t in Portland for outdoor activities though. It was cold and wet–typical weather for this time of year in the Pacific Northwest climate. Overall, we lucked out and got some relatively dry and warm days, which allowed us to do a good amount of walking around, taking in the finer gradations of local detail that automobile travel erases. We did do a fair amount of driving as well though, because we were on a mission to eat as much good food as possible. Portland has a reputation for amazing food, and an incredible variety of locally-sourced ingredients. What we found in our cold damp week traversing the eateries, boutiques, and secondhand shops (of various sorts) was typical, in the best ways.
Portland certainly has a reputation, and I had my reservations before this visit. I went to Portland in 1996 or so, and all I remember was going to a skate shop, and going to see Burnside (and definitely not skate it). Other than that my only connection to Portland was taking orders from an incredibly intolerable, and remarkably entitled tech douche who was tasked with helming a startup that I worked for. I don’t hate many people, but I might hate that guy. He had a lot of Portland pride, and left me with a sour taste for Portland. But I’m pleased to say that I encountered very few people like him. The only negative interactions I had in Portland were the result of people behaving like they do in California, which is most likely because they were transplants. The people who are living in Portland and setting the vibe are people who have their priorities straight.
Portland is like any other city in America. It is built on a shaky bed of consumerism, and local commerce is supported by a municipal infrastructure with an exploitative history that is questionable at best. But the people of Portland have managed to establish a way of life that is not overrun by the circumstances of institutionalized consumerism. In short; it’s easy to find nutritious high quality food made from fresh local ingredients; food, goods, and services are reasonably priced; there’s no sales tax on anything; and from the sound of local public radio the greater Portland area seems to be run by a local government that prioritizes the citizens’ concerns. Portland’s local economy seems to be every bit sustainable as it is “trendy”. While many cities can boast of hip shops, and impressively cutting-edge restaurants, very few cities can provide a list of business that stay open year after year. In Portland that isn’t the case.
Of course Portland isn’t some kind of magical safe-haven for any business to become profitable, but it does provide a seemingly reasonable context for a local economy that sustains a ton of small businesses, and a few larger ones. Portland is filled with businesses that have a long history, and those businesses are mixing with an ever-increasing amount of new businesses that have overlapping, but divergent audiences. For instance, Portland has a lot of “food carts”. They’re not really carts because they’re stationary. But they’re not proper restaurants either because they have no seating. They’re essentially little kitchen shacks. You can find them crammed between buildings, or grouped in clusters around parking lot perimeters. The ones that are popular are going off, and you can see how someone could start a very small business like this with marginal overhead, and grow enough of a following to build a business that fills much more grandiose accommodations.
And from what we could tell, the concept of a local economy that provides a scalable frontier for brave entrepreneurs was not exclusive to food service. We also went to skate shops. We didn’t hit all the shops that we wanted to see–catch you next time SMART collective and Cal Skate–but the ones that we did check out are all taking a different approach to business. Cal’s Pharmacy has been around almost as long as the the city’s oldest shop Cal Skate, and they remain a core skate shop in the most traditional sense. At Cal’s Pharmacy–which originally opened at a different location, as a section within an actual RX pharmacy, with no relation to Cal Skate– the culture comes before the commerce. You won’t find shop boards, or collab capsule collections, even though Portland has long been an essential locale in skateboard culture. This shop only sells skate goods from a select few core skate companies, and they don’t have much to do with the internet. Not too far away, Commonwealth skate shop had a slightly different approach with a small indoor skatepark attached to the shop. A big roll up door opened to a short flat with ledges on both sides, and then a small transition area with various ups, downs, coping, and corners. This skate shop also doubles as a kind of lounge for skaters–especially the teenage sort–where they can spend hours, days, weeks, months, and years. Every time we passed by there were people skating, and on the weekend there was a sign for a birthday party skate jam. And in an industrial area of town just outside the airport we visited CCS, which is merely the front room of the warehouse space where the online mega retailer operates. CCS is one of the biggest retailers in the skateboard industry. There are only a handful of these operations in the nation, so it says a lot that Portland-based skateshop Daddies was able to scale their business to the point that they acquired a skateboard industry institution and moved it from California.
a broadly viable economic landscape
Portland provides a broadly viable economic landscape that even accommodates business that don’t have a traditional business to consumer model. Outlet PDX is artist Kate Bingaman-Burt’s studio, where she also holds workshops and pop-up events. The space is filled with DIY tools, materials, and printers, and it allows for seasoned artists and curious creatives to utilize a potent mix of production resources in a public space. Not far from Outlet was our favorite stop of the trip: Fruit Salad Club. Jillian Barthold and Libby Landauer transformed an old cigarette shop into a studio that doubles as a shop, and an event space. In the harsher economic climate of cities that have long been celebrated for accommodating creatives, it’s not feasible for two freelance creatives to rent a space to work from, and transform that space into a center for community. And while Jillian and Libby have since started Double Cherry Press to accommodate the release of various paper goods, their venture is far from a capitalist exploit. And we found that the greater community of Portland reflected these values thoroughly.
There is space in this community for small businesses that have no desire to be the next biggest thing. People in Portland are content to do well by Portland, and leave the rest of it be. Meanwhile cities like Los Angeles and New York have become so prohibitively expensive that capitalism has overridden nearly every space where community might take place. Now, that’s not to say that Portland is some kind of magical solution to our society’s problems. It isn’t the most diverse community, and it lacks the bustling generative folk electricity of a metropolis. But, those are factors to consider, not defining characteristics. We didn’t witness any overtly racist people and we (a Mexican woman and Jewish man) felt comfortable everywhere we went. And although Portland lacks metropolitan density, it is still home to both Nike and Adidas’ US operations, which provides a sufficiently cosmopolitan edge. Add to this Portland’s wide variety of incredibly cosmopolitan hotels and there is a worldly and sophisticated element of the city that rivals what you could come to crave living in New York or Los Angeles.
Again, Portland isn’t the solution to the problem. I’m sure it’s not the right fit for a lot of people. But two things are certain: Portland is different, and Portland definitely works. Whether you’re looking to keep to yourself on a mountain, or keep fine company in the mix, there’s a way for you to carve out a lane in Portland. We’ll definitely be back, and we look forward to expanding the guide to cover more places. To be clear: these are all places that we went to, with the exception of chain locations. If we went to a place that was good, and they had multiple locations we put all of the locations on the map. Let us know if you think we got something wrong, or we missed anything! And stay tuned for updates from Leaguers in Portland, they’re the ones with the real Inside Eye.